Path to independence ‘starts with respect’ for unionists, says SNP leadership candidate

Scotland’s governing Scottish National party needs a leader who can widen support for independence by respecting and listening to those who favour union with the UK, finance secretary and leadership candidate Kate Forbes has said.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Forbes, 32, also sought to ease tensions within the SNP heightened by her criticism of its record and questions about the integrity of the election to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as party leader and first minister.

The campaign to replace Sturgeon has laid bare the most bitter internal divisions within the SNP in two decades, fuelled by differences over its stalled strategy for independence and other issues.

But Forbes said members, who must choose a new leader by March 27, knew they needed to “reach out beyond the SNP”. She pointed to polls showing she has greater appeal among the Scottish public, even though most SNP heavyweights have backed her main rival and bookmakers’ favourite, health secretary Humza Yousaf.

“I’m very conscious that our political discourse has become extremely vitriolic, toxic, angry, disrespectful,” Forbes said, stressing the SNP’s need to win people over to independence.

“That needs to start with respect and it needs to start with listening, which is a fundamentally different approach,” she said.

Surveys show Scots split roughly equally on whether to end Scotland’s three-century-old union with England. Forbes’s relatively gradualist approach could disappoint those in the SNP who believe Sturgeon should have pressed harder for a second independence referendum since Scots voted 55-45 per cent in 2014 to stay in the union.

“Our approach needs to take as many people in Scotland with us as possible,” Forbes said. “I’m popular across most political divides and surely that’s the kind of person you want to lead your party and your country to independence.”

The testy leadership election has wrecked the SNP’s previously impressive reputation for internal unity and discipline.

Forbes, who was on maternity leave when Sturgeon announced her resignation, has offered a scathing verdict on the government she serves, telling a television leadership debate “more of the same” would be “an acceptance of mediocrity”.

The finance secretary also attacked her cabinet colleague Yousaf over his record on health, justice and transport, blaming him for NHS waiting lists, shortages of police and trains that “were never on time”.

In the interview, Forbes played down such criticism, saying she was “very proud of the SNP’s track record” and insisting “everybody is agreed” on the need for NHS reform.

Forbes also stepped back from complaints about the party’s handling of the leadership election made by members of her campaign and that of third candidate and former community safety minister Ash Regan.

Michelle Thomson, an SNP MSP and Forbes backer, told the BBC this week she had written to the party’s national secretary over “concerns” about the ballot and that it should appoint a third-party auditor to oversee the vote.

But in an apparent effort to mend ties with the party establishment, Forbes said she had “full confidence” in the election process and her campaign only wanted transparency to ensure others would feel the same way. “I have no concerns about the process at all,” she said.

Under pressure from all three candidates for more transparency about its membership, the SNP on Thursday said 72,186 people were eligible to vote for its leader — 30,000 fewer than it claimed at the start of the campaign.

Forbes said the SNP owed Peter Murrell, the party’s long-serving chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, a “debt of gratitude” for past election victories. But she left open whether Murrell should remain in post if she was elected, saying it should be “his decision and not mine”.

Forbes’s campaign almost foundered at its launch when the deeply religious finance secretary sparked widespread condemnation from SNP colleagues by saying she would have voted against gay marriage if she had been in parliament when it was approved in 2014.

But she said the public appreciated her candour. “Many people would say they fundamentally disagree with my views but they have been longing for an honest politician.”

Forbes made clear victory on March 27 would bring a change of tone to Scottish government economic policy, focusing more on wealth creation than the social spending and redistribution stressed by Sturgeon.

She said her policy would be based on the “triangle” of infrastructure investment, reduction of the regulatory burden on Scottish businesses and promotion of “competitive” taxation.

Wealthier Scots currently pay slightly higher rates of income tax than counterparts elsewhere in the UK. Forbes said there was little evidence so far that the higher rates had damaged the Scottish economy, but the issue should be kept “carefully under review”.

“For as long as Scotland is devolved, I think we need to be really careful with excessive divergence,” she said.

Forbes also signalled she would be more supportive than Sturgeon of the fossil fuel industry centred on north-east Scotland.

While energy policy is largely reserved to the UK government, the SNP administration in January called for a “presumption against new exploration for oil and gas”.

“I am very concerned that when we transition to renewables and away from oil and gas, we do not lose all the jobs, all the investment, all the infrastructure, all the resources,” Forbes said. “For me, it’s about pace and not going too quickly.”

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