SNP leadership candidates respond to Business for Scotland's 10 key questions

Last week Business for Scotland wrote on behalf of our members to each of the candidates for the SNP leadership asking them to answer ten key questions about the economic policy, relations with business, EU membership, and independence. We would like to thank the candidates not only for their time and effort to respond within a tight deadline but also for calling to discuss our priorities in detail whilst also traversing the country attending hustings after hustings.

The last two weeks have been tumultuous for the leading political party of the Yes movement. The wisdom of televising the hustings has been called into doubt but then on Friday, a poll found independence support at 52% the first poll in several to show a yes majority. This poll blows the unionist narrative that independence was dependent on Nicola Sturgeon, or even the SNP, right out of the water. Even with the SNP washing its dirty laundry in public, the Scottish people are clearly reacting to wider issues such as Northern Ireland's privileged access to the EU, fruit and veg shortages, the abhorrent treatment of refugees (and Gary Linaker) and Westminster's continued political corruption. They are waking up to the fact that any one of the 3 SNP leadership candidates is capable of managing Scotland's affairs better than London.

The Answers

We have taken the responses from all three candidates and added them beneath each question to allow readers to make direct comparisons between the candidates on these key deliberately big picture issues. The responses have not been edited or changed in any way. 

1 Do you accept the need to reset the SNP's relationship with business? If so, how will you do that?

Humza Yousaf - Yes, and I recognise that the Covid pandemic, spiralling energy costs, Brexit and other factors such as the war in Ukraine have compounded the issues faced by businesses in Scotland and addressing this is key to Scotland’s future.  

I also think that the reset has to be part of shifting to a wider wellbeing approach, that is about balancing the social and economic needs of our country, and building an understanding of how a wellbeing economy and wellbeing society go hand in hand.

For me that will involve greater engagement with the people who own, run and work for businesses in Scotland, and wider conversations about the work we need to do together to create the optimal conditions for businesses to flourish, recognising too that successful businesses need a successful society as a foundation. 

I believe strongly that the best way to build a prosperous and fairer Scotland is to build a strong working relationship with business, as the needs of business, of government and our wider society, are aligned. We all have a shared interest in upskilling Scotland’s workforce and creating good quality jobs that deliver fair work and fair pay. We all have a shared interest in educational attainment, health and wellbeing, in research and development and in our infrastructure and resources. There is no policy area that exists in isolation, so we need to ensure that everyone with a stake in Scotland is around the table when taking the decisions that will impact us all. Business needs to be at the heart of that process. 

This reset also has to be wider than just the office of First Minister and Finance Secretary; it has to be across national and local government and the SNP, as a political party.

Kate Forbes - I have already been championing the case for working more effectively with businesses and, indeed have been attacked in some quarters for doing so. It is clear to me that the relationship must be reset. Along with others in my team such as Ivan McKee, I have sought to engage regularly with the business community – yet the perception remains that there is more work to do. As part of my role as First Minister, I would first set up a variety of listening events and establish regular meetings with key representatives. It will be vital to engage on a regular basis with a range of business leaders and ensure that this community has confidence that their needs are understood. Finally, it will be useful to help business understand why the current devolution structure (the fiscal framework) has very real limitations and cannot meet the ambitions we have for a wellbeing economy in Scotland. I am the only candidate who understands the complexity of this, and I will ensure my Finance & Economy Team are drawn from the most experienced MSPs.

Ash Regan - It is clear from the business community’s response to both Deposit Return Scheme and Whisky Industry on advertising consultation that we must listen and work constructively to build the business environment we need. Scotland’s major challenges and opportunities for NetZero transition must have Scotland's businesses, communities, and workforce as the driver of robust change. I have announced both the launch of an Independence Convention to bring together the talent across Scotland and also an Independence Commission to ready Scotland’s preparations for the transition to independence, to ensure that when our people are ready, so is Scotland’s independence infrastructure. I hope Business for Scotland to will contribute to both.

2 Will you give a cast iron guarantee that under your leadership an independent Scotland will seek to rejoin the EU?

Humza Yousaf - Yes. Brexit has done immeasurable harm to our economy against our democratic wishes. Restoring Scotland to full membership of the European Union is one of the key reasons I believe we will win our independence and I see a return to the EU as a key plank in our vision for independence.

It is vital to Scotland’s economy; giving us access to the world’s largest and most successful single market and the free movement of people that is essential for addressing labour and skills shortages across so many sectors of our economy. 

Kate Forbes - Yes.

Ash Regan - The only cast iron guarantee for Scotland to rejoin the EU can be given by the people of an independent Scotland. What I can guarantee is that I will listen to what they say. Scotland voted to Remain by 62% and recent polling has shown 72% would rejoin. Scotland’s future is clearly in Europe, of that I am certain. I am also certain that we must set out a robust roadmap that addresses the enablers for Scotland’s businesses to have access to the EU single market at the earliest opportunity as this is currently a major barrier to our success. We must set out, the preparations and choices, to ensure that the people of Scotland have all the facts and democratically neutral options to allow us to choose our path and timescale for Scotland's transition back into Europe.

3 Do you agree that the Sustainable Growth Commission's conclusions are now out-of-date and are made redundant by the damage of Brexit, the pandemic and the current economic and cost of living crisis?

Humza Yousaf - Yes. The Sustainable Growth Commission’s report is largely a product of its time. It pre-dates Brexit, the Covid pandemic and now the cost of living crisis and the impact of the war in Ukraine. Any strategy would need to be refreshed in these circumstances. 

Our understanding and thinking have also moved on since then; partly shaped by our experiences of the pandemic but also due to work undertaken by organisations like Business for Scotland and others across the independence movement. The work of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission, led by Shona Robison and Neil Gray, for example, has shifted the focus of the SNP’s thinking firmly towards a wellbeing economic approach. There is also a much greater focus on the true potential of the transition to a net zero economy. 

While some of the Sustainable Growth Commission’s recommendations remain valid, such as the importance of immigration, and being an outward looking nation, we need to refresh our approach to reflect the work that has been done since and the world we now live in. 

Kate Forbes - The world is a completely different place today to what it was when the Sustainable Growth Commission was written. Not only is there the damage of Brexit, the pandemic, the cost of living crisis but also global events such as the war in Ukraine and accelerating technological change. However, the arguments of the Sustainable Growth Commission were correct in some areas such as the need to attract inward labour, and we should build upon that.

Ash Regan - Yes, Scotland has moved on from the Sustainable Growth Commission's conclusions and so must the conversation. A Wellbeing Economy is the direction of travel for Scotland, as a country full of talent, innovation, and natural resources achieving a Wellbeing Economy should not only be our focus but with the powers unlocked by independence, Scotland could and should aspire to lead the world to a wellbeing transition.

4 Will you commit to continuing the development of the economic case for independence based upon a Wellbeing Economic Approach?

Humza Yousaf - Yes. My approach to the economy aligns with the principles of a wellbeing economic approach. A strong economy is not about growth for growth’s sake, it is about creating both economic success and social solidarity, good jobs with fair pay on fair terms, thriving communities, improving the environment and delivering strong public services. I believe we can do that whilst also building on our track record as a nation of innovation and boosting our productivity.

We must judge our success by more than GDP alone. Scotland has led on this approach, and we have been part of the Wellbeing Economy Government Partnership established in 2018. I would continue to support that work, as part of a broader partnership with other countries who are developing this approach. 

I know many of our businesses have a strong social purpose, we are at the forefront of developing Community Wealth Building – keeping public spending in local communities and building local supply chains, and I believe we can do much more to support small and medium sized businesses and to ensure that investors are attracted to Scotland’s high standards as part of this approach. The Just Transition which we must deliver as part of our journey to net zero should be built on these foundations.

The case for independence – including the economic case – must follow this approach. Independence is not about simply replicating the failed economic system of the UK that leaves too many of our people in poverty, it has to be about economic change to build a better society that treats everyone fairly.

Kate Forbes - It is me and my team that have driven the Scottish Government policies that put wellbeing and sustainable growth at the heart of the Scottish economy. This is work I would seek to continue and develop further, ensuring considerations around wellbeing are at the heart of policy development.

Ash Regan - Absolutely! I see Independence and a Wellbeing Economic Approach as symbiotic as they are enablers to Scotland’s position on the world stage. Scotland is ideally placed to create solutions that inspire not only those who live here but also lead the way to tackle global challenges. Our constraint is our constitutional position so we must make the powerful case to the people of Scotland, that change is possible and desirable, both by sharing our ambitious vision for independence and by pushing devolution to its walls through good government.

5 How will you refocus the SNP and Scotland’s political agenda on the opportunities of independence?

Humza Yousaf - I believe that we must make the case for independence with urgency. We must work across the whole of the movement to build the case and to persuade people that independence is the way forward for our country.

For that reason, every election must make the case for independence. We must drive independence support up and we must maintain our mandate at every election. That combination is what will secure a way forward.  

As part of my plan to do that I have made clear, I will ask the SNP to launch a new Yes campaign on day one of my leadership. I know that the SNP is the leading and largest part of the independence movement, but without organisations like Believe in Scotland and Women for Independence, we cannot reach into every corner of society to build broad, long-lasting support for independence that will make it inevitable. My campaign within the SNP is a grassroots one, engaging with members every day, and putting members back into the driving seat of the independence strategy. I will bring the same energy to engaging with the wider parts of our movement who share the vision of a socially just progressive independent Scotland.

Kate Forbes - The arguments for the past few years have been about process and the event that is a referendum. We need to focus on preparations for independence. For example, we should be defining what the regulatory framework is that will serve honest businesses the length and breadth of the country. We need to give particular focus to SME’s as the backbone of our economy and a vital part of maintaining vibrant communities. We also need to develop the breadth of vision that will inspire business to see the opportunities and set out clear transition arrangements. Having an effectively managed, regular dialogue between government and business will be a necessary part of our strategy.

Ash Regan - The SNP has achieved incredible success for almost twenty years but we must not allow complacency to become our enemy. With great power comes great responsibility, and we must not forget that we have the difficult but privileged parallel tasks of both running the Scottish Government and leading Scotland to independence. My predecessors as party leader and First Ministers were strong personalities - that was needed to establish the SNP as a party of Government but Scotland now needs a fresh approach.

6 If the UK Government continues to refuse to honour the democratic mandate for an independence referendum, will you commit to using a Westminster general election as a de-facto Scottish referendum, so that Scotland can gain its independence from this broken, undemocratic, Brexit-damaged Union? (This path to independence gained 70% support from the recent Scottish Independence Congress)

Humza Yousaf - Every single election we fight, including the next Westminster General Election, must be fought on the issue of independence.

2024 is the next opportunity we have to demonstrate support for independence at the ballot box and to then use that support to move us closer to independence. This won’t be – it can’t be – just another election. 

I have been clear as part of my campaign for SNP Leader, that I will empower the members of the SNP to help shape the strategy that will deliver independence, including through a series of Regional Assemblies. I won’t pre-empt the outcomes of those discussions, as I want to listen to the different ideas and perspectives that come forward as part of that process and wider discussions across the movement. This will inform our strategy for the 2024 Westminster General Election.

And I’ve been listening as I travel around Scotland to take part in hustings, meet with members and campaign alongside our activists – as I always do. I know independence supporters want a date to work towards, and I accept the view that having a date to work towards helps to galvanise campaigns. So let’s start with 2024 as a key milestone for a shift change in the campaign for independence. 

It’s my view, and one I will put to SNP members, that our manifesto for the next Westminster General Election contains two demands: the power for the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum on independence on our terms and the repeal of section 35. We must demand our right to self-determination from whoever forms the next UK Government.

If the SNP can demonstrate majority support for those clear demands in 2024; then it will be politically impossible for the Westminster Government to deny the democratic will of the people of Scotland. If they try, that is our moment to bring together everyone across Scotland who values democracy and Scotland’s right to choose our own future into a civic movement even bigger than that we saw in 1997 and 2014; one that will not be denied. 

My position on this is clear. Scotland will be independent when we secure a sustained majority for independence. We will only build that sustained majority by doing the work. 

We know our opponents want us stuck in a quagmire of process when we should be talking about the benefits of independence and winning people over.

So, each and every election – and every day in between – should be about building the case for independence. When the majority of people in Scotland want it; it will be inevitable. But to make that happen, we should be continually shaping our strategy and options to the circumstances we are facing and using every opportunity to secure Scotland’s independence. It’s vital that we have the flexibility to respond to any challenge and any opportunity that arises on our path to independence.

Kate Forbes - The only way to secure independence is to boost support amongst people who are still undecided about independence. We should use all and every democratic opportunity to do that - including the next Westminster election.

Ash Regan - It is critical that Scottish independence does not get bogged down in terminology of process, ‘gold standard referendum’, ‘de facto referendum’, etc. that do not resonate with the wider electorate. The SNP and any other independence parties who chose to follow our lead must simply make a clear case to the people that their democratic will, legally demonstrated at the ballot box with provide their instruction to proceed to negotiations for transition to independence.

We must be honest to win the trust of the people of Scotland and a clear ‘line 1’ manifesto commitment that this is an independence vote, is key. Scotland’s democratic will is a process, not a one-off event, time-bound at the whim of a UK Government. A UK Government that codifies 7 years as the period between border polls in the Northern Ireland Act yet casually plucks definitions of ‘generations’ from the air when the subject of Scotland revisiting our constitutional position arises, must not lead the conversation on when Scotland’s people decide.

A UK General Election is scheduled before the next Holyrood election but both the timing of a UK General Election and the franchise (excluding our 16-17-year-olds and eligible foreign nationals) are determined at Westminster. We must redouble our efforts to progress against this higher bar. The critical point is that democracy is a process to demonstrate the will of our people, it is not a single event. When the people of Scotland are ready, Scotland will be independent.

7 What is your path to independence? In what timescale will it be delivered?

Humza Yousaf - As I have outlined above, the path to independence is clear. We build support for independence, with renewed energy and urgency, and Scotland will be independent when we secure a sustained majority for independence. As a party and movement, the pace at which independence gains popular support is set by us. 

The Westminster General Election in 2024 will be the launchpad for that shift change towards independence, so we need to ramp up our campaign efforts now. We should all be focused on delivering an SNP majority at next year’s election, and using the ballot box to demonstrate popular support for independence. 

If I am elected SNP Leader, that campaign starts on day one and I’ll be working alongside SNP members and independence supporters across the movement to drive support for independence to new heights. 

That campaign is founded on a compelling case for independence, so I’ll be directing SNP Headquarters to immediately grow the party’s Independence Unit. Their focus will be on pulling together the excellent resources that already exist and undertaking fresh work to build the strongest possible case for independence, in partnership across the independence movement. 

Then we need to get this case for independence to where it will make a difference – the hands of our activists. We need campaign materials that offer a vision of how independence can transform Scotland, but also that answer the tough questions we all get on the doorsteps. 

The case for independence is a simple one: the best people to make decisions about Scotland are the people who live here. Independence, therefore, empowers us to build the kind of society we want to live in. It’s our job to inspire people in Scotland with that vision of what Scotland can be and to reassure them that independence is worth it. 

We will make it happen, together. When it’s clear that independence is the democratic will of the people of Scotland, it will not be denied. We need to shift our focus from the ‘how’ to the ‘why’ of independence if we want to build support and speed up the timescale of delivery.  

Kate Forbes - I want to deliver independence as soon as possible. However, there are no short cuts to engaging, informing and persuading the majority of Scots of the benefits of becoming independent. I have set out the various initiatives I will pursue to do this throughout my campaign. Our movement must be re-energised, renewed and re-focussed.

Ash Regan - There are three key parts to the path or journey to independence; the start, the middle, and the end.

If I am elected as SNP leader, we will start on our path to independence on Day 1, by convening an Independence Convention and Independence Commission to bring together the knowledge, creativity, and networks that will prepare both the case and the foundations of independence.

The members of the SNP, many also in grassroots organisations like Business for Scotland and Believe in Scotland, are critical to our success. I will announce the SNP member’s conference to bring our party together under the same roof, so we can breathe vibrant democracy into policy creation again, after years of lockdown when we could only meet across computer screens. Regional Steering Groups form part of our party’s constitution and we must empower and support them to bring the voice of all of the SNP across Scotland to our national table.

The middle of our journey is the end of the beginning as we build confidence, through a vision for independence coupled with a good government that pushes devolution to its limits. This engagement of the people of Scotland makes real the vision of an independent Scotland that can remove the barriers to our ambition.

If the UK Government wants to take the Scottish Government to court for creating implementable solutions, to tackle Scotland’s problems, like the devastating impact across our society of addiction, then let the people judge the UK Government for it. An ambitious program for government that tackles the priorities of the people of Scotland must squeeze devolved powers to their limits. When we act like an independent country we build the confidence that we can be.

Independence will be delivered when the people of Scotland determine, at the ballot box, that we have convinced them that it is the safest destination for a better future for Scotland. The responsibility is on us all to ensure that we build this confidence and provide every possible lever within Scotland, to allow the people to clearly express their will for independence, both to Scotland and the world. I have been impressed with the work you have done in the critical area of pensions. This is something that we must build on, to ensure we remove ‘project fear’ opportunities but most importantly to support and value the generation that paved the way for our future to and beyond independence.

8 Will you commit the SNP to put its membership on a campaign footing and join Believe in Scotland and its 136 affiliated Yes groups to campaign to raise Yes support – so that we win any plebiscite?

Humza Yousaf - Yes, and from day one of my leadership. 

We need to harness the expertise, experience and talents from across the SNP and wider independence movement to make the case for independence and to take the campaign to the people yet to be convinced. 

I regard the Believe in Scotland campaign as a vital part of that work. The work that has been done to research, to listen and to refine our case for independence is invaluable. So too is the strength of our independence networks; the connections we have in communities across Scotland. 

I hope that my own SNP leadership campaign has demonstrated the kind of approach I will take to the independence campaign; one with energy and passion, with a team approach and one firmly rooted in our grassroots networks. Throughout this campaign, I’ve been around the country setting out my vision for the SNP and independence; but I’ve been doing something I consider equally important – listening. 

That’s the approach I would continue to take as SNP Leader, as I seek to build an inclusive team that will deliver independence for Scotland. 

Kate Forbes - Any group/groups that can reach out to the wider yes movement can and should contribute to our shared endeavour. I hope all organisations will seek to participate.

Ash Regan - Ensuring our SNP membership is powered up for independence is a key priority for me as party leader and my SNP Action Plan and SNP Activist Academy are just the beginning of this process of empowerment. Many SNP members are also members of their local YES groups and other independence organisations like Believe in Scotland and together we can create a campaign of confidence across Scotland at every level, to win. My job as First Minister is to ensure that we demonstrably run a good government and to navigate our people through incredibly challenging times. When the root cause of a problem is the limits of devolution, we must always call this out, along with the solution that we must deliver together — independence, nothing less!

9 GERS cannot be used as a tool to predict the finances of an independent Scotland. Will you commit to producing an additional set of figures forecasting Government Expenditure and Revenues for an Independent Scotland? This has been promised to Business for Scotland by two Finance Ministers but has not yet been delivered.

Humza Yousaf - I agree. It’s self-evident that GERS is not an assessment of what an independent Scotland will look like. It is simply an assessment of what Scotland looks like as part of the Union.

The only function GERS serves is to demonstrate that the Union and UK economic policy continues to fail Scotland. 

Therefore, I agree that we must produce credible independence forecasts, and as First Minister, I would be working closely with Finance Ministers to ensure that is delivered. 

Kate Forbes - It is not only the fact that GERS cannot predict the finances of an independent Scotland, but GERS also does not give an accurate indication of the current situation. As Professor David Simpson has long argued it is an illegitimate approach to understanding Scotland’s economy. In my role as Cabinet Secretary for Finance, it provides no value in policy development. What I want to see is a focus on producing data that assists the Government in the task of robust development of policies.

Ash Regan - I have committed to putting the right people in the right jobs and allowing them the freedom to excel in their ambition for delivery with their portfolios. My Finance Minister will play a critical role in looking beyond the economic indicators of a developed Scotland, based on many assumptions, to contrast with the economic forecast of an independent Scotland, based on facts where possible and indicated assumptions where necessary.

Forecasting, Government Expenditure, and Revenues for an Independent Scotland will be more meaningful against a consensus on key areas such as currency position, as whether Scotland is a currency creator or currency taker will be a significant factor. There is hard work ahead in such preparations, to allow us to move forward cohesively, transparently, and democratically, to enable us to take the country with us and present them with a clear choice for independence.

10 Will you restart the process of publishing (Scottish Government) independence policy papers - engaging with a wider cross-section of the Yes movement and civic society?

Humza Yousaf - Yes. As First Minister, I will complete the series of independence papers. They provide an incredibly valuable foundation as a ‘how to’ manual for independence, and they have a vital role to play in building the case for independence. 

But I will go much further. I believe it is for the SNP and the wider movement to set out the vision of how we would use the powers of independence. We also need to utilise the fantastic work of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission and get the powerful case for independence that is set out, into the hands of our activists as campaign materials. 

We need to take the hard facts and bold policies and turn them into a compelling narrative for independence. I want to focus on the vision and opportunities of independence; not the process. 

We will be independent when the majority of people in Scotland want it. Talking to them about process is not going to win hearts and minds. Talking about how independence will transform Scotland for the better is the best chance we have of convincing people that independence is worth taking that next step. 

Kate Forbes - I have already made the comment that papers should be produced by the SNP in conjunction with other groups rather than the British Civil Service. They have a role to play, but it is the SNP and the wider Yes movement who will articulate the vision for the future.

Ash Regan - As First Minister, I have committed to constructive engagement with a cross-section of the Yes movement and civic society from day 1. Integrity is essential and we must deliver on the commitments made to the people of Scotland to build their trust in us and to keep them engaged with the progress of government and independence progress. Publication of independence policy papers is part of that engagement and communication process.