THE SNP’s longest-serving MEP has announced he is standing down at the EU elections – but will continue the fight for independence.

Ian Hudghton, 67, who has served in Brussels since November 1998, told the party he believes independence is “closer than ever”.

In a letter to the SNP’s ruling body, he said: “After a great deal of thought, I have decided that I do not wish my name to be included in the selection process for SNP candidates for the European Parliamentary Elections. During the past couple of years, with Brexit looming, the prospect of retirement from my MEP role has become an active consideration. I look forward to having more time available for family and home.

“The current five-year term of the European Parliament will end on July 1 and I will remain a member until that date, unless an earlier date for Brexit is agreed.”

He added: “I did not join the SNP as a career plan, but it has been an immense privilege to represent the SNP in the European Parliament for more than 20 very eventful years. I am certain Scotland is now closer to independence than ever. To be sure of winning the next referendum on independence we will have to maximise the number independence conversations we have on the doorsteps with voters in every community.

“I look forward to participating in the ongoing campaign to build and solidify the support and momentum that we will need to win the next referendum on independence, whenever it is held.”

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Alyn Smith, the SNP MEP, will put himself forward as a candidate if, as expected, the elections are held on May 23, while former environment minister Aileen MacLeod and Smith’s chief of staff Laura Rayner are expected to stand.

The party will have six candidates in total – three women and two men – who will be ranked by delegates at this month’s SNP conference,

Nicola Sturgeon said: “Ian Hudghton has championed Scotland’s cause in the European Parliament for over 20 years, I am sorry to see him go. Ian has been a passionate advocate for what the EU is and does for Scotland, and proved himself a first-class parliamentarian. I wish him every success in the future.”

Hudghton joined the SNP in 1967.