A NETWORK of paid SNP organisers could be established across Scotland to ramp up independence campaigning if Humza Yousaf becomes the next party leader.

The Health Secretary, who is in the running to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and first minister, spoke to the Sunday National about his plans to restart the Yes campaign and move the conversation away from constant discussion about process.

At an event in Dundee on Saturday, the leadership hopeful revealed he would set up regional assemblies to discuss the way ahead on independence – scrapping the plan for one large conference which Sturgeon had proposed after the Supreme Court judgment.

Alongside these events Yousaf, who is keen to pitch himself as the grassroots candidate, wants people to be employed by the SNP specifically to campaign and build the case for Scottish independence as part of a pilot project.

The National: Campaigners join Humza Yousaf at Dundee's V&ACampaigners join Humza Yousaf at Dundee's V&A (Image: Laura Webster)

“One of the other options I’m certainly looking at and considering is to have this pilot of paid organisers,” he said.

“I’m very very keen to see whether or not we should be expanding that, because I think people want to see if we’re serious about restarting the campaign and actually giving some finance locally to local regional organisers could be one way of demonstrating that commitment.”

Plan for regional assemblies

Yousaf’s pitch for an independence campaign would see SNP members deciding on the procedural elements internally, while the party makes the actual arguments for leaving the Union to the public – giving the movement the ability to move away from the back-and-forth rows over de facto referendums and Section 30 orders.

Members would be able to choose between the de facto referendum at Westminster or Holyrood, and any other legal options brought to the table.

As the members provide their “mandate” for the leadership, Yousaf wants the public to be hearing about the advantages of independence, and not just from politicians and activists.

“Let’s restart the independence campaign, get out there and grow our movement,” he said. “So that’s the other pledge that I’m making – no waiting around, I’m going to restart it if I’m the leader, straight away, so we can convince the people about the need for independence and grow our movement.”

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf: My election would be ‘seminal moment’ for Scotland

Told that the idea of restarting the campaign is something The National has heard before, Yousaf suggested this would be a fully-fledged effort including civil society.

“I want it to be a people-led, for-the-people by-the-people campaign,” the MSP explaind.

“[In 2014] we had great energy and enthusiasm from civic Scotland, so I want to make sure that the Yes movement is being led by some civic leaders.

“I want artists for Scotland, I want trade unions involved, I want academia involved, I want business for Scotland, I want all of those groups to ensure that they are understanding our collective desire to begin. The Yes campaign has to start now, it has to be now.”

"There's no quick fix"

Yousaf is unconvinced by fellow leadership hopeful Regan’s pitch for independence. She has argued that every election should be seen as a de facto referendum, and once the SNP has secured at least 50% of the vote plus one, negotiations could be opened with the UK Government. Regan calls it the “voter empowerment mechanism”.

“There’s no quick fix, no magic wand I’m afraid,” he said. “Otherwise, trust me, the most intelligent person I know and I’ve ever worked with, Nicola Sturgeon, would have figured it out by now.

“I’ve heard some people suggest you can get 50%+1 and demand the UK Government comes to the negotiating table. I’ve dealt with the UK Government for 10 years and you can’t demand they come on a telephone call even when it’s something urgent, never mind getting them to march up to Edinburgh to take part in negotiations.”

Focus on cost of living

Meanwhile with living standards falling at the fastest rate on record, Yousaf is keen for the cost-of-living crisis to be the “heart” of his campaign.

“Independence is the solution to [the cost-of-living crisis],” the minister said. “Yes, we can mitigate and we’ve done a lot of that in the Scottish Government, you can look at great initiatives like the Scottish Welfare Fund and Scottish Child Payment and so on.

“But ultimately it’s independence that will ensure that we are unshackled and do not have these Tory policies imposed upon us causing harm after harm after harm, it’s inextricably linked to the cost-of-living crisis.”

He went on: “That’s why we’ve got to restart the Yes campaign.

“I’ll do as much as I can, if I’m the leader of the party and first minister of the country. I’ll use the platform I’ve got to make sure people realise and understand the link that exists clearly between the cost of living crisis and being in this Union. That is the Union dividend. The Union dividend is high energy costs, high inflation, the cost-of-living crisis.”

Yousaf also has concerns over the UK Government's Minimum Service Levels Bill, legislation brought in to limit strike action at a time of mass industrial action sparked by stagnant pay and rocketing inflation. Tory ministers claim it will ensure the UK's laws are in line with European neighbours.

"The bill’s a democratic outrage, a complete democratic outrage," he said. "I met with the UK Government junior minister for health, and I made it very clear to him that Scotland will not be co-operating with the bill."

SNP divisions

But how can a divided party rally round one message? Splits in the SNP haven’t been this apparent in some time, with a major row over equalities prompted by Kate Forbes’s comments on equal marriage and other social issues.

In the first poll of the leadership contest, commissioned by The BIG Partnership, Forbes was the most popular candidate among SNP voters. Yousaf was in second place on 20%, but nearly a third of voters were yet to make their minds up.

Could pitting the candidates against once another at hustings and TV debates open up deeper wounds in a party already struggling to heal divisions? Looking back to the Tory leadership debates of summer 2022, it would be difficult to be optimistic.

READ MORE: Who's backing who in the SNP leadership race?

Yousaf said he is keen for a positive campaign, and appeared unconcerned by the risk of a very public debate.

“I’m a unifier, if we want to grow our independence movement we need somebody that people believe share the same values as the rest of the majority of the country,” he told The Sunday National. “We can do that, and I believe I have the skills the necessary to unite the party, reach across the dividing lines and bring people together.”

He went on: “It would be foolish to deny that there’s divisions within the party. There are.”

Pointing out that his negotiations means Scotland remains the only part of the UK not hit by nursing or ambulance strikes, he argued he could bring that engagement and compromise to leading.

Quickfire questions

Which UK Government minister would you most/least look forward to working with as first minister?

I’d rather just not work with any of them and become independent, I have to confess, because I am not enamoured with any of them.

In a sentence, what does independence mean to you?

It means unleashing the potential of our country not just for the people who live here now but for future generations to come.