WITH the leadership campaign well under way, and candidates having set out fresh details, we sat down with hopeful Humza Yousaf to dig into his plans for regional assemblies, restarting the Yes campaign and much more.

It comes after we spoke in-depth with fellow hopefuls Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, with the full interviews available on YouTube and Spotify.

In the interview, Yousaf suggests expanding the Scottish Government constitution secretary role to include “advancing independence” as a key responsibility and using an early Holyrood election to trigger independence. You can read the full Q&A below – with part two published in The National tomorrow.

The Q&A

Reporter: I want to talk about your regional assemblies plan. I'm really interested to know what you actually want the people in these regional assemblies to come up with because you said yourself, there's no magic trick that's going to secure independence. So do you think these people are going to find a magic trick?

Yousaf: It’s a good question. No. But what I'd like them to discuss is a few things. That first of all, that I genuinely believe that if you get a consistent majority support (as we did for the Scottish Parliament) the process actually in a sense takes care of itself.

Once you have that support, nobody can deny the will of the Scottish people, eventually, there comes a tipping point where you can't do that anymore. You can keep doing it but polls fluctuate 51/49, 55/45. And if you have that consistent, sustained majority, you will, you'll be overcome by that by that tsunami of popular support. So for me in one sense, the process will take care of itself.

But we have to make sure that every election we go in with a strategy that furthers the cause of independence. The next General Election, for example. So two things: One, I'm quite keen for the regional assemblies to discuss General Election strategy, but also what else we can do to demonstrate that popular support?

So what do I mean by that? So General Election: Do we go in with a General Election, make it a de facto referendum. As I've said, I'm not I'm not wedded to the idea. There's disadvantages to it. But let's hear the membership’s view on that. Let's also think about, for example, should we call an early Holyrood election to test that popular will, when we believe we have that consistent majority support for independence, to demonstrate that. Let’s put the other political parties, Unionist parties, see whether we should put them on the backfoot. And say okay: If you're confident in your arguments, let's make it about demonstrating that support for independence,

Reporter: Is that something you would really seriously consider doing?

Yousaf: I’d absolutely consider it.

We’d have to look at legalities and legal framework around all of that. But I think the regional assemblies should consider every single possibility and opportunity within the legal framework. You know, I'll be upfront and honest, one or two times at the hustings, some options have been mentioned, that are just … they're not legal. And they're not going to get us further towards independence.

The National: 2010 General Election declarations

But I think we shouldn't just discuss the General Election, which is important. We've got to keep focused on that, we’ve got to have a really strong strategy for putting independence front and centre. But I think we should also be considering a Holyrood election and the potential for even an early Holyrood election.

Second thing is I think the regional assemblies should discuss some issues around what kind of Scotland we want to see. For example I’ve made it very clear I want a written constitution, I want to embed people's rights within that constitution. So there's no possibility of rolling back on those rights, or make it very difficult to roll back.

Reporter: We're going to look back to the regional assemblies, because I did note that you said it's about looking at how we use elections - plural. I speak to lots of people in the SNP from different sides of the party, and some people are very strong on the idea that independence is not a short-term strategy. What do you think? Is independence in the short term? Or is it in the long term?

Yousaf: It depends on your definition of both to be frank. But for me, we're at or near the tipping point. So independence should come soon, very soon, our difficulty is we have a bunch of democracy deniers in Westminster, whether they're the Tories or the pale imitation of the Tories.

They are consistently denying democracy. That's why I keep saying I respect the fact you're asking the question, there's nothing wrong with doing so. But being obsessed by process is only going to get us so far. People out there are not excited by talk of Section 30s or de facto referendum. They get excited by a vision, they get excited by what the opportunity for independence … remember our campaign was hope over fear. Hope over fear. That's what it was. And we got this close. We've got to make sure we keep inspiring people with hope. So I genuinely believe that independence will come to this country very soon indeed. For some people. It may not be soon enough. For me it's likely not soon enough, I would have wanted it yesterday. But it is coming and I believe it's inevitable.

Reporter: In hustings you keep referring to yourself as the "first activist", you would be the "first activist of the independence movement". What role do you think that marches and rallies have in the independence movement? Do you think they've been successful at building broad support?

The National: All Under One Banner march for independence, Paisley...Photograph by Colin Mearns.5 March 2022.

Yousaf: Yeah. They absolutely have got a role. I was at Kelvin Way just a couple of days ago, remarking this was where we started our last independence march. I think they absolutely have a role to play. What they do is they energize the movement. You know, I've been on rallies my whole life, on a whole variety of different issues. And they do, they help to energize our movement. They help to build solidarity across our movement. They show our strength as a movement, too. So yeah I think they’ve absolutely got a role to play, and I'd be happy to hold the banner at the front.

Reporter: I'm going to look back a little bit to just discussing the Government's previous independence strategy. What did you think of the independence papers that were put out over the last year?

Yousaf: I think they've helped to answer some of these questions that, you know, we really face difficulty with. Currency being perhaps the most obvious point, in case. If I was first minister, when I'm first minister, one of the first things I’d do is get the Government into fifth gear.

There's a whole range of papers we started to get out, which I'd be very keen to make movement on. I don't think we should ever shy away from what are perceived as tricky questions. And we've got to make sure our activists are armed with the answers. So we're equivocating – we tell them absolutely what the key lines are, and that independence is very normal.

The National: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launches the second independence paper at Bute House

And some of these discussions - take another challenging issue like borders. Actually, we have the answers to what would happen when an independent Scotland rejoins the European Union. We shouldn't be afraid of that, we should be absolutely upfront about the fact that Scottish citizens and an independent Scotland will still be part of our Common Travel Area. You will be able to travel absolutely freely, whether you're going from Dundee to Derby or Lothian to London. You're going to be able to travel absolutely freely right across that Common Travel Area. So I'm keen to make progress on those papers, but get them into kind of bite-sized chunks, so we can have hand them to activists to make the argument on the doorstep.

Reporter: So Kate Forbes, when we spoke to her last week, she said that she wanted to take that responsibility away from what she called the "British civil service" and move it into the party instead. Is that something that you would consider looking at? Do you agree with her language on "British civil service"?

Yousaf: No, I don’t. I have to say, I think there's quite a strong sense of feeling from the civil service that, you know, they consider themselves to be part of the Scottish Government. And they've acted faithfully. as part of the Scottish civil service.

I have been in government for 10 happy years with civil servants, they have done an exceptional job, particularly during the last few years during Covid. I remember being on calls on Sunday nights, 10 o'clock at night, with our civil servants trying to deal with emergency situations that happened during the course of the pandemic.

Also to be quite frank, if you want independence why would you not use every single resource at your hands? The UK Government do it. They've got a union department, or division, at their very hands - they use the full machinery of government to make the case for the Union. Why on Earth would you not use every asset our disposal to further the cause of independence? So absolutely use the party, hear from the party and empower the party. Listen to the ideas around the independence prospectus. But why on Earth would you not use the machinery of government to fund the cause?

Remember we’re elected on the platform of independence - perfectly legitimate for us to be using the Government to further that cause. Because it's not just about independence for its own sake. Independence is a thread, there's a common thread through every government policy area. So I think it'd be exceptionally foolish to essentially disarm yourself of a really important asset in the way of the Scottish Government.

If I was first minister, hopefully as first minister, I’d be quite keen to have a Cabinet Secretary not just for the constitution – call it for advancing independence and the constitution. I want it to be really clear that we’re not just going to be stuck in constitutional argy-bargy – I want it to be known that the role of that Cabinet Secretary has to advance the independence cause. We shouldn’t be ashamed about that.

The National: The Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh

Reporter: So let's imagine you become first minister, and you restart the Yes campaign. Should there be a renewed Yes Scotland that brings all of the different groups together, and what role should the SNP play in that?

Yousaf: Yeah, I think there should be civic-led, cross pro-independence movement that's very grassroots. For me, that was the strength of the Yes campaign. Not everybody who’s pro-independence agrees with the SNP. We’ve got to accept that's absolutely fine. We've got to make sure we work right across the spectrum.

The first thing we've got to do is make sure that we don't reject and disregard the second largest pro-independence party in the country. The Greens have a huge following, and they only ever increase their support throughout last few years. And I think it would be really counterproductive, to put it mildly, if the first act of the new SNP leader was to rip up that agreement that was endorsed by 95% of our membership. So I think that's first and foremost, it's got to be got to be a priority.

Secondly, I’d be keen to work … I believe there are 130-odd independence groups right across the spectrum, I don't know all of them. But I'd love to make sure we're mobilizing that entire movement. And that was the beauty of 2014. We had Academics for Yes, we had the National Collective, we had Business for Scotland, Scottish Asians for Independence, you know, just group after group that organically formed and helped to create that vision of what independence could mean.

The National: Yes activists gather in George Square as campaigning peaked ahead of the 2014 referendum

And that's going to mean that the SNP is going to have to do something that we're not particularly good at. Which is just let go of some of the control. And I think we've got to just do that and accept that, because that will allow the movement to flourish. It comes with some risk. And I accept that. But I think we've got to do that. Otherwise, independence isn't going to come from party leaders, sitting in boardrooms like this just devising up strategy. It’s going to come from genuinely inspiring people on the doorstep.