By Andrew MacAskill
ABERDEEN, Scotland (Reuters) – Scotland’s leader Humza Yousaf is confident his dream of independence will come true in the next decade despite his governing party haemorrhaging support over the worst crisis in its modern history.
The dominant political party in Scotland for almost two decades, the pro-independence Scottish National Party has been damaged by infighting, voter fatigue and scandals, including the arrest of its charismatic former leader Nicola Sturgeon.
Britain’s main opposition Labour Party won back a parliamentary seat in Scotland this month, ousting the SNP in a vote that suggests dozens of the party’s politicians could lose their seats at the next election, while last week another SNP lawmaker defected to the Conservatives over bullying claims.
“It has been difficult and there is no point pretending otherwise. It has probably been the most difficult six months that our party has faced in our modern history,” Yousaf told Reuters at his party’s annual conference in Aberdeen.
“These things unfortunately come at you, not in ones or twos, but they hit you with a number of challenges. But despite the challenges, if you look at virtually every poll that comes out, we continue to lead the opposition.”
At the last election in 2019, the SNP picked up 48 out of the 59 seats, making it one of the most dominant political parties in western Europe. But a poll by YouGov last week put its support over Labour in Scotland at just two percentage points. Once the dominant party of Scotland, Labour won one seat in 2019.
“ROCK SOLID” INDEPENDENCE SUPPORT
Yousaf said he was confident that an independent Scotland was coming. Even with support for the SNP in decline, opinion polls show Scotland is still roughly split over independence.
“Support for independence is rock solid but support for the SNP has dipped,” he said. Asked if Scotland would get independence in the next decade, he said: “without a shadow of a doubt. I would hope it will be well within 10 years.”
Scots rejected ending the more-than 300 year-old union with England by 55% to 45% in a referendum in 2014. But nationalists argue the 2016 vote to leave the European Union changed everything, as a majority of Scottish voters had opposed it.
Pro-independence feelings hardened under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was deeply unpopular in Scotland.
Yousaf said he needed to present a positive vision of what an independent Scotland would look like, including better protections for workers and efforts to tackle poverty, because criticising Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government in London could only go so far.
He believes that consistent support for independence would also help overcome the biggest battle ahead – persuading a Westminster government to agree to a second referendum.
The British Supreme Court said last year that the Scottish government could not hold a second referendum on independence without approval from the British parliament.
Yousaf said at the weekend that he would have a mandate to negotiate a new vote if the SNP won a majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats at the national election expected next year – a position that has been rejected by pro-UK parties.
“What we have to do is create the political conditions that are such that the Westminster political parties cannot deny Scotland’s voice,” he said. “If the SNP is not winning, then the independence cause isn’t either.”
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Editing by Kate Holton and Ed Osmond)