The road to independence “starts with respect” for unionists, says the SNP’s lead candidate

Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party needs a leader who can broaden support for independence by respecting and listening to those who advocate union with the UK, said Finance Minister and lead candidate Kate Forbes.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Forbes, 32, also sought to defuse tensions within the SNP, fueled by her criticism of its record and her questions about the integrity of the election to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as party leader and first minister.

The campaign to oust Sturgeon has exposed the bitterest internal divisions within the SNP in two decades, fueled by disagreements over its stalled independence strategy and other issues.

But Forbes said members who have until March 27 to elect a new leader knew they had to “reach beyond the SNP.” She pointed to polls showing she has greater appeal with the Scottish public, despite the fact that most SNP heavyweights have backed their main rival and favorite bookmaker, Health Minister Humza Yousaf.

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“I am very aware that our political discourse has become extremely hateful, toxic, angry and disrespectful,” Forbes said, stressing the SNP’s need to win the people over to independence.

“That has to start with respect and it has to start with listening, which is a fundamentally different approach,” she said.

Polls show Scots are roughly evenly divided over whether to end Scotland’s three-century-old union with England. Forbes’ relatively gradual approach may disappoint those in the SNP who believe Sturgeon should have pushed harder for a second independence referendum given Scots voted 55-45 percent to remain in the Union in 2014.

“Our approach needs to involve as many people as possible in Scotland,” said Forbes. “I’m popular across most political divides and that’s certainly the kind of person you want to lead your party and your country to independence.”

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The difficult choice of leadership has shattered the SNP’s previously impressive reputation for internal unity and discipline.

Forbes, who was on maternity leave when Sturgeon announced her retirement, has delivered a scathing verdict on the government she serves, telling a television leadership debate “more of the same” would be “an acceptance of mediocrity.”

The finance secretary also attacked her cabinet colleague Yousaf for his record in health, justice and transport, blaming him for NHS waiting lists, police shortages and trains that “were never on time”.

In the interview, Forbes downplayed those criticisms, saying they were “very proud of the SNP’s track record” and insisting that “everyone agrees” on the need for NHS reform.

Forbes also backed down from complaints about the party’s handling of the leadership election, which was conducted by members of its campaign and that of third candidate and former community security minister Ash Regan.

Michelle Thomson, an SNP-MSP and Forbes supporter, told the BBC this week she had written to the party’s national secretary about “concerns” about the vote and that she should appoint an outside auditor to oversee the vote.

But in an apparent attempt to improve ties with the party establishment, Forbes said she had “complete faith” in the election process and her campaign just wanted transparency to make sure others felt the same way. “I have absolutely no concerns about the procedure,” she said.

Under pressure from all three candidates for more transparency about their membership, the SNP said Thursday 72,186 people were eligible to vote for its leader — 30,000 fewer than it claimed at the start of the campaign.

Forbes said the SNP owed a “debt” to Peter Murrell, the party’s longtime chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, for past election victories. However, she left open whether Murrell should remain in office if elected, saying it should be “his decision, not mine.”

The Forbes campaign nearly failed at its launch, when the deeply religious Treasury Secretary sparked widespread condemnation from SNP colleagues by saying she would have voted against gay marriage if she was in Parliament when it was approved in 2014 were.

But she said the public appreciates her candor. “Many people would say that they fundamentally disagree with my views, but they have longed for an honest politician.”

Forbes made it clear that a win on March 27 would see a shift in economic policy from the Scottish Government, which is more focused on wealth creation than the social spending and redistribution stressed by Sturgeon.

She said her policy would be based on the “triangle” of investing in infrastructure, reducing the regulatory burden on Scottish companies and promoting “competitive” taxation.

Wealthier Scots currently pay slightly higher income tax rates than their peers elsewhere in the UK. Forbes said there was little evidence so far that higher interest rates had hurt the Scottish economy, but the issue should be “scrutinized carefully”.

“As long as Scotland is decentralized I think we need to be really careful about excessive divergence,” she said.

Forbes also signaled that she would be more supportive of the fossil fuel industry in north-east Scotland than Sturgeon.

While energy policy is largely the preserve of the UK government, the SNP administration called for a “presumption against new exploration for oil and gas” in January.

“I’m very concerned that in the transition to renewable energy and away from oil and gas, we don’t lose all jobs, all investment, all infrastructure and all resources,” Forbes said. “For me it’s about speed and not going too fast.” The road to independence “starts with respect” for unionists, says the SNP’s lead candidate

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