'Scotland lost its way': SNP candidates clash on independence in fiery first TV debate

Candidates vying to replace Nicola Sturgeon clashed over independence in their fiery first TV debate, with Ash Regan claiming Scotland had "lost its way" on the issue "despite the worst UK governments of all time".

Ms Regan kicked off the event with some harsh words for the outgoing first minister, from whose government she resigned in protest over gender reforms.

"There's been no progress on independence in the last few years, despite the worst UK governments of all time," she said in her opening remarks.

"We used to grow support for independence by governing wisely, and it worked.

"At every election going forward, we will make it crystal clear that a majority of votes for the SNP will be a democratic mandate for independence."

Asked how and when she would achieve independence, Ms Regan said the party has spent years seeking a "moral mandate" and "begging" Westminster for a referendum but with no success.

She argued that a referendum "is not the gold standard", saying the SNP could use the ballot box at elections to try to leave the UK.

Leadership rival Kate Forbes said independence would only happen when a majority of Scots had been persuaded it was the best course of action, which means "putting the economy front and centre".

Humza Yousaf also stressed the need to "build popular support" for the cause.

Ms Regan accused her rivals of "going cap in hand to Westminster", saying: "This hasn't worked so far, why should it work now?"

But Mr Yousaf insisted Downing Street would tell Ms Regan "where to go" under her plan if she was first minister.

He said a majority of votes in a Scotland election would not bring politicians in London to the table as "there is no common decency with the UK Government".

"We are talking about a government in the UK that literally sends refugees on planes to Rwanda. They are not going to sit down with us just because we win an election," he said.

Would an independent Scotland keep the monarchy?

Questions on independence also turned to whether the candidates would keep the monarchy, with Ms Forbes saying there were "bigger issues facing Scotland".

She added: "I am pretty relaxed, I would see us as part of the Commonwealth."

But both Mr Yousaf and Ms Regan declared themselves to be republicans.

Mr Yousaf said he would "keep the monarchy for a period of time", but added: "I would hope an independent Scotland would be a republic in the future."

Ms Regan said her preference would be to have an elected head of state for an independent Scotland.

She said in the "new circumstances" after the death of the Queen last year it might be time for the SNP conference to debate if retaining the monarchy was still the right policy for the party "or whether we should move to a policy of having an elected head of state".

Ministers clash on government record and social issues

The harshest exchanges on Tuesday evening came between Finance Secretary Ms Forbes and Health Secretary Mr Yousaf, considered to be the two frontrunners for the top job.

Ms Forbes attacked Mr Yousaf's record in government - suggesting there would be a place for him in her cabinet but "maybe not at health" - while her record on social issues was scrutinised.

"Humza, you've had a number of jobs in government," she said in a portion of the STV debate which allowed for cross examination between candidates.

"You were a transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister we've got record-high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?"

Mr Yousaf said he "built new roads and railways", delivered the Queensferry Crossing under budget, "extended protections for domestic abuse victims" and "delivered the fastest ever COVID booster programme".

Asked if he is the "continuity candidate" and if that means he is the "no change candidate", Mr Yousaf shot back: "If change means lurching to the right, Kate, if it means rolling back on progressive values, that's not the right change."

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He told his rival her comments early in the campaign, when Ms Forbes said she would not have voted for same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP when the legislation passed, saw "many people, particularly from our LGBTQ community, say they wouldn't vote for independence" if she is leader.

Mr Yousaf added: "Forget persuading 'no' voters, you can't even keep 'yes' voters."

Ms Forbes said she made a "solemn and honest pledge when it comes to upholding and defending the right of every Scot".

There were points of agreement during the debate, with Ms Regan and Mr Yousaf hitting out at the UK government's immigration plans and all three candidates committing to increase the Scottish Child Payment.

Mr Yousaf has previously announced he would look to increase the benefit, but said on Tuesday he would look to push it to £30 per week from £25 in his first budget if elected first minister.

Ms Regan said she would see "what more we could do on that", while Ms Forbes suggested any increase would "have to reflect what inflation is at the time".