The SNP’s leadership candidates have made initial pitches to party members in their bid to replace Nicola Sturgeon as Holyrood leader.
Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf spoke to a select audience at the Cumbernauld Theatre in the first hustings event of the race to become First Minister, taking questions on a variety of topics including the independence campaign, gender reform and even who they consider to be their best friend in politics.
All three also faced questions about the impact of faith on policy decisions and their preferred way of Scotland’s mechanism for leaving the UK.
It was the first of nine similar events to be held before the end of the leadership campaign on March 27.
Yousaf stated he would “unequivocally” back a legal challenge against the UK Government’s section 35 order, designed to stop the controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill (Scotland) from becoming law, branding the move a “power grab”.
In his opening remarks, the health secretary promised to push for a “progressive agenda,” despite both Forbes and Regan stating their opposition to the proposals which would make it easier for those changing gender to do so legally.
Finance secretary Forbes, whose membership of the Free Church of Scotland has come into question on LGBT issues, also said Westminster’s attempts to block the Bill amounted to “dismantling devolution,” though called for a “grown up conversation” on the laws before any further legal moves are made.
Regan, who repeatedly touted the fact that she was the first SNP minister to resign over a point of policy when she refused to back the Scottish Government’s plans when making their way through Holyrood, argued there was little point in challenging the section 35 order through the courts over her belief that the bid would be unsuccessful.
In her opening six-minute speech, she positioned herself as the “unity candidate,” reasserting her plans to bring together pro-independence parties, think tanks and civic groups to create an “independence commission” designed to decide when Scotland was ready to become independent.
Regan also advocated raising the school start age to seven while redesigning early years education around a kindergarten system and backed the dualling of the A9 in the Highlands as a way of cutting road deaths despite concerns over soaring costs for the project.
None of the three candidates said they would invoke the “claim of right” as a unilateral declaration of independence, even if securing a majority of 50%+1 at the next Westminster election in 2024.
The trio were also aligned in their support for any candidate who holds faith ascending to the top job in Scottish politics – regardless of their religious background.
Forbes – who acknowledged Regan was among her “political best friends” after both were elected during the 2016 cycle – said that she had “answered more questions on the subject in the past two weeks” than ever previously in her life having come under fire for her comments on gay marriage and childbirth out of wedlock.
The finance secretary, currently on maternity leave, admitted some of her previous remarks could have been “framed or phrased” better, but said Scotland was a “pluralistic” society in which all views could be defended and respected.
Yousaf concurred, stating that he was a “proud Muslim” and would be participating in the Ramadan celebrations towards the end of the leadership campaign.
But he said the First Minister must be able to “look people in the eye” and exude “confidence they’ll protect rights and advance them where they can”.
All three also backed expanding abortion exclusion zones as proposed in a Bill by Green Party MSP Gillian McKay.
The candidates were asked to give details of their “bravest moment” in politics.
Forbes, describing herself as a “wee woman,” detailed a particularly fraught hustings at a village hall “in the middle of nowhere” in which she challenged physical intimidation while campaigning for election.
Yousaf meanwhile recalled a “robust” discussion on NHS funding with Sturgeon and deputy FM John Swinney and his battles with online hate.
Regan stated standing up for her personal beliefs in resigning from the party on a matter of conscience surrounding the gender vote.
The next hustings event is due to take place on Friday, March 3.