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The Scottish National party has backed a change in its independence strategy, saying it would claim a “mandate” for a new vote on separation from Britain if it were to win a majority of Scottish seats at the next UK general election.
The SNP’s leader Humza Yousaf won strong backing from his party’s annual conference for an approach that requires the party to win a simple majority of Scotland’s 57 seats at Westminster.
The pro-independence party has been struggling to come up with a coherent plan to overcome the UK government’s refusal to grant it powers to hold a second independence referendum since it lost the first vote in 2014 by 55 to 45 per cent.
Earlier this year, it abandoned the strategy devised by former party leader Nicola Sturgeon, which stated it would need to win more than 50 per cent of Scottish votes in a general election before it was deemed to have a mandate to open talks with the UK government over another independence referendum.
As the UK electoral system uses the first-past-the-post system, the SNP, which has been in power in Scotland since 2007, could in theory secure a simple majority of seats — 29 in total — without winning more than half the votes.
“A majority of seats is a victory, plain and simple,” said Humza Yousaf, who is presiding over his first conference since replacing Sturgeon in March. “If we win that majority, that will be our mandate to begin negotiations with the UK government” on how to achieve independence, he said.
Yousaf, who has been struggling to heal internal divisions and stabilise the SNP after it was plunged into further turmoil by a police investigation into its finances, called for members to unite behind their main goal of gaining independence.
“When we’ve democratically decided as a party together on the way forward [on independence strategy], let us unite, for it is our unity which is our greatest strength as a party,” he said.
Yousaf suffered two blows last week when the SNP lost by more than expected to Labour in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, outside Glasgow, and then Lisa Cameron, MP for East Kilbride, defected to the Tories, the UK governing party.
That left the SNP with 43 Westminster seats in Scotland, the Tories on seven and Labour on two. The two biggest UK parties are both pro-union.
Labour, well ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls, is targeting a revival in Scotland at the general election, expected next year, to help boost its chances of forming a majority government. Recent polls suggest the SNP would lose many seats.
Sturgeon adopted her plan to push for a second referendum after the UK Supreme Court ruled last year that she did not have the legal authority to hold one unilaterally without Westminster’s agreement. The pro-union parties have said they would not accept using the outcome as a mandate to break up the UK.