SNP First Minister Humza Yousaf talks independence, tax and Alex Salmond

It's been a turbulent year for the SNP, from the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon to the investigation into the party's finances.

But despite the challenges his party faced in 2023, SNP leader and First Minister Humza Yousaf was defiant in his view that voters must back his party if they want independence.

Mr Yousaf also defended his government's record on health as the south of Scotland's two main hospitals this week warned of extreme pressures.In his first major interview of 2024 to mark ten years of our political programme Representing Border - the First Minister also said the decision to further raise income tax above rates in England has not put people off moving north of the border.

Our political editor Peter MacMahon asked the First Minister whether he believed there were any similarities between him and Alex Salmond, who served as First Minister from 2007 to 2014.

"I like to be my own person," he told Representing Border.

"People will naturally draw their own comparisons between me and the former First Minister or me and the former former First Minister, me and a whole bunch of people.

"I quite like to be my own person, I always have been.

"In the last 10 years the SNP can be, I think, very proud of our record that we've stood on - not just in the last 10 years - over the last 16 years.

"I'll leave other people to make the comparisons, I'm very proud to be somebody who will always have at his core the pursuit of the Scottish interest."

Then SNP leader Alex Salmond speaks with SNP MSP Humza Yousaf prior to taking the oath of allegiance in 2011. Credit: PA Images.

'Dither and delay' on independence

Mr Salmond claimed at the end of last month that Scottish politicians had "dithered, delayed and dissipated the impetus for progress on independence".

"Scottish politicians", suggested Peter MacMahon, referred to the current First Minister and his predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon.

"No actually, there's no getting away from the fact that when I think about and reflect over 2023, it can be fair to say it's been a challenging year for the SNP and for the party, I'm not going to pretend or try to fool your viewers otherwise," replied Mr Yousaf.

"But despite the challenges the party had, support for independence continues to be around 50 per cent.

"I would disagree entirely with that (with Mr Salmond's comments), if anything we are seeing that support solidify.

"My job is to make sure that not only does it solidify, but we increase that support for independence.

"I was upfront about this during the election contest; the way you win our nation's independence - which we will absolutely do - is by ensuring that you have that consistent majority for independence.

"That's settled well for independence and that is down, no doubt, to the SNP. But not only to the SNP, pro-independence supporters to get out there and say why the best future for this country is when we make our own decisions."

Scotland's then Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon walks past an '18 September 2014' sign before the 2014 independence referendum. Credit: PA Images.

Independence referendum

It was also put to Mr Yousaf that there is no immediate sign of a second independence referendum.

"I absolutely disagree, because we are sitting at around about 50 per cent, we have to make sure that we have consistent support - I would suggest a consistent majority for independence - and then of course create the political conditions for that referendum," the First Minister replied.

"The Westminster government, the parties that oppose it, are going to continue to say that they will oppose it, they said that when we wanted the Scottish Parliament.

"We got the Scottish Parliament because we created that consistent majority for the Scottish Parliament and we've got to do the same.

Scottish Parliament building, Edinburgh. Credit: PA Images.

"So how do we do that? We don't just make the case for independence in its own right, that is important to do, we govern well, we make sure we have a policy prospectus we are proud of - of which we are - and we make sure that we have a vision for a better Scotland.

"Winning the next general election gives us a mandate to negotiate for independence, to negotiate how we achieve that independence.

"I'm happy to continue that conversation with the next UK Government, I would do it right now with this UK Government.

"The message hasn't changed. I have been elected on - and the SNP have been elected on - election after election on the mandate for another independence referendum.

"Why? Because of course, Brexit has been imposed upon us when we didn't vote for it. And not only that, we have a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament."

Cross-border tax

It has been suggested in recent months by the British Medical Association, the Scottish Hospitality Group and accountancy firms working on both sides of the border that the higher tax differential in Scotland could deter businesses and people from working here.

But what does the First Minister think about such concerns?

"A number of people have said over the years that the Scottish Government's progressive taxation policy could have that behavioural impact and of course that progressive taxation policy is those that earn the most - like politicians - should pay more so that we all get universal benefits and services, as well as giving us money to target resources," he said.

"And they've said that for years and we look at the National Records of Scotland's data and what does that data tell us?

"It tells us Scotland has a positive net inflow of migration i.e. more people are coming to Scotland from the rest of the UK than leaving Scotland by almost 10,000.

"Why are people from the rest of the UK coming to Scotland? Well, it's because, yes, if you are wealthy you might pay a little bit more tax but for that, you'll get free university education, you'll not pay a single penny for your prescriptions - as you would have to do in England - you get the most generous childcare offer."

Borders General Hospital, Melrose.

Borders General Hospital and Dumfries & Galloway Royal Infirmary

NHS Borders say Borders General Hospital in Melrose is currently experiencing "extreme pressures" across the health and social care system and all beds are full.

At Dumfries & Galloway Royal Infirmary, there are currently 327 patients in the hospital with a capacity of 295.

Our political editor Peter MacMahon asked the First Minister whether the situation at both hospitals can be attributed to the Scottish Government not providing enough social care capacity to allow patients to be discharged from hospital.

"The reason why we are seeing challenges in our hospitals, but why it's not unique to Scotland - or indeed I have to say unique to the United Kingdom - is because we faced the global pandemic, which was the biggest shock our health system has faced in its 75 years," he responded.

"Now that's why we have such a significant challenge - particularly around social care - and that is why not only is Scotland facing significant challenges.

"This time of the year those challenges become even more exacerbated into the new year.

"What I would say around social care is really important here is we are investing. We are not waiting for the National Care Service, which I think is really important to make sure you end that postcode lottery of care, we are investing now.

"Come April of course, we will be giving a further pay uplift to our social care workers to try to recruit more social care workers and retain them, so we can help to reduce that delayed discharge at the other end."