Young supporters of Scottish independence are rejecting the UK because Tory “Brexit chaos” has dominated their adult lives, Anas Sarwar has said.
The Scottish Labour leadership contender also warned against “fatalism” from unionists in his party as he said Indy Ref 2, and independence, are not “inevitable”.
Speaking to HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast, alongside his rival for the job, Monica Lennon, Sarwar also said backing the principle of a second vote would be a “wheeze of a position” for Labour.
It comes as Boris Johnson visited Scotland on Thursday, kicking off the campaign ahead of vital Holyrood elections in May, which Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP look set to win at a canter.
Twenty consecutive polls have recorded a majority for independence, with young Scots most likely to back breaking away.
The first minister this week set out an 11-point plan for securing a second referendum, which could see Scotland hold a “home made” advisory referendum and spark a battle in the courts.
Sarwar and Lennon are split over their strategy on the constitution.
Staunch unionist Sarwar believes no vote should be held for another five years as a “Covid recovery parliament” is needed.
Lennon, on the other hand, believes Scottish Labour must “approach the electorate as democrats”, cease opposing a vote and begin campaigning for the Union.
Sarwar told HuffPost UK he empathised with younger voters tempted to back independence.
Some polls have put support for independence, excluding don’t knows, at 58%, and most surveys show younger voters are disproportionately more likely back breaking up the UK.
“I think the most concerning thing about that is particularly amongst younger people there is less of an attachment to the UK,” said Sarwar.
“Actually, I don’t find that surprising and the reason why I don’t find it surprising is that for a lot of those young people, they haven’t lived a day of their adult life in a stable United Kingdom.
“They have lived the last four and half years in Brexit chaos, first of all delivered by David Cameron, then Theresa May and now Boris Johnson.
“So I can understand why they would feel that way.”
He said Scottish Labour’s task was to demonstrate that “Boris Johnson isn’t Britain, just like Nicola Sturgeon isn’t Scotland”.
In comments which appeared to be aimed at Lennon’s position on Indy Ref 2. he said: “I think Scottish Labour members fear and want to step away from the fatalism that seems to have taken hold; this idea that an ’SNP win is inevitable, a Labour Party drubbing is inevitable, an independence referendum majority is inevitable and therefore independence is therefore inevitable’.
“I would much rather than the Scottish Labour Party trying to find a wheeze of a position to try and win people back ... instead has political leaders who tell the truth and say what they believe.
“I don’t believe it is in Scotland’s interests to have an independence referendum, particularly coming through Covid.
“I don’t believe it is in Scotland’s best interests to have independence, and if I don’t believe it I’m not going to argue for it.”
Lennon hit back at Sarwar, who as deputy Labour leader in 2014 co-ordinated the No campaign, which many feel led to Scotland’s landslide shift away from the party to the SNP.
“I think the one thing we can be certain of is that the conversation on the constitution isn’t going away,” she said.
“Even during a global pandemic, the constitution is still a dominant issue.
“So, my bid to be Scottish Labour leader has been a very honest one.”
Adding Scottish Labour “can’t sit this debate out”, she said “it should be for people in Scotland to decide” when to have a referendum.
“We have to approach the electorate as democrats,” she said. “People in Scotland have been teaching us a lesson now for a long, long time.
“That’s why we are in third place and it’s a long time now since Anas was deputy leader but he knows from his tour around the country in a big red bus how angry people were with Scottish Labour, both before that referendum and after it.
“We were obliterated in Scotland and we have not recovered from that.”
Lennon added: “We are on the margins of Scottish politics so we need to get back into the race, and I think that for those people who have left the Labour Party, in their droves, the vast majority have gone to the SNP, so what is that telling us?”
But Sarwar suggested the position of backing a referendum was a slippery slope for unionists, adding: “I want to persuade people and take them with us instead of making it inevitable, and talking about what the SNP and the Tories want us to talk about.”
The two candidates agreed that Johnson’s journey to Scotland on Thursday, much-criticised by the SNP mid-lockdown, was “not essential” ..
Lennon said: “Boris has come to Scotland again today as a publicity stunt. It wasn’t essential.
“He could have sent a nice video via Zoom. That would have been sufficient.”
Sarwar said Johnson’s train journey was “not essential travel”.
He said: “If we’re honest about it Boris Johnson is a disaster and he and the Conservative Party are the biggest threat to the United Kingdom.”
But, echoing comments from Keir Starmer that Johnson’s trip, as UK prime minister was legitimate, Sarwar added: “We should also be careful that it doesn’t sound like we are saying that a UK prime minister does not have legitimacy in Scotland, regardless of what political party they are from.
“So, I don’t think he should have came, because his journey was not essential, I think (Boris Johnson) is a disaster, but should the UK PM in principle be active and visible in Scotland? Of course they should. The problem is Boris Johnson, not the title.”