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Independence Minister Jamie Hepburn: 'For half an hour, that was it – I thought we had won independence'

Jamie Hepburn photographed for Holyrood by Andrew Perry

Independence Minister Jamie Hepburn: 'For half an hour, that was it – I thought we had won independence'

Composed and relaxed, there is nothing in Jamie Hepburn’s demeanour to suggest that this is a man with the future of a country on his shoulders.

But it is Hepburn who has been charged with building the Scottish Government’s case for constitutional change at a time when his party is under unprecedented pressure. As such, he is both a figurehead and a flak magnet.

It is less than one year since the Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate for another referendum without Westminster approval, and the UK Government is steadfast in its refusal to grant this. Meanwhile, First Minister Humza Yousaf – who is trying to battle a multitude of public policy crises against the backdrop of a major police investigation into his party’s finances – hopes his appointee can help break the impasse by building a critical mass in support for Yes.

While voters on that side of the constitutional divide may have applauded Hepburn’s appointment, the opposite is true of pro-Union voices. Tory, Labour and Lib Dem MSPs have accused him of pursuing “fantasy” politics through the publication of the Building a New Scotland papers on what aspects of an indy Scotland could look like. A drawn-out row between Westminster and Holyrood over the involvement of the civil service in that work has become one of the stories of the year.

It is “worrying” to think that UK taxpayers’ money could be being used to further the case for the break-up of the state, according to UK Cabinet minister Simon Case, the head of the British civil service, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has backed Case’s inquiry into the matter. That’s despite John-Paul Marks, the permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, going on record to state that mandarins must “serve the government of the day” with “impartiality”.

That’s a concise account of the row, which has unfolded over weeks and months with ever more voices becoming involved. At the time of speaking, Case has yet to publish his new guidance on what the civil service can and can’t do around independence, so how does Hepburn see it playing out? His answer is cool and measured. “I think that the Scottish Government will be able to continue undertaking this activity. We’ve got a legitimate right to do so. The civil service operates to the political direction that any elected government has.”

Of course he’s spoken to Marks about the matter, Hepburn says, but not since immediately after he was appointed. “I would never seek to influence him in any way, shape or form,” Hepburn tells Holyrood. “The operational independence of the civil service is important.

“The permanent secretary has been clear: the civil service on an impartial, neutral basis, work to the agenda of the democratically elected government of the day. In any role I have occupied, I’ve been lucky to work with first class civil servants who will always respond to the requests and requirements of those of us who have been elected to public office and occupied ministerial roles. That’s how it should work. The people of Scotland voted for the composition of this government, part of the prospectus we stood on was to advance the cause of independence. The idea that it’s irregular is frankly nonsensical. It’s really a challenge for other people in their ongoing battle to try and reconcile themselves to the reality that the SNP is in government, and is in government legitimately.”

At 44, Hepburn has been around the parliamentary block. He was first elected in 2007 and became a minister in his second term, taking on mental health before moving on to portfolios covering education, skills and business. Politics is a family matter for him – his wife Julie, a well-known SNP activist, was made the party’s head of strategic delivery after the resignation of former chief executive Peter Murrell and the post cemented their status as a political power couple. Her name was linked to the role vacated by Murrell, a suggestion Hepburn denied prior to the appointment of ex-SNP comms chief Murray Foote.

He shrugs off the ‘power couple’ tag, but says he is “proud of the work that [Julie] has done over many, many years”. “That’s how we met each other, through the SNP,” he goes on. “She’s made a massive contribution through a variety of roles. If you put your head about the parapet, people tend to take a swing at you, but that’s life. And let’s face it, they are, though more at me than her.

“I have been criticised for doing too much then too little, sometimes by the same organs of the press and the same individuals,” he goes on. “I can’t say I’m overly concerned. I’ve been tasked with a specific job and that’s to drive the publication of these papers, because that’s what we said we would do.”

The papers address questions that Scots already have about possible futures for their country, Hepburn argues, and it’s “perfectly legitimate to provide answers”. More papers are coming “soon”, he says, but he won’t give a hint about the subject matter. “I take seriously the responsibility to let parliament know first,” Hepburn states. “These are government papers, we are utilising a public resource, so it’s necessary.”

Unlike his ministerial colleagues, Hepburn has no responsibility for service delivery. Instead, his purview is ideas – hearts and minds. Those, he says, can only really be won by going “direct to the people”.

“You’re only ever going to make progress through engaging directly, community by community, street by street, doorstep by doorstep,” he says. “That’s the way I’ve always approached politics.”

He concedes that the Building a New Scotland papers won’t be most people’s first-choice of reading material, but he’s confident that the ideas in there are spun out into enough news reports, comment pieces and conversations that they spark the debate he’s counting on to move the dial on support for independence, which still hovers around the half-way mark. Indyref, he remembers, was “an amazing experience”, but one that ended in what for him was a shock defeat.

Hepburn, who joined the SNP at 18, had cast his vote in his Cumbernauld and Kilsyth constituency and was “confident” of success until the national results were tallied. He and Julie had taken their son and daughter to the polling station and snapped a family picture outside to capture the moment. “I’m not one that probably wears his emotions or bears his soul ordinarily, but I was quite emotional about it,” he says of casting his vote at Cumbernauld village hall. “It did feel like quite a profoundly important moment for the country, but personally, given the many years of campaigning I put in, it felt like a special moment. You’re doing it for the future generation as well so I thought it would be nice to get a photo.”

Later, Hepburn got suited and went to the STV studios, where he joined a panel including Scottish Tory grandee Annabel Goldie and then-Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie. He was feeling good, but the big reveal was “horrible, to be honest with you – a real sucker punch moment”. His fellow panellists were “very magnanimous and actually very kind as we came off air, but it wasn’t the moment I was hoping for”. “For half an hour, that was it – I thought we had won independence. You are caught up in your own local experience, and my area actually did vote in favour of independence. Then we got the message that was not being replicated everywhere.”

That picture of the Hepburns outside the polling station? “It sits in a frame in our room, despite the disappointment of the result.”

A referendum is still the Scottish Government’s favoured route to ending the Union, but Yousaf has set out a revised version of Sturgeon’s much-criticised “de facto” strategy as his plan B. It would see the SNP claim popular support for independence if that party wins a majority of Scottish seats at the next Westminster general election. It was discussed at the party’s independence convention in Dundee, but is not yet official policy and is expected to be on the agenda at its autumn conference in October.

The 2014 vote, Hepburn says, was “an amazing experience”. “During an ordinary election there are people who will engage with you, but the referendum experience was phenomenal. People were willing to give you time to talk about any question or concerns they had. There’s never been that level of engagement at any other election. Post-referendum, I think we are in a more politically engaged environment than before. People became engaged in the challenge proposed that through independence we create a better country.” He cites the post-2014 growth of grassroots community organisations targeting poverty, exclusion and the environment. “A lot of the people who have driven that activity were energised and engaged thinking about a better Scotland,” he says. “They’re still energised, they still want to do that.”

A fan of 90s indie and a graduate of the University of Glasgow, Hepburn’s life outside politics included turns as a doorman at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow and a data processor for Scottish Power. As a student, he tried to get Lanark author Alasdair Gray elected as rector and he had a senior role on the students’ representative council. He was also once a researcher for former SNP MSP Alex Neil and the convener of the party’s youth wing, Young Scots for Independence. “I didn’t join the SNP to be an elected representative, to become a minister,” he says. “I’m fortunate enough to have been and continue to be both but I never take any of it for granted.”

Still, he hadn’t known Yousaf wanted him for independence minister and the call took him by surprise. He’s not entirely clear on why he was selected at all. “I hope it would be on the basis of having demonstrated my capabilities in government,” he tells Holyrood. “I have thrown myself into any role that I have taken on. I have considered that I’ve worked hard. Hopefully that’s been part of the reason.

“Having been involved for such a long time, I have undoubtedly got some hinterland in terms of the party, the movement, and having considered some of the questions of the day about what an independent Scotland could look like.” Which is? “It’s one that’s able to exert a distinct voice on the international stage. It’s one that’s replete with potential on the underlying strengths in terms of its economy, in terms of energy, renewables potential, in terms of world-leading universities, having a vibrant manufacturing base, food and drink.

“We are an energy-rich country with unacceptable levels of fuel poverty, and the energy markets are regulated outwith Scottish hands. That’s my vision of an independent Scotland – creating a fairer society, showing a progressive face around the world.”

However, there are elements that Hepburn hasn’t completely worked out yet, including one related to his most recent indy paper, which focused on citizenship.

The paper, which has had around 20,000 clicks on the Scottish Government website, set out the qualifying criteria for a newly-sovereign state and suggests that citizens could choose whether to give up their British citizenship. “Scottish citizens could hold multiple nationalities after independence,” it says, and “could hold both Scottish and British citizenship if they wanted, or only one or the other.” At the paper’s launch, Yousaf was asked what he would do. “I’ve not thought much about it,” he said, but he “probably wouldn’t” retain British citizenship, likely opting for the Scottish status alone. That measure of uncertainty took many by surprise, given Yousaf’s determination to take Scotland to independence. But Hepburn, who names Yousaf as his best friend in government, is equally undecided. “I don’t earnestly know,” he tells Holyrood. “It might be possible that I would retain it.”

What he is sure about is that he will “continue to publish part of a compelling, positive and optimistic case for the future of Scotland as an independent country”, despite criticism from Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, who called spending on Hepburn’s department “irresponsible”, and an uptick in investment in Scotland by Sunak’s administration, which recently announced plans for a carbon capture and storage project off the Aberdeenshire coast.

It was during a visit to St Fergus, Aberdeenshire, that he backed Case’s review into Scottish Government spending on independence and said Scots don’t want more “constitutional wrangling”. However, he also failed to name any members of the Scottish Conservatives front bench. “To be fair, I’d struggle to do so,” says Hepburn. But he says it’s “pretty telling in terms of the prime minister’s perspective, the UK Government’s perspective and the Conservative party at a UK level’s perspective if he can’t even name his own colleagues”.

“Given the continued political results we have seen we have over past decades, let alone the past few years,” he adds bullishly, “I think [the Conservatives] have got a job of work to do if they think they are connected to the people of Scotland.”

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