THE new leader of the SNP group at Westminster has signalled some concerns over the First Minister’s plan to use the next general election as a “de facto” independence referendum saying it will the party's MPs who "will be on the frontline".

In an exclusive interview with the Herald on Sunday three days after being elected to his role last Tuesday Stephen Flynn insisted many options "have been floated” about the route ahead when asked about the proposal Nicola Sturgeon first unveiled to Holyrood in early summer. 

“Of course my colleagues have a lot at stake in that regard. It’s us who will be on the frontline and I have no doubt our voices will be heard in relation to the up coming debate,” he said.

Ms Sturgeon wants the UK Government to agree to a new vote using the same process which lay behind the 2014 vote.

However, successive Conservative Prime Ministers have refused to do so with most recently Rishi Sunak saying the two governments should being working together to address current challenges.

The block has led Ms Sturgeon to consider alternative routes to independence including whether Holyrood could hold a vote unilaterally.

But the move was scuppered when the Supreme Court ruled the Scottish Parliament did not have the powers to hold a referendum with Westminster's consent following the Lord Advocate referral to the court.

Presenting her fall back plan in June, the First Minister told MSPs that if the court ruling went against the Scottish Government she would use the next general election, expected in 2024, as a “de facto referendum.”

She then announced a special conference to work on the details of the plan in the new year after last month's Supreme Court ruling. She has said the winning threshold would be a majority of votes.

However, there is concern among some in the SNP over such a high bar.

In 2015 when the SNP won a record 56 out of 59 seats at the general election the party took 50% of votes. With the Greens the total votes for the two independence supporting parties came to 51.3%.

But it is also unclear how, even if the SNP and other independence supporting parties won more than 50% of the popular vote, how independence  would be achieved if the new UK Government would not negotiate. And if the Yes side lost, would that mean the current independence campaign would be shelved for some time?

Asked for his thoughts on the de facto referendum/general election proposal Mr Flynn said: “We have party conference coming up in the new year with the Westminster group the Holyrood group and the wider membership of the party. 

“We will be coming together to determine our position for the next general election. I don’t think it’s right to be presumptuous about what the outcome of that will be, that will be for our members.

“I will be busy working with colleagues at Westminster and Holyrood to come forward with a clear position and I look forward to joining the First Minister as part of that.”

He said that the focus should be on “there being a clear democratic mandate in the Scottish Parliament for that independence referendum” and that the UK Government has “continued to deny democracy” with the SNP “being forced to look at alternate options”. 

He added: “There have been many that have been floated, one of which I do vehemently disagree with, which is the idea of collapsing Holyrood in a cost of living crisis which I think would be utterly absurd.

“But not withstanding that I am very open minded to what our position will be. And I look forward to engaging with party members at conference to come to a final deliberation.”

Pressed whether the next Holyrood election could instead be presented as the de facto independence referendum, as some in the SNP have suggested, he added: “I am not going to be presumptuous about what the outcome of our conference is going to be.

“I will obviously be feeding my views in along with colleagues over the course of the coming weeks and months.

“But it will be for the party collectively to come to that decision. I want to play an active role in that. What is important is that we have a clear message we can take to the public..going into the general election.”

When it was put to him that he didn’t seem overly keen on using the next general election as a de facto referendum, he replied: “I don’t think that is a fair representation.”

During the interview Mr Flynn discussed his reshuffle, which he was working on at the time of our interview and which was announced yesterday afternoon. He explained the reasoning behind some of the changes and also discussed group cohesion and the frontbench resignations last week.

The reshuffle saw Alison Thewliss, the defeated leadership candidate, said to be favoured by the First Minister, move from the Treasury to the home affairs brief. Alyn Smith, the former MEP, has been given a new role on EU accession.

In the long ranging interview he also opened the door to working with Alba, the party led by Alex Salmond which has two MPs and discussed his hope to meet with the First Minister when their diaries permitted.

On the reshuffle, he said, the size of the 23-strong frontbench team would be scaled back.

"The vast majority of my colleagues hold senior roles," he said.

"There are many many processes attached to the Westminster establishment and our responsibilities as the third party.

"I am in the process of putting together an exciting front bench team. I am intending to slim that team down to make it more focussed not just on Westminster but to free up colleagues can drive home our message [about independence] not just in Westminster but in their constituencies as well.

"Some of this ties in with the resignations at Westminster...We are there as Scottish nationalists not necessarily to abide by the processes of Westminster.

“We are there to put forward the positive case for Scottish independence and by working together we go back to the old adage of the role of Scottish National Party MPs is not to ‘settle down it’s to settle up’ and that’s where our focus lies.

“Scottish National Party MPs are not there to be concerned about which green bench it is that we sit upon. Our purpose is to ensure there are no Scottish MPs whatsoever sitting on those front benches or indeed those back benches. 

“We want Scotland to be an independent nation and that’s why we will all unite around those arguments irrespective of who is filling those frontbench roles.”

The Herald on Sunday asked him about the three front bench resignations - of Pete Wishart, Stewart McDonald and Chris Law - since he was elected on Tuesday with Mhairi Black as his deputy.

He said he had spoken to Mr McDonald and Mr Law before they announced their resignations and Mr Wishart afterwards.

"It should come as no surprise....that when a new leadership team comes in that they like to make their own mark on things," he said.

"They are all respected and valued colleagues. But the important thing here is that change happens in politics. It can often be for the good and I am looking forward to them playing an active role in our campaign as we move forward."

The last few weeks have seen much briefing and bickering from inside the group. He was asked how he would restore cohesion.

"On the contrary I actually think the SNP group at Westminster works exceptionally well. I've had the good fortune in being a member for three years, now, " he said.
"There is a public perception here which [does not] rely on reality."

He was asked Mr Flynn about whether he would work with Alba - something which some in the SNP oppose.

He said: “We are of course the mainstream movement for Scottish independence. My focus in the immediate term is working with colleagues within the Scottish National Party to further the case for independence.

“I personally have been quite happy to work with all parties and none in relation to the Scottish independence movement. Ultimately you need to judge people by their words and by their actions and that would be the determining factor for me moving forward.”

Speaking to the BBC on Friday, Mr Flynn denied that he had plotted to bring down his predecessor Ian Blackford. 

And he told the Press and Journal that reports Ms Sturgeon did not want him in the position was “a load of crap”.

A number of MPs have said Mr Flynn was canvassing opinion about whether to stand for weeks if not longer.

But on the coup talk, he told The Herald on Sunday: “There was no vacancy. What happened was that Ian decided the time was right for him to step aside. He spoke at length in relation to that.

“The vacancy arose Alison put herself forward and I followed suit and like in any good democracy our members had a choice. And I am delighted they opted for myself and I am keen to get going.”

It was reported last month that someone close to the First Minister phoned him to persuade him not to stand prompting his to pull out following initial rumours.

“That was definitely not the case,” he said referring to the reported phone call, adding that he only decided to throw his hat into the ring after Mr Blackford announced his resignation.

And on working with the First Minister, he said she was the second person he called after his wife following his election as Westminster leader.

But he revealed he had no current plans to meet with her, and said: “We had a short but very productive conversation on Tuesday evening. 

"I am looking forward and excited about engaging with Nicola. I think myself and Mhairi working closely with her and Keith [Brown] as deputy leader of the party can achieve a great deal. I think there are exciting times ahead on that front.

"And I am looking forward to catching up with the First Minister in due course. She has an incredibly busy job and I have got an incredibly busy new job. But I have no doubt that when time becomes free we will make it."