You’re a survivor from the 2015 election. It must feel slightly odd to be one of the few leaders remaining?
I must admit I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms. I don’t think any of us expected a general election so soon after 2015 and, in this campaign certainly, the prime minister has refused to come near any television debates so there’s not been an occasion where all the leaders have been together such as in 2015.
Before the last election you told us it wasn’t about Scottish independence. It’s a bit different now isn’t it?
A lot has happened since 2015. Brexit has been the key thing that’s happened. My position is pretty clear. I think at the end of the Brexit process people in Scotland should have a choice about our future — because the alternative to that is we just have to accept Brexit no matter what the terms of the deal are, no matter how damaging they may be to our economy and life here in Scotland.
Have you pushed back the date when you want a referendum?
I always said when the terms of the deal were known. I’m not in control of when the end of the process will be. Theresa May says it will be before spring 2019.
Before a deal is signed?
When we know the terms of the deal. That is the key point — at the end of the process and see the terms of the deal and make an informed choice.
You’ve said you want Scotland to have a seat at the Brexit negotiating table but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears…
We put forward compromise proposals which accepted we were coming out the EU but tried to keep us in the single market. The single market is so important to Scotland’s economy, tens of thousands of jobs depend on it. It was swept aside by Theresa May. What I’m saying in this election is you’ve got an opportunity to give those proposals democratic backing and make it impossible for a UK government to continue to ignore Scotland’s voice.
In your manifesto you’ve got ambitious national ideas, with an anti-austerity plan and increasing NHS funding. How do you deliver such policies?
The stronger Scotland’s voice is, the more clout we’re going to have regardless of who ends up being the government, though I think the likelihood is there will be a Tory government. We’ve seen during the course of this campaign, Theresa May, who’s not exactly the Iron Lady when it comes to sticking with positions. So, the more we can have a strong group of SNP MPs, the more we can influence the direction of UK policy. And that matters, because austerity cuts to public services are having a really bad effect on so many aspects of life, with more people in poverty, public services under strain.
Is this a post-election, ‘progressive alliance’ pitch?
I don’t think the arithmetic after this election is going to lend itself to that. I’ve got to deal in the reality. I’ve made no bones about the fact that if there was a potential for a progressive alliance, I’d want the SNP to be part of that to keep the Conservatives out of office. People are having their eyes opened to what the implications of a Tory government are. That gives us a huge opportunity because in Scotland the only party that can hold Tories in check are the SNP.
You want Scotland to control its own immigration. How would the border work with England and Brexit?
There are many federal countries across the world that have differential positions on immigration. This brings into quite sharp focus one of the big issues here: do we have policy in Scotland that is designed for Scotland’s needs? Scotland needs to grow its working-age population. If we’re going to find ourselves subject to an immigration policy that is about massively reducing immigration coming into the UK, that is going to have a really bad effect on our economy. I think we should argue for the ability to have policy suited to our needs.
In the 2014 independence referendum, one of the startling things I saw was the engagement of 16/17-year-old voters. With them not having the vote now is there a danger this engagement could be lost?
I think the enthusiasm is still strong. There’s a real frustration among 16 and 17-year-olds, which is a real shame. I think the UK government should look at the experience in Scotland and learn from that. I remember when we grew the franchise for the referendum there was a lot of scepticism and it wasn’t unanimous in the Scottish parliament, but if you were to have that vote again it would be unanimous because people saw in the referendum the ability of that age group to really engage and inform themselves and come to decisions.
At the last election obviously the SNP was riding on the crest of a wave; you’re facing a tougher fight from the Conservatives this time. How does it compare?
We are — and I’m not taking anything for granted — on course to winning this election and we’ll certainly be working hard to try and do that. It’s important to put it in context; yes in 2015 the SNP had an exceptional election result and I’d love to think we’ll repeat [it]. But having been in politics for the best part of 30 years, and being in the SNP at times when six MPs was success for us, for people now to say to me ‘Oh, if you only get 50, 40, that would be a disaster’. Well, not really.
Have any of the new leaders in Westminster impressed you?
I’m trying to be diplomatic here… all politicians are in politics for what they consider to be the right reasons and do their best. I don’t mean this in any personal slight to Jeremy Corbyn — by common consent [he] has had a better campaign than Theresa May — but I think if Labour had a more electable, credible leader I think Theresa May could be in serious difficulty. She has spent too much of the campaign trying to dodge scrutiny and dodge speaking to real voters.
If there was an SNP policy adopted by another party, what would you like it to be?
The Labour manifesto is full of SNP policies: free tuition; NHS car parking charges abolished; extending free childcare; renewable energy targets; the list is long. This election has demonstrated it is the SNP in Scotland that are leading the debate around progressive policies because much of what is being debated in the election south of the border are actually policies we’ve long implemented here.