27 Mar 2023

A New Era: Humza Yousaf elected leader of the SNP

Humza Yousaf, the MSP for Glasgow Pollock, has been elected new leader of the SNP, defeating Kate Forbes by 52% to 48%. After a vicious leadership election which exposed many of the SNP’s internal tensions, what happens next? Andrew McQuillan, an Account Director in the Public Affairs team, sets out what this means for Scotland, the SNP and for independence.

Andrew McQuillan

The establishment fights back

The self-styled continuity candidate, Yousaf was undoubtedly Nicola Sturgeon’s preferred successor. Popular with SNP members, his social and economic views stand in stark contrast with Kate Forbes who proposed a radical departure from the Sturgeon playbook. While she lost, it is important to note that a sizeable chunk of SNP members felt that her more socially and economically conservative approach was desirable – the nationalist claim that the SNP is somehow a beacon of progressive politics has taken a battering in this contest. However, with the party machinery behind him, it was Yousaf’s contest to lose.

One happy nationalist family?

Yousaf’s first task is to heal the SNP after a bruising contest. The carefully crafted coalition which constitutes the party, tended to assiduously by Alex Salmond, was fraying well before Sturgeon resigned and those divisions exploded for all to see. The party also lost its chief executive – Sturgeon’s husband – and its head of communications during an unseemly spat about the actual number of members it has, whilst there is an ongoing fraud investigation into the party’s finances. Does he have the skill – both political and personal – to patch it up? Plenty remain unconvinced.

Another challenge is keeping the Scottish Greens, the SNP’s erstwhile Holyrood coalition partners, on side. They have said they will step back from their agreement if Yousaf fails to challenge the UK Government on its recent decision to deny royal assent to controversial gender reforms. Meanwhile, in the background, the shadow of Alex Salmond looms large; he will revel in making life difficult for Sturgeon’s chosen pick.

A First Minister for all Scotland?

While popular with SNP members, Yousaf is decidedly more marmite amongst the broader Scottish population. Polling during the campaign – after the kerfuffle around Kate Forbes’ religious views – still found that voters preferred her to Yousaf; she had a favourability score of -8 with Yousaf on -20. One in five Scots view Yousaf positively which is less than half the favourability of Nicola Sturgeon.

Much of this is down to what can generously be described as a mixed record as a minister. Indeed, Yousaf seemed to spend most of the campaign apologising for things which have happened in the Scottish NHS under his watch. When Justice Secretary, his Hate Crime and Public Order Bill achieved the unique feat of uniting fans on both sides of Glasgow’s bitter football divide in condemnation and when he was Transport Minister, ScotRail was rapidly christened “ScotFail”. He has also had a hand in a ferry procurement fiasco which has seen hundreds of millions of public money spent on two rusting boats which are unlikely to sail anytime soon, depriving Scotland’s islands of a vital link to the mainland.

Alongside this, Yousaf can be gaffe prone; when Transport Minister, he was caught by police for driving a friend’s car without insurance and during the campaign, asked a group of female Ukrainian refugees “where all the men where”, with one having to point out that they were still at home, at the front.

A Labour revival?

During the campaign, one excited Labour source was quoted in The Times as saying “I hope Humza wins as he is f***ing s***e”. Conventional wisdom has it that SNP woe means Labour gains, and it is likely at the next General Election the SNP will lose some seats to Labour. However, Humza Yousaf will likely be more appealing to voters from the urban areas of Scotland than Kate Forbes could have possibly been. It would though be a mistake for Labour to think Sturgeon leaving the scene means victory in Scotland is inevitable; they need to start coming up with meaningful policies which distinguish them from the SNP on the economy and public services. However, the crucial battle in Scottish politics is now between Yousaf and his Labour counterpart Anas Sarwar, with both men educated at the same Glasgow private school.

What will business be thinking?

Promises of continuity from Bute House will likely chill the business community in Scotland given their poor relationship with Nicola Sturgeon. Yousaf has made vague promises around delivering a “wellbeing economy”, putting him at odds with Forbes who was more focused on driving growth. Yousaf – who is firmly from the activist wing of the SNP and with minimal corporate inclination or experience – gave mixed messages during the campaign; he scolded bigger businesses for their hesitance about the Scottish Government’s bottle deposit return scheme, yet said he would review proposed changes to alcohol advertising regulation. Yet, despite his victory, drams will not be getting poured in boardrooms of Edinburgh and Glasgow if he continues Sturgeon’s tendency to focus on the vibes rather than the actuality of economic policy. 

Independence on the table?

Yousaf has dropped Sturgeon’s plan to use the next general election as a de-facto referendum on independence. He has acknowledged there is no consistent, settled will in support for secession and in the short-term, seems unlikely to push the envelope on this.

Will Yousaf be able to be frank with the SNP membership that the promised land isn’t on the horizon anytime soon? Given Sturgeon failed to level with the membership, it is unlikely that Yousaf will either. The easiest way to shift the dial on independence would be to focus on the nuts and bolts of devolution and attempting to strike a cordial tone with the UK Government. The battle between pragmatism and populism in the SNP remains unresolved.

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