A New Era: Humza Yousaf elected leader of the SNP

Posted on: March 27th, 2023 by Morgan Arnold

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.

Political Insider: The Windsor Framework

Posted on: February 28th, 2023 by Morgan Arnold

The Merry Dealmakers of Windsor

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the President of the EU Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, struck a joyful tone when unveiling the details of the Windsor Framework. Sunak hailed a “new chapter” in UK-EU relations, while Von der Leyen even referred to her counterpart as “dear Rishi”. Their hope is that the deal will end years of stalemate and smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

What is in the deal?

  • A green lane for those sending goods to Northern Ireland from the UK, while those exporting onwards will go through a red lane with full EU customs clearance in Northern Irish ports
  • In a change from the existing Protocol, UK VAT and excise changes will apply in Northern Ireland
  • Drugs approved by the UK regulator will be available in Northern Ireland
  • A new emergency brake for the Northern Ireland Assembly which can be pulled in exceptional circumstances to opt Northern Ireland out of future single market legislation. This will require 30 of the 90 members from at least two parties in the Assembly to vote for this and will then be subject to further discission at an EU-UK level. This has been described as the “Stormont Brake”
  • The EU has said that should the deal be implemented, the UK will be able to re-enter the Horizon science programme
  • The UK Government has abandoned the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, introduced by Boris Johnson to unilaterally scrap it. In turn, the EU has dropped corresponding legal action against the UK

Are people happy?

Sunak gave a confident performance in the House of Commons and he will hope this is the reset his leadership needed. None of the usually loud Eurosceptic voices on the backbenches came out and denounced the deal, though many are unlikely to have had the chance to scrutinise it in full detail. The ominous silence from Boris Johnson, who has just seen his “oven ready Brexit deal” junked in the most public way, will be worth watching. Labour were true to their word in saying that they would support the deal the Government got. On the outside, many have praised the skill of the UK negotiating team for having got the EU to move on some of its crucial red lines.

Is Brexit finally done then?

Not quite. The Democratic Unionist Party are still reading through the document and, having been stung by the devil hiding amidst the detail of previous UK-EU deals, will be going through it with a fine toothcomb. One problem appears to have emerged early on – how the so-called “Stormont Brake” will work. Ian Paisley, the party’s MP for North Antrim, has said that in his view the European Court of Justice will remain the final arbiter and it is therefore not really a veto at all.

It is worth noting however that Paisley is prone to the odd solo run and that his party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has been cautious in his response so far. Ultimately, the success of the deal hinges on the DUP feeling confident enough that they can resume power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, there are quibbles starting to emerge about how much bureaucracy has actually been cut back by the Framework, though it is worth noting the major business organisations in Northern Ireland are broadly happy.  Former DUP leader at Westminster Nigel Dodds has also pointed out that the Government appear to have oversold how much the deal will allow Northern Ireland to benefit from UK state aid decisions.

What happens next?

The various parties involved will be given time to chew through the document. While a vote in the House of Commons is not scheduled to take place imminently, the real focus is on events in Belfast. Sunak, who is in Northern Ireland today to sell the deal, will be hoping that he has done enough, though hardliners in unionism will hold the DUP’s feet to the fire in the coming days.

Could this be a turning point for Rishi Sunak?

Sunak will feel pleased that his more constructive approach to negotiating compared with that of previous UK Governments has led somewhere. Mass ministerial resignations have not materialised and for the moment, the ERG are on side. Movement on the Protocol should in theory allow for movement on other shared areas of interest with the EU, such the small boats crisis. If this starts a sequence of policy wins, then he and others around him may feel that the electoral tide may yet shift. However, with the DUP as yet undecided, the tentatively positive mood of today could quickly turn dark.

Andrew has written an opinion piece for The Spectator’s Coffee House considering how unionist politicians will respond in the coming days which can be read here

Political Insider: Sturgeon resigns: where does Scotland go from here?

Posted on: February 15th, 2023 by Morgan Arnold

What’s happened?

The end of an era in Scottish and British politics. Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she is to stand down as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party. Under her, the party has become the immovable object at the heart of Scottish political life. Yet, for all that electoral success and the personal recognition which came with it, Sturgeon failed to shift the dial on the fundamental objective of separating Scotland from the rest of the UK.

Why has it happened?

Sturgeon herself said her resignation was not a reaction to “short-term” issues and rationalised her decision in terms similar to those offered by Jacinda Arden following her departure as Prime Minister of New Zealand. But what is really at play?

Referendum ructions

There have been rumblings over recent months that the end game had started for Sturgeon but many within the nationalist movement will be shocked by the speed of events. The Supreme Court ruling towards the end of 2022 that the Scottish Parliament could not hold a unilateral referendum on independence ignited unparalleled dissent in recent SNP history, with MPs and MSPs railing against Sturgeon’s plan to treat the next general election as a de facto referendum. Acknowledging this, Sturgeon has said the SNP will be “free” to decide a new course at its special conference on its independence strategy in March.

Discontent at Westminster

The ousting of her close associate Ian Blackford from his role as SNP Leader at Westminster and the subsequent election of Stephen Flynn – the Aberdeen MP who is reported to have described Sturgeon’s position on North Sea oil as “crazy” – was a sign that her previous iron grip was loosening.

Grim polling

Recent polling will have worried Sturgeon and her tight-knit group of advisers. Research by Lord Ashcroft for the Scottish political journal Holyrood found half of SNP voters believed Sturgeon’s plan to treat the next general election as a de facto independence referendum was not credible and also found that the unionist side had a 12-point lead on the question of independence. Her former mentor and now erstwhile foe, Alex Salmond, has reacted to her departure by saying that squandering the impetus towards independence will be her legacy.

Not so Bonnie Scotland

While internal SNP machinations over the road to independence are the underlying factor, the end of the Sturgeon era has been hastened by what some will view as a wider malaise in Scottish public life. A faltering health service, spiralling drugs deaths, the diminishment of Scottish education and failures in public procurement – such as the botched attempt to replace the ferries serving Scotland’s islands which has cost the Scottish tax payer £500m – are emblematic examples her opponents will point to.

Rishi Sunak is not the only politician facing allegations of presiding over a culture of sleaze. The SNP’s finances are under investigation and Sturgeon’s husband, the SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell, is at the centre of the issue. With the SNP keen to create the impression that it is somehow more moral and just than Westminster, this and the legacy of the Alex Salmond court case and various other scandals have diminished that carefully constructed narrative.

However, the fallout from the Scottish Government’s gender recognition reforms have proven particularly toxic; footage of Sturgeon stumbling over her words when asked whether a convicted double rapist, who had transitioned after the crimes were committed, was a man or a woman was excruciating viewing. For many, the whole issue of gender reform has shown fundamental faults with the way the Scottish Government develops and delivers policy.

Despite this, Sturgeon said she remained confident that Scotland was on the cusp of independence. It will be up to her replacement to prove that point.

 Who replaces her?

The timings of the leadership election are a matter for the SNP’s National Executive Committee, with those details to be set out in the next few days. In her resignation statement, Sturgeon did suggest that a less polarising figure than her may be best placed to deliver independence; the slight issue in that diagnosis is that there is no candidate of similar stature readymade to fill those shoes and, like it or not, the constitution will be inherently divisive regardless of the players involved.

A consequence of Sturgeon’s style of politics – a top-down approach to devising policy and her being front and centre of seemingly all SNP and Scottish Government communications – means that very few of her ministers have any meaningful public profile.

The early front runner appears to be Kate Forbes, the 32 year old Finance Secretary who has said she is refreshed and ready to go after maternity leave. Subject of some sympathetic profiles in the press recently, her candidacy may be hobbled by her strongly held Presbyterian beliefs which run counter to a membership which is largely more liberal on issues such as abortion and transgender rights. Where she sits on the latter issue in particular, will be crucial.

Angus Robertson, the party’s former Westminster leader and now an MSP, has never been short in coming forward and will likely enter the contest. Humza Yousaf, viewed by many as a potential successor a few years ago is now regarded as somewhat gaffe prone having underperformed across various portfolios including Health, Transport and Justice.

Sturgeon said the election contest will allow the Scottish public to see the “array of talent” on offer in the SNP. With 69% of participants in a poll at the weekend for the Sunday Times plumping for “don’t know” when asked who should replace Sturgeon, that talent does not seem immediately obvious. Fundamentally, whichever has the most compelling offer on how to get independence will win the day.

What next?

What are the immediate issues arising from today’s shock development?

New SNP Strategy

Whoever wins will have two clear long-term challenges. Emerge from Sturgeon’s shadow and somehow chart a plausible way of convincing the UK Government to allow a referendum, which Sturgeon found akin to pushing water uphill. For a party which has under both Salmond and Sturgeon presented a united front, a competitive elections process will have the unfortunate consequence of airing years of built up grievance in public.

In the short-term, they will need to urgently solve the Gordian knot of the gender reform issue; this is as essential as agreeing on a path to independence. To persist with a demonstrably controversial and ill-thought out policy will continue to prove repellent to middle Scotland and many nationalists. Its potential to do serious electoral damage cannot be underplayed.

Sturgeon spoke about the need to have a more rational and dispassionate discourse in Scotland. Sturgeon herself used phrases like “democracy deniers” to describe unionist politicians and said in an interview she “detests Conservatives”. A more measured approach from her successor would help achieve that. For the Conservatives in Scotland, they have in effect lost their most effective recruiting sergeant. No.10 will be hoping for a leader who pursues a more conciliatory tone.

Building bridges with business

The new First Minister will have to reset the Scottish Government’s relationship with business. Many movers and shakers in Edinburgh and Glasgow feel as though policy is made in a vacuum and that Sturgeon took no heed of the realities of corporate life; the botched implementation of a new deposit return scheme and planned restrictions on alcohol advertising are the latest battle grounds. Many feel that come the next Holyrood election, the SNP should junk their current working arrangement with the Scottish Greens who are viewed as forcing the party to tack to the left on too many issues.

Can Labour win back Scotland?

Today is a big opportunity for Keir Starmer. Scotland is essential to Labour’s prospects and their analysis is Sturgeon’s persona wedded many of their former voters to the SNP. Her departure from the stage has been described by Scottish Labour stalwart Jim Murphy as a “very significant moment in the election of a majority Labour government”. Until now, the Starmer bounce has been somewhat more tentative in Scotland and Labour’s offer to the Scottish electorate remains vague – unkind observers have described it as SNP-lite, especially since Labour have been broadly supportive of the SNP on the question of gender reform. Some thought on what a progressive, unionist agenda means in Scotland is needed.