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Scotland’s spring of discontent

Doubts are growing over Humza Yousaf’s leadership of the SNP. Will he be ousted before the next Holyrood election in 2026?

By New Statesman

Next month marks 17 years since the Scottish National Party’s first Scottish Parliament election victory. The result was the beginning of a remarkable period of political hegemony. Few parties in the Western world can match its record of four consecutive victories – one that would have astonished the founding fathers of devolution.

But for the SNP, there is little cause for celebration. Its opinion poll ratings have plummeted, its former chief executive Peter Murrell has been charged with embezzlement and its power-sharing agreement with the Greens is close to collapse. The political tensions and contradictions that First Minister Humza Yousaf sought to contain have erupted into the open.

On 19 April, the Scottish Greens announced that they would hold a vote on the future of the Bute House Agreement, which was signed in 2021 and led to Green ministers holding office. The trigger was the administration’s decision to abandon its unfeasible pledge to cut carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030. Other policy disagreements include the pause in the use of puberty blockers at Scotland’s only gender clinic and the freeze in council tax.

The Bute House Agreement has served as a proxy for the wider struggle over the SNP’s future. In an interview with the New Statesman last December, Kate Forbes, who narrowly lost to Yousaf by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in the 2023 leadership contest, called for the agreement to be repealed. “We were elected on a SNP manifesto, not a Green Party manifesto or the Bute House Agreement,” Forbes said. She dislikes the ultra-progressivism of the Greens. “Nearly all the issues that have lost us support in the last year are found in the Bute House Agreement and not in the SNP manifesto.”

The SNP has long been an umbrella under which different political interests and factions have sheltered: socialists, liberals, conservatives. All have been united by the overriding aim of Scottish independence. But the Greens have upset this delicate balance. Ms Forbes cited their desire to “overregulate rural communities” and to “hike taxes to a rate that will ultimately reduce public revenue” as issues that had cost the government support. (All those earning over £28,000 pay more tax in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.)

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The Greens’ absolutist position on transgender rights has alienated another crucial section of the SNP coalition. They championed the doomed Gender Recognition Reform Bill and have refused to accept the recommendations of the evidence-based Cass Review into children’s gender care.

Rather than allowing the Scottish Greens to take the initiative, Mr Yousaf should salvage some dignity and end the agreement himself. He should further repeal the new hate crime law, which threatens free expression and betrays the liberal ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment.

As the former first minister Nicola Sturgeon writes in her piece on Salman Rushdie on page 30, “Rushdie argues that the abandonment by progressive forces of the right of individual free speech in favour of the protection of the sensibilities of vulnerable groups has allowed its weaponisation by the far right – it has become ‘a kind of freedom for bigotry’. In the midst of our modern-day debates about the rights and limits of free speech, we should pay attention to his words.”

But Mr Yousaf, whose approval rating has fallen to minus 32, is not a nimble politician. “I really, really value the Bute House Agreement,” he said after the Greens’ announcement of an emergency vote.

As internal discontent with Mr Yousaf’s leadership grows, the question is whether he will be ousted before the next Holyrood election in 2026. Scottish Labour, which once appeared politically moribund, is now tied with the SNP in Westminster polling and will aim to recapture Bute House.

But unionists should not draw false comfort from the SNP’s struggles. In spite of the party’s malaise, support for Scottish independence has remained largely consistent (at around 44 per cent). There is no prospect of a return to the pre-2014 referendum status quo.

Antipathy towards the SNP does not amount to a Westminster endorsement. As Labour seeks to repair the fragile Union, it must remember this lesson above all.

[See also: The new age of global threats]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger