The pretence that Humza Yousaf offered any kind of fresh start lasted all of ten minutes. In his short acceptance speech, delivered just after 2pm on 27 March, the new SNP leader had insisted there would be “no empty promises, no easy soundbites” and that his “immediate priority” would be to confront the cost-of-living crisis and reform NHS Scotland. Afterwards, as he mingled in the crowded function room in Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Yousaf told journalists that he would be asking Rishi Sunak “right away” for an independence referendum. Oh well: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Yousaf is Scotland’s first minority ethnic first minister and Muslim national leader, but these may be the only changes he represents. The early signs – confirming the concerns of his internal opponents and a near-majority of those SNP members who did not vote for him – suggest he will be every bit the Sturgeonite: spouting rhetoric about reform and governing for all Scots, but in reality pushing the independence campaign into what he’s calling “fifth gear”.
Yousaf finished the party leadership contest with a grim public approval rating of -20, according to Ipsos. His victory was narrow: having failed to secure more than 50 per cent support on first preferences, he beat Kate Forbes by 52-48 after the second preferences of Ash Regan’s supporters were re-allocated. This despite a campaign in which Yousaf was presented as the anointed one by Nicola Sturgeon’s outgoing regime, backed by nearly every major cabinet figure, and in which Forbes’s conservative religious and social views almost blew up her leadership bid on the launch pad. There had been dark threats of splits and resignations if Forbes had won, and yet she almost did it.
Some of the SNP high command supported Yousaf through gritted teeth and because they were told to. They might not share the scorn of his harshest critics – the new leader is a well-liked member of the team – but privately concede they would have preferred a better candidate. Despite being in government for ten years Yousaf, 37, has largely made headlines for his missteps at transport, justice and health. He lacks the alpha presence of Sturgeon or Alex Salmond, and is an ill-defined public figure.
Opposition parties are determined to provide that definition for him. Forbes’s best line in the leadership hustings will be deployed again: “You were transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister we’ve got record high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?”
That is what a seemingly unimpressed Scottish electorate is waiting to see. In the last days of Sturgeon’s reign, as her own missteps became more evident, support in the polls for independence and the SNP dropped, the first indication that the long era of nationalist rule may be waning. Despite this, Yousaf says he wants to press ahead with a Supreme Court challenge to the UK government’s section 35 order, which is preventing Sturgeon’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill from becoming law in Scotland.
Given that the controversial bill is widely disliked by the public – even a third of SNP voters welcomed Westminster’s intervention in one poll – this would be a dangerously divisive early move. But Yousaf is now in the position that if he U-turns, it will only suggest he lacks decisiveness.
Yousaf must urgently find a way to reunite a party that has been split wide open by a leadership contest during which several senior figures resigned, including Peter Murrell, the SNP’s long-serving chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, and John Swinney, the deputy first minister and general government consigliere.
The turnout among the party’s 72,000 members –a number that has dropped by more than 30,000 since 2021 – was 70 per cent, meaning that just over 50,000 votes were cast in the leadership contest. The winner received 26,032 votes, so only a third of the potential electorate chose him. Yousaf’s mandate is far from overwhelming, and the result suggests that there was greater internal unhappiness with the direction of travel under Sturgeon than anyone had realised.
There is particular concern about the role played by the Scottish Greens, the small, hard-left party taken into government in 2021 by Sturgeon, and which is seen as having had a significant influence on the policies that helped bring about her downfall. The Greens, opposed to economic growth and committed to the gender reform legislation, had threatened to quit the coalition had Forbes won, but say they will stay in under Yousaf.
While this ensures Yousaf will have a governing majority at Holyrood, his narrow victory means he will be forced to compromise on both policy and appointments; despite the angry clashes between them, Forbes is entitled to a big job. This will be a tough balance to strike.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties have the first minister they wanted. They were worried by Forbes’s candidacy, as she was viewed as the more capable and competent contender, and as such a genuine threat to the Union. Yousaf is not regarded as being on the same level. If Sturgeon, for all her sustained popularity and successive election victories, could not shift the dial on independence, there is little expectation that the new first minister can. The growing belief across the other parties is that, rather than driving Scotland out of the UK, or simply sustaining his party’s long hegemony, he will usher the SNP towards an exit from government. That remains to be seen.
Scottish Labour, in particular, sees Yousaf’s selection as opening the way to a comeback. Having been pushed to the periphery during the SNP’s 16 years of success, Labour is confident of taking as many as 20 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats at next year’s general election, which would put Scottish Labour in touching distance of the nationalists in time for the 2026 Holyrood election. Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet have been regular visitors north of the border in recent weeks as they seek to boost Labour’s profile in its former heartlands in the central belt.
Yousaf insists he wants to “govern well” and build support for independence among those Scots who have so far proved stubbornly resistant to the idea, but even if this is true, he will have little time to do much before that first big electoral test arrives. The question “what is Yousafism” feels faintly ridiculous, and is likely to remain so. There is talk in SNP circles that he is merely a “holding” leader and will be replaced if seats are lost at the general election. Kate Forbes may fancy her chances at a re-run; Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former Westminster leader who decided not to challenge this time, would surely be a contender; Stephen Flynn, the SNP leader at Westminster, might head back to Holyrood.
Scotland’s new First Minister will either meet or confound these low expectations. Amid all the uncertainty and doubts, independence seems even further away than it did in 2014.
The undoing of Nicola Sturgeon
Why the battle for the Union is far from over
Are we witnessing the strange rebirth of Scottish Labour?
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special