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7 March 2023

Will the SNP leadership candidates ever talk about anything other than independence?

The first TV debate neglected the real economic and social problems facing Scotland.

By Chris Deerin

The SNP has “lost its way”, according to Ash Regan. “More of the same is not a manifesto, it’s an acceptance of mediocrity,” said Kate Forbes. Nicola Sturgeon is “the finest politician on these islands”, argued Humza Yousaf.

Clearly, they can’t all be right, but then there was a fair amount of disagreement during Tuesday night’s first televised debate between the three candidates running to become SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister. That only one of them is an out-and-out Sturgeon fan proves something has gone very wrong in Natland.

Such is Yousaf’s explicit commitment to continuing the Sturgeon agenda – he constantly spouts vacuous phrases such as “wellbeing economy” and “progressive agenda” – that sources tell me people extremely close to the departing First Minister are ringing round urging votes for him. That would be a shameful abuse of power and a disavowal of neutrality, obviously, so I’m sure my sources are ill-informed.

What did the public see? Regan, who is in a distant third place, seemed breathless throughout, as if she was either going to sprint from the stage in panic or lay out one of her opponents with a stiff right hook. When asked to talk about policy she gave the impression of vaguely recalling the contents of briefing notes that may recently have been waved in front of her.

[See also: Why Kate Forbes just won’t quit]

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Forbes, the finance secretary, is the peppy primary teacher who is looking to become headmistress at a remarkably young age (32). Polished, eloquent and full of the kind of vim that you find among the more annoying Parkrun enthusiasts on weekend mornings, she is the policy one.

Yousaf, the health secretary, as well as being Sturgeon’s man, has something of the One Show presenter or the cheesy boyband member about him. When he’s about to deliver a line that he wants to come across as particularly heartfelt, he narrows his eyes and softens his voice – he should have been sitting on a stool so he could stand up for the chorus.

It may be the SNP’s 104,000 members who choose our next first minister, but last night was a chance for the candidates to speak to the electorate at large through the medium of STV. It was kind of the ruling party to give the rest of us a peek, a wee idea of what we might be getting. Perhaps, we mused in advance, there would be an expansive discussion about how the NHS crisis would be addressed or the ailing schools system improved?

What were we thinking? This is the SNP – around 95 per cent of the hour was focused on Scottish independence. How it would be won, when it would be won, and who would best win it.

Yousaf said he was his own man, then argued that he was the only candidate who would stand up to Westminster over the order blocking Sturgeon’s gender reform bill. The other two pointed out that he would lose. “Every single election we fight will be fought on independence!” he roared, forgetting to narrow his eyes and soften his tone. “We are at a tipping point – I will be able to get us over that tipping point.” He was asked how he would do that. “Socially just policies will inspire people,” he insisted, as if we haven’t just had eight years of “socially just policies” that have left the independence movement roughly where it was in 2014.

Yousaf is also the only one of the three to insist that he would keep the leftist Scottish Greens in government with the SNP. That the Greens effectively destroyed Sturgeon’s leadership within a year of joining her administration, as the tail wagged the dog with what amounted to terminal velocity, doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. It’s clear that both Forbes and Regan would have the fumigators round on day one. As Forbes put it: “I would put economic prosperity front and centre. It’s up to [the Greens] whether they can live with the approach I’m taking to economic growth.”

There are three more televised debates to go. Who knows whether the candidates will ever talk about anything other than independence. Will Yousaf finally get that stool, and will Regan finally boil over and kung fu kick him straight off it? That, at least, would be worth watching.

[See also: Could Kate Forbes yet defy the SNP machine and win the leadership?]

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