Scotland has laboured under a yellow weather warning for much of this week, which at least proves the Almighty has a sense of humour. For yellow is the colour of Scotland’s governing party, where the temperature is icy and the forecast is for blizzards ahead.
Is the phrase “SNP civil war” too strong? After all, leadership contests are often brutal affairs for any political party. There are matters of real substance at issue, too: Humza Yousaf thinks Nicola Sturgeon has been doing just fine, so more of the same is all that is required; Kate Forbes bluntly disagrees, and is pushing for a major reset; Ash Regan wants to erect an “independence thermometer”, which seems to amount to a sort of doomsday clock in Glasgow’s George Square.
Labour and the Conservatives have of course seen their share of bloody internal politics in recent times. But this is the SNP. For two decades or so, its ruling junta has enforced a decree of mute loyalty on the party. It was inevitable that when the lid finally came off it was going to be explosive.
[See also: Why Kate Forbes just won’t quit]
The hustings have been astonishing. After weeks of being pilloried by erstwhile colleagues for her religious views, Finance Secretary Forbes has come out punching. “More of the same is not a manifesto, it’s an acceptance of mediocrity,” she chided Yousaf, adding: “You were a 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.”
Yousaf acts the injured party, but he has repeatedly weaponised Forbes’s conservative views on abortion and equal marriage, and argued that she would represent an unacceptable shift to the right. He insists that her criticism of him means the Tories are “rooting for you to win so that your words are on every single leaflet” – though those leaflets would be considerably more effective were Yousaf to become first minister.
Sturgeon and her outgoing deputy John Swinney have made it all too clear that they want Yousaf, as the continuity candidate, to succeed. Shona Robison, the Social Justice Secretary and an arch Sturgeon loyalist, has said she would have to think long and hard about serving in a Forbes administration. A series of bravely anonymous ministers have echoed the sentiment. Mhairi Black, the party’s deputy leader at Westminster, has warned of a possible split. It has all amounted to a pretty distasteful “stop Forbes” campaign.
And yet the country and even SNP voters seem to be taking a different view. Forbes hardly comes across as a fire-breathing, John Knox type. She is tiny, young (32), highly likeable and more thoughtful than your average politician. Oh, and pragmatically centrist, with a Gordon Brown-esque pledge to end poverty as the main plank of her campaign. If the Sturgeonites fear for their legacy, then they might consider that had they governed better over the past eight years (“we won all the elections” – yes, but to what end?) their preferred candidate would be walking it.
Instead, polls show the public favour the Finance Secretary over the other contenders, and that nationalist voters are evenly split. This has sent HQ into a state of panic: it was not meant to be like this. Party members were expected to do what they were told. Not only is Forbes still competing, but she may well edge it: under the single transferrable vote system she is likely to absorb the majority of Regan’s support when the latter, as third-placed candidate, drops out.
What would happen then? From my perspective, Scotland would have a government with greater economic focus and higher ambitions for the performance of public services. I’m not sure I could say the same of a Yousaf administration, although I hope he’d prove me wrong in the event.
A Forbes government would look different too. Alex Neil, a supporter and former SNP health secretary, tweeted that “the real question” facing potential ministerial refuseniks “is whether they merit a position anyway… I wonder if they’ll still be saying that when she wins. I suspect they’ll be queuing up for jobs and will somehow manage to swallow their pride.” It’s hard to imagine why someone like Robison, who has owed her prominent position to her friendship with the outgoing first minister, would be considered. The new cabinet would probably see big jobs for the younger generation, including rising stars such as Tom Arthur, Màiri McAllan and Ben Macpherson.
The view among Forbes’s supporters, which appears to be supported by the polls, is that she is the candidate most likely to appeal to those Scots currently opposed to independence. She has talked of using patience and “gentle persuasion”, where Sturgeon deployed a battering ram. She argues that better-performing health and education systems, and an economy returned to economic growth, would do more to bring voters onside than an existing strategy that has left support for independence around the same level as in the 2014 referendum. Any SNP member who prizes winning independence over ideological purity should find it hard to disagree with any of this. We shall see.