How not to relaunch a government, by Humza Yousaf, aged 38 and 11 days. This wasn’t the title of the First Minister’s speech to Holyrood today, but it might as well have been.
One can’t of course blame Yousaf for the travails currently erupting underneath his party like a particularly enraged squad of Dune sandworms. New controversies and horrible headlines are bursting loose on a daily basis, the latest being the arrest of Colin Beattie today (18 April), an MSP who was also the SNP’s long-standing treasurer during the reign of Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell. The party is in the deepest of holes.
But Yousaf seems to lack anything resembling a ladder, and does himself no favours. In a press huddle before his speech, he issued a series of ill-advised comments to delight the most jaded of hacks, including “I’m always surprised when one of my colleagues is arrested”, and “I’ll need to speak to Colin. My understanding is he’s still in the police station being questioned.” There’s nothing like Tony Blair-level slickness in a crisis, and this was nothing like it.
Then it was on to the meat of the afternoon: his “policy prospectus”, grandly named “New leadership, a fresh start for Scotland”. God loves a trier, even if it takes some chutzpah to blame all of Scotland’s ills on Westminster after 16 years of anaemic, risk-averse SNP government and months of nationalist disarray. Yousaf is nothing if not brazen. “The UK government’s economic mismanagement, which is harming people and hurting businesses across the country” was joined on the charge sheet by “a hard Brexit”, a “disastrous… mini-Budget”, “UK government spending decisions” and Scotland‘s “lack of borrowing powers”. His audience was driven to imagine how great things would be if Yousaf and his colleagues had been free to impose their full will on a Scotland entirely liberated from London’s yoke. After all, look at the wonders they’ve achieved with the powers they already have…
The new First Minister needed this speech, and he needed it to work, even if he really, really didn’t need Colin Beattie to be lifted on the same day. So far, his short term in office has passed in a bad dream of scandal and prime-time crime-series imagery. Few had many expectations of him to start with, but he has lacked the space to live down even to those. If he is to confound his doubters – ie, the opposition parties, many of his own backbenchers, tens of thousands of SNP members and a large proportion of the Scottish public – then he needed to show there was a purpose to his elevation beyond his elevation.
Yousaf, who has seemed wholly in hock to his tiny coalition partners, the Scottish Greens, made it clear in a speech to the Scottish Trades Union Congress on Monday (17 April) that he intends to further increase the tax burden on Scots – those earning more than £28,000 already pay a higher level of income tax than workers elsewhere in the UK. It remains a matter of speculation as to the level that will persuade the better off to start reconsidering their presence north of the border, but the First Minister seems determined to find it. “We need to be even bolder on taxation,” he told MSPs today. He then hinted he will hand control of fiscal policy to anti-poverty campaigners, which would be a noble if perhaps electorally challenging strategy.
There was some common sense, though it was scarcely avoidable. The deposit return scheme, which has caused the Scottish government’s already disastrous relationship with the business community to reach previously uncharted depths, will be delayed by a year. This was in fact the British government’s fault, Yousaf said with a straight face. Similarly, restrictions on alcohol advertising will go “back to the drawing board”, and plans for a national care service will be rethought. In a few sentences, three of Nicola Sturgeon’s key, if most misguided, policies were kicked into the long grass, even if no blame was attached to the embattled former first minister.
Despite this, Sturgeon’s ears must have been burning. Yousaf will also take Scotland back into the international education comparator studies, something his predecessor stoutly if bafflingly refused to do. This is welcome, and will provide baseline data that helps us better understand the performance of school pupils in Scotland. Much harder steps are required however if the decline of a once-proud education system is to be turned around. There was little sign of those.
There was more, largely based around spending money that the Scottish government does not have, or must remove from other budgets to fund. None of it was particularly inspiring, or challenging – just progressive politics by numbers, as we’ve come to expect from the SNP.
Yousaf was tetchy during much of his speech, an unstatesmanlike habit he seems unable to shake. But perhaps he shouldn’t be blamed for that – after all, his heroes are disappearing into the pit, and appear to be dragging him down with them.