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28 April 2023

Could Kate Forbes make a comeback?

As Humza Yousaf’s leadership woes deepen, his old rival remains ready and willing to serve.

By Chris Deerin

Reality being as bad as it is, some SNP politicians have taken to daydreaming. “I keep imagining how things would have felt had they announced Kate as the winner that Monday morning,” one told me. “The party would have had a burst of energy. The government and maybe even the country would instantly have felt different. It would have been a moment of potential.”

Perhaps. Such has been the scandal swirling around the SNP in recent weeks that it’s hard to imagine any new leader getting much of a hearing. But at least Kate Forbes would have offered something genuinely fresh – a change in direction, an upscaling of ambition, a genuine break with an increasingly tarnished past.

For now at least, that will remain a daydream, something Forbes’ supporters can ponder fondly amid the flashing blue lights, appalling headlines and plummeting poll ratings. The selection of Humza Yousaf has offered no kind of fresh start, only a policy agenda that is little more than a rehash of the ancien régime’s obsessions and a cabinet stuffed with Nicola Sturgeon cronies and loyalist followers of the new First Minister.

The upside for the SNP in all this, if there is one, is that all the damage is being inflicted on those slavish Sturgeonites who committed themselves to the causes and reputation of the ex-leader. Those with something different to say, such as Forbes and her campaign manager Ivan McKee, are now on the backbenches – pretty far back, if you watch First Minister’s Questions. They are able to watch innocently as events take their tragic course. None of this was their doing: they offered another route and were rebuffed, if only just. Indeed, Sturgeon and her allies did everything they could to stop them. And so they have clean hands and clear consciences.

They are also at the heart of what I might suggest is a new and long overdue seriousness threatening to break out in Scottish politics. Holyrood has not really been a serious centre of government for many years. Setting aside the period of Covid and lockdown, it has been little more than a smoking battlefield of constitutional warfare, and a plaything for an administration that indulged its niche obsessions at the expense of anything approaching effectiveness in the most important policy areas.

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[See also: Could Labour give the SNP a second independence referendum?]

Forbes, McKee and their supporters in Edinburgh and London are not sitting on their hands, however. In essence, they are continuing to develop the programme outlined by the former finance secretary during her leadership campaign. They have already released one research paper through the pro-independence think tank Common Weal, which was an attempt to persuade its largely left-wing audience that the pursuit of economic growth is not a right-wing conspiracy or something that can be neglected, but rather the essential means to progressive ends. Given Sturgeon’s and now Yousaf’s melding of the SNP agenda with that of the leftist Scottish Greens, they have their work cut out, but credit to them for trying.

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There is more to come, too. Work is being done on ideas for public service reform and further papers will follow. “Humza may last another five years or be gone in five weeks,” said one source. “Nobody knows at this point.” The message is clear: Forbes, who would have been a considerably more popular choice with the general Scottish public, has not gone away. She is being nothing but publicly supportive of Yousaf, but in the not unthinkable event of his ousting – perhaps after an SNP collapse at next year’s general election, perhaps amid terrible polling ahead of the 2026 Holyrood election – she remains ready and willing.

Independent thought on the SNP backbenches is entirely novel but welcome after an era in which the party’s MSPs were treated as nothing more than lobby fodder, expected to do their leader’s bidding or else. The grossly mishandled gender-reform process and the daft proposal to treat next year’s election as a de facto referendum saw the nationalists’ famous unity shatter. Add to this Yousaf’s narrow victory, his early missteps and obvious limitations, and the police investigation into how the party has handled some of its funding, and it is hard to see nationalist hegemony returning.

Scottish Labour faces the prospect of significant gains at Westminster and the possibility, if still only that, of a return to government at Holyrood. This is forcing the party to do some hard thinking. Michael Marra, the new shadow finance secretary and general policy overseer, is attempting to inject some iron into the souls of his colleagues. His view is that there is no point in winning if you don’t then use power to do the right things. Don’t be just a version of the SNP without the independence fetish, desperate not to upset anyone or gamble any political capital. There are too many things wrong across the central responsibilities of government. The public can see this, and is ready for a grown-up conversation.

Marra knows there has to be more to a manifesto than just an offer to spend more money – which only ever turns into an undignified bidding war – and never-met pledges to hire 500 more teachers or 1,000 more doctors or one million more police officers or whatever. The school system is not working and the NHS is broken. Answers can be found by digging into the detail of how things work – or, more accurately, don’t – and then seeking to fix them. If that means tough decisions, if it means falling out with vested interests in order to provide a better service for the public, then that’s what has to happen. The private sector needs a break and a sympathetic hearing, which for all Yousaf’s warm words, is unlikely to come from him and his business-phobic coalition partners.

A new seriousness? It’s been so long that it’s difficult to remember what that feels like. But it might be coming all the same.

[See also: Scotland deserves better than the parliament it has]

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