This itself will be the culmination of the “summer of independence” campaign that was initiated by the First Minister in late June, when party members gathered in Dundee for a special convention on the matter closest to their fiery tartan hearts. A few lively months of “leafleting, canvassing and regional assemblies” were promised.
Having proclaimed himself “first activist”, Yousaf has since been pictured in towns and cities across Scotland, batting his eyelashes, shaking countless hands and playing peek-a-boo with babies as he tries to reignite dwindling public interest in yet another push towards “freedom”. The SNP leadership contest that he so narrowly won suggested that party members are unwilling to settle for a longer, more patient game. Whether the Scottish population wants more of the same or not, they’re going to get it.
It’s tempting to wonder how this is playing with exhausted parliamentarians, who might have been looking forward to a rest during recess. The smarter ones are perfectly aware that the independence drive is over for now, and must feel like actors contracted to promote an expensive movie they know is dismal.
But Yousaf and his team are also mindful of an earlier, arguably more important date. The Scottish government’s programme must be published, as it is every year, at the beginning of September. This will be the last full 12-month period available to the SNP before the next general election, which is expected to be held in autumn 2024.
So far, the polls suggest the party is in trouble: Scottish Labour stands to win as many as 23 seats, which if achieved would put it on a roughly equal footing with the SNP, which currently holds 44 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Most of Labour’s gains are predicted to be from the SNP.
Yousaf has already made one attempt at setting out a defining agenda. In April, less than a month after succeeding Nicola Sturgeon, he delivered a speech to Holyrood grandly titled “New Leadership, A Fresh Start for Scotland”. This was billed as the new man’s moment to show the country what he was made of – policies that would illustrate why he had the qualities for the top job, whatever doubts the electorate and many members of his own party might hold.
It didn’t help that on the morning the speech was to be delivered Colin Beattie, the SNP treasurer, was arrested by police investigating alleged funding irregularities in the party accounts. Beattie was released without charge pending further inquiries later the same day, but the damage was done. Yousaf’s big day was fatally overshadowed.
Given the paucity of the statement’s content, this was not necessarily a bad thing. The “fresh start” amounted in large part to cleaning up the mess left behind by Sturgeon: her unfunded idea for a national care service was withdrawn, as were plans for a restriction on alcohol advertising; a proposed bottle return scheme was delayed. Yousaf committed vaguely to tackling child poverty, which was already a Sturgeon priority. Perhaps the only truly eye-catching announcement was the intention to rejoin international education comparison studies, and even this was a reversal of a previous SNP decision to withdraw.
In the three months since, it hasn’t got much clearer what drives Yousaf beyond his desire for the top job and the limousine life. The police investigation continues to dominate headlines. The independence movement is fracturing – as seen on Wednesday (12 July) by the MP Angus MacNeil’s refusal to retake the SNP whip after a one-week suspension.
The First Minister is attempting to fix his party’s terrible relationship with the business community, but these efforts are at an early stage and it’s hard to see a meeting of minds emerging. Proposed education reforms are pallid, while the NHS crisis is so far unaddressed. Yousaf has often seemed caught between pursuing sensible policy options and keeping the left-wing Greens in his governing coalition.
This, then, is what September is for: to show there’s more to Yousaf than has so far met the eye. “He’s got until September’s programme statement to tell us what he’s for,” says a senior SNP source who is not unsympathetic to the First Minister. That this statement is still being made, even by his supporters, tells its own story. On the upside, says a minister, “he is genuinely listening to ideas, far more than Nicola ever did. It’s quite refreshing.”
The inner circle has been strengthened to meet the challenge. The respected, veteran SNP adviser Kevin Pringle has returned from the world of PR, while Laura Westring, a children’s author and former European Commission official, is the new Bute House speechwriter. Ellis Watson, a media executive, was recruited in January by Sturgeon as chief business adviser and is driving Yousaf’s attempt to win over the private sector.
After 16 years in power the SNP unsurprisingly looks politically exhausted. Sturgeon’s policy priorities in her latter years detached the party from middle Scotland, and her successor is showing little sign that he knows how to put that right. The First Minister must avoid humiliation at the general election, which would further weaken his position, and then at the next Holyrood vote in 2026, which would be politically fatal for him. Having something substantial to say to the country in September matters rather more than whatever red meat he throws at his party in October.
[See also: The humiliation of the populists]