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What the plot against Humza Yousaf reveals

The Scottish First Minister is drowning, not waving.

By Chris Deerin

Say what you will about Humza Yousaf, but he’s certainly putting in the hours campaigning for independence. Having launched his “summer of independence” late last month, the self-proclaimed First Activist has been sacrificing his weekends to the good fight.

At the weekend, he was in Dundee – billed as “Scotland’s Yes City”, which might put sensitive Glaswegian noses out of joint – and the Highlands. He spent a recent Saturday in Lanarkshire, too. Unsuspecting weekend shoppers will be collared elsewhere in the coming weeks by a beaming First Minister with a mirage to sell them.

Like a thirsty man spying an oasis in the desert, it seems like the harder Yousaf runs, the further away the prospect of independence drifts. But as the SNP crackles into flames around him, independence is at least something to focus on. On Thursday (27 July) he will publish the latest in an underwhelming series of Scottish government papers on independence, this time on citizenship. Think of it as a distraction technique.

It can be taken as a sign of weakness rather than strength that the Nats are expending so much energy on their core policy at the moment. The NHS is listing dangerously, the economy is moribund, the police investigation into SNP funding is coming to a conclusion, and Yousaf is confronted by a growing list of political mini-crises. But there doesn’t seem to be much he thinks he can do about any of that. If independence is some way down the priority list of voters, it is at least familiar territory.

Familiar, but not necessarily safe. Many party members remain unreconciled to his four-month reign. His victory in the leadership contest was painfully narrow, and he is identified – indeed, has identified himself – as the last regime’s continuity candidate. As the long arm of the law has descended on key members of that regime, this increasingly looks to have been an unwise positioning.

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The warring independence movement, aware that its 16-year moment of possibility is drawing to a close, will not remove its teeth from Yousaf’s ankle. This week, Chris Hanlon, secretary of the SNP’s West Fife and Coastal Villages branch, announced that he wants to stand for the leadership and is seeking the 100 nominations he needs to spark another contest.

Hanlon is an obscure figure and will probably remain so. His challenge seems more about putting the frighteners on the high command than finding himself in Bute House with a nation to run. “I don’t really want to stand against Humza but I will if he keeps making up his own policies and won’t listen to members,” he told the Times.

Nevertheless, such strife doesn’t occur in contented parties. Like Hanlon, many members want the SNP to be run along more democratic lines, after the command and control that characterised the Nicola Sturgeon era. Yousaf has previously promised it will be, but that doesn’t seem to have done the trick. 

But giving control over policy to a mass movement is a mad idea; a recipe for (even more) chaos. A strong leader would not have to deal with this kind of internal pressure. It all speaks to a sense that Yousaf, for all his energetic attempts to keep the independence campaign afloat, is drowning rather than waving.

[See also: Inside the Tory assassination bureau]

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