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  1. Politics
  2. Scotland
5 September 2023

Humza Yousaf has nothing to offer but reheated Sturgeonism

The First Minister’s anaemic, underwhelming Programme for Government won’t fill Scotland’s political void.

By Chris Deerin

This was the speech that would tell us who Humza Yousaf really is. It was the moment that would ignite rocket boosters under his so-far Earth-bound government. Such was the pre-match hype.

In the event, the speech did more to achieve the first of these goals than the second. The two facts are not unrelated.

It is hard to see Yousaf’s first Programme for Government amounting to more than reheated Sturgeonism. Her priorities remain his, just as he shares many of her blind spots. It was notable that the predecessor he once professed to admire so much and name-checked so often was not mentioned – the ongoing police investigation into the SNP’s finances may have something to do with that. But in every other sense this was the continuity candidate, well, continuing.

Yousaf has grown a little since taking over in March. His outfits are less gallus, his delivery smoother and more assured. But ultimately, looking and sounding like a first minister is only one part of the gig. After 16 years of SNP flash and bang, of slick prestidigitation and lamentable delivery, he will and should be judged by fatigued voters on content and outcomes – on the difference he is able to make to a people bending under the strain of the cost-of-living crisis, overwhelmed public services and rising taxes, and looking for some sort of hopeful vision.

Yousaf sought to display some fire in his belly – he was “unashamedly” this and “unapologetically” that. His measures to tackle poverty and climate change were draped in the language of moral crusades.

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He was also, he insisted, committed to boosting the performance of Scottish business and the economy. “There is no doubt in my mind that economic growth goes hand-in-hand with tackling poverty,” he said. “Let me be… clear, without any equivocation, we need to support economic growth.” This was an emphasis you rarely heard from Sturgeon, and it must have discomfited his aggressively anti-growth coalition partners, the Scottish Greens.

Does it amount to anything more than rhetoric, though? When it came to policy measures the gruel was disappointingly thin. There was too much “we will continue to” and “we will work with” and not enough “we will deliver X by Y”. Too much “I wanna” and too little “I’m gonna”.

The meat can be quickly detailed. There will be legislation to criminalise misogynistic abuse. In six council areas, childcare will be extended to cover the ages of nine months through to the end of primary school. Free school meals will be extended to pupils in primaries six and seven (Years 5 and 6 in England and Wales) who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment, though not, the fine print revealed, until 2026. Funding will be made available to ensure a minimum wage of £12 an hour for social-care and childcare workers. More pregnant mothers and children will receive financial support for milk and healthy food.

Yousaf plans to halve the time taken for onshore wind projects to gain consent. And a ban on single-use vapes, which are especially popular among children, will be examined. 

But on education, there was nothing new. On the NHS, there was a promise to cut waiting times but no indication of how that might be achieved, and no hint of the long-term reforms that are so badly needed. Long-term rent controls were promised, despite evidence that what was introduced as a temporary measure is seriously damaging the rental market. Did the ambition of the programme really live up to the scale of the battles we face?

Intriguingly, though the First Minister talked a great deal about reducing inequality for women and disabled people, there was no mention of the battle over trans rights that caused so much trouble for Sturgeon, or any indication that his government would return to the issue in the coming year. And on the constitution there was pleasingly no empty promise of an independence referendum next week or next month or next year.

But even where Yousaf has promised action, such has been the poor delivery record of the government, especially in recent years, that there must be doubts it will follow through. And there was, undeniably, an awful lot of hand-waving mañana in the statement.

With the SNP falling in the polls and in all sorts of bother, the electorate is waiting for Yousaf to prove he has the right stuff to be a national leader. They are looking, in the main, for signs of cutting edge and intellectual heft. After this anaemic, underwhelming Programme for Government, most will still be looking.

[See also: Scotland has been left with the worst of both worlds]

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