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29 April 2024

Will the SNP finally return to Earth?

After Humza Yousaf’s resignation, the party faces a choice between ideology and political sense.

By Chris Deerin

Gone, and quickly to be forgotten. Humza Yousaf’s brief spell as Scotland’s First Minister has ended much as many thought it would – with the recognition by his own party that his appointment had been a mistake. When the confidence of senior figures around him vanished – and it did – he had no choice, whatever the potential numbers in parliament might have been in a vote of no confidence.

Yousaf’s resignation speech was measured and generous, which didn’t have much in common with his 13 months in office, dogged as they were by infighting, aggression, and the blaming of everyone else for his woes.

He said that he bore no grudges, and nor should he. Few bore him ill will, but it was all too clear that the top job was simply above his level of political ability. That was displayed by his catastrophic mishandling last week of the dissolution of his party’s coalition with the Greens. (Something that Kate Forbes called for in her exclusive interview with Jason Cowley last December.)

If the past year has amounted to little more than a rather pointless hangover at the end of the Nicola Sturgeon era, the future is now to be written. But which way will the SNP jump?

It is time for the Sturgeonites finally to relinquish their grip on their ailing party. They are doing more harm than good in refusing to allow the SNP to move on, to recalibrate, to rethink. The wheels had started to come off long before Sturgeon’s resignation, as her lack of attention to major public services became ever clearer and her fixation with divisive social policies repeatedly backfired. There is a reason Scottish Labour keeps banging on about the NHS and the economy – that’s what the voters care about, rather than gender reform or hate crime or unachievable independence referendums. The voters are not wrong.

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Those few senior SNP figures who saw through Yousaf from the start are furious at the damage that has been done. “People who gave me a really hard time for not backing him are now saying I was right and they should have listened. It’s an absolute bin fire.” one told me.

Now comes a choice between ideology and political good sense. It seems as if John Swinney, Sturgeon’s long-time deputy, might step forward as a grey-beard candidate to replace Yousaf – and if so, would seem likely to win. Yet while Swinney is many things – decent, likeable, intelligent – as Sturgeon’s consigliere he also bears plenty of responsibility for the current crisis. He might be able to unite the party, but to what end? What would a Swinney agenda look like? In what manner would he represent change? Is an inoffensive caretaker, arguably yesterday’s man, the best the SNP has to offer in 2024?

There is a parade of lesser lights on offer too, depending on whether they choose to stand. Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth and Health Secretary Neil Gray have both the benefits and the drawbacks of being close to blank slates – neither has particularly distinguished themselves in ministerial office so far, or made much impact on the public. Name recognition will not be high for either. But Gray has been Yousaf’s closest ally, which can hardly be a recommendation. Who can say what either would bring to Bute House? And, as Gordon Brown once put it, this seems like no time for a novice.

Forbes remains the SNP’s outstanding performer and its most dynamic intellectual force. As polls showed at the time of the last leadership election, she is popular with the public. 

Forbes would have then and would now return her party to the centre ground, reorienting it towards the economy and public services. Her social conservatism remains anathema to the self-declared “progressives” who seem to dominate today’s nationalist movement, though one senior Sturgeon ally told me that “if this time she actually sets out a programme for government and thinks about how to speak to the urban late-20s and 30s voter who can’t pay the rent, can’t buy a house, is socially left of centre, she could do well.”

[See also: Kate Forbes: The rooted nomad]

Another senior party figure, asked about Forbes, said that “there’s definitely movement in the party. Some folks who were downright hostile are now accepting it’s probably hers and the party will have to make it work.” Forbes’ challenge in the weeks ahead will be winning over enough of those recalcitrant Nats who can’t stomach her social views, whatever her other obvious talents.

In the end, whatever comes next will depend on what the modern SNP values and whether it still cares about winning. It has a choice between a slow drift towards the chill of opposition while clinging to its identity politics and independence obsession like a hot water bottle, or an understanding that it has to meet mainstream Scotland halfway. People are worried about their kid’s school, their access to decent and timely healthcare, and whether they and their family members can hold down reasonable jobs with reasonable prospects for advancement. The government has had little to say to them about all this for far too many years.

If the party decides that what it needs most in a new first minister is the ability to buddy up with the Greens again, then that will be both an abject collective humiliation to follow Yousaf’s personal one and a public admission of weakness. I wouldn’t bet against the SNP doing precisely that.

[See also: Will Humza Yousaf’s resignation help or hurt Scottish Labour?]

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