As a government minister, Humza Yousaf had a reputation among civil servants as one of those politicians who did not always closely read and absorb his briefings. When he was the Scottish health secretary, during the winter NHS crisis, it was widely known that Nicola Sturgeon would intervene with senior mandarins, often without telling him.
This should not fill us with confidence that the First Minister has the necessary intellectual quality to think his way through the many challenges facing modern Scotland. Yousaf is, I think it’s pretty clear, a bit of a chancer, driven by ambition and impermeable self-confidence. It is a type you find in politics across the world – indeed, a blonde-mopped version recently spent three years in Downing Street.
Yousaf has played the game and won, if only narrowly. That is what his type does. It’s the next bit – the hard bit – that often finds them out. It’s already clear from his early zig-zagging around on policy that, lacking a clear vision of what the country needs to thrive, he is going to find the job hard going.
The First Minister wants to raise taxes to a level that would punish workers and leave Scotland dangerously uncompetitive. He also wants a refreshed relationship with a business community that has suffered from years of neglect by the SNP, and that will suffer further if taxes go up. Nobody I know in the private sector really believes Yousaf is serious about building constructive links. It is just something he feels he needs to say, and so he has said it.
There is no indication that he is serious either about the thorny task of improving public services. During the SNP leadership contest he committed himself to a “national conversation” about reforming the NHS. While some of us might view that as a great threat indeed in Yousaf’s hands, it at least suggested an understanding of the need for change. But perhaps this was just to get him out of a temporary hole – since becoming First Minister there has been no further mention of such a conversation.
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We have a 16-year-old government that is finding it impossible – as most governments do after a long period in power, to be fair – to renew itself while in office. One leadership candidate did in fact give it that option (Kate Forbes), but was beaten by the continuity message of Yousaf and the support of the party machine. As Sturgeon’s pet, he will keep her show on the road, regardless of what the audience thinks or the polls say.
This means Scotland cannot change until its government does. The SNP has a series of ideological positions that it cannot and will not be shifted from. It is, for example, irreversibly anti-nuclear, including nuclear power. A poll has shown that a majority of Scots are interested in nuclear technology being deployed to reach net-zero emissions. New modular nuclear units are one of the more interesting and potentially transformational innovations in energy. But there will be no discussion of this possibility in Scotland, despite the very real problems with the SNP-Green strategy to decarbonise, which has over-promised and is under-delivering.
The same is true of the funding of universities. Peter Mathieson, the principal of the University of Edinburgh, called recently for “calm consideration” to be given to the idea of graduates being charged for their tuition. This is not a radical view among university leaders, who are struggling with a funding gap and having to turn away increasing numbers of Scottish students in favour of fee-paying foreigners. Again, SNP computer says no.
We will continue to bump against these ideological barriers for as long as the SNP and the even more inflexible Greens remain in office. The Nats are hidebound by their history and their record. You’ll find thoughtful people in the party who understand that positions need to change because the facts are changing – but this will prove politically impossible, especially under this leader.
We don’t know yet whether Scottish Labour will have the courage to shatter these and other blocks on progress. But there is little point in holding power unless it is used to advance the state of the nation. For now, Yousaf’s at the wheel, and the direction is far from clear. With independence off the menu for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to see the point of this frightened and confused SNP administration, even on its own terms. But we must suffer along with them.
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