30 April 2024

Humza Yousaf: A hoplite without a phalanx


To understand how Humza Yousaf came to be First Minister of Scotland, consider that one of the names being floated to replace him is that of John Swinney, a man first elected as leader of the Scottish National Party almost a quarter of a century ago.

Despite historically being much more focused on the Scottish Parliament than previous Scottish Labour administrations in Holyrood were, the SNP has not built a deep bench of talent. Instead, it has been blessed to be a party for whom lightning struck twice.

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were both, in their time, front-rank political talents; in 2014 they came closer to breaking up the United Kingdom than complacent unionists expected. But with both those titans now toppled, in 2023, the pickings were slim.

Kate Forbes, the former finance minister, was the more impressive politician. But on both social and economic issues, she is well to the right of where Sturgeon had positioned the SNP, and positioning himself as Sturgeon’s heir was enough to see Yousaf narrowly home.

The problem was that this left him the proud owner of a sinking ship the previous owner had decided, with good reason, to abandon – and he lacked any of her skill as a helmsman.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the coalition between the SNP and the Greens was probably doomed. The reality of the Nationalists’ new, much lower polling is that come 2026 they will be fighting for seats on the regional lists, where until now pro-independence voters could harmlessly split their ticket to get extra separatist MSPs by gaming Holyrood’s two-ballot voting system.

But that doesn’t make it any less of a landmine laid under the Scottish Government by Sturgeon. It was she who signed off on wildly unrealistic climate targets with no plan to achieve them, and she who committed the Scottish Government to the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill and offered Westminster an opening to exercise its never-before-used veto.

It was Yousaf’s retreat from both of these fronts that led the Greens to plan on putting the future of Bute House to their members; it was an attempt to get ahead of that that led him to eject them from office; and it was his doing that which led to the Greens promising to support a no-confidence motion and doomed his ministry.

Likewise, Yousaf’s increasingly desperate efforts to keep the independence show on the road – lowering and then lowering again the bar which he claimed would qualify as a mandate – came to nothing. Sturgeon, a more plausible midwife of independence by some margin, had run that strategy (if it can be called that) into the ground.

None of this is to downplay the now ex-First Minister’s weaknesses as a politician; not for nothing had he earned the monicker ‘Humza Useless’ long before taking the top job. His track record, especially as Health Minister, was lamentable, and his testimony before the Covid Inquiry was embarrassing.

But the SNP must take some share of the blame for those shortcomings, and the wider weaknesses of the cadre of MSPs who have come of age in the Nationalists’ thirteen-year summer since 2011, when Alex Salmond secured his supposedly-impossible Holyrood majority – and Yousaf was first elected.

From that point until very recently, the party enjoyed an extraordinary run of political good fortune. David Cameron’s gross mishandling of the negotiations over the referendum let Salmond get very close to winning, and in so doing transform the strength of pro-independence feeling in the country. All of a sudden, what had been dismissed as a fringe pursuit was thrust into the mainstream.

Better still, the polarisation of the electorate around the constitutional question saw the SNP secure a near-clean sweep of Scottish seats at the 2015 general election, and dominate the constituencies at both the 2016 and 2021 Holyrood elections. Whilst Sturgeon twice failed to repeat Salmond’s achievement of an overall majority, savvy Yes voters secured a pro-independence majority by splitting their votes and quadrupling the number of Green MSPs between 2011 and 2021.

Throughout that period, the SNP operated with ferocious internal discipline. All power within the party was concentrated in the hands of Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, the long-standing chief executive (recently arrested and charged with embezzlement).

When times were good, this phalanx-like approach made the Nationalists a formidable campaigning force; when the tide first started to turn, it allowed Sturgeon to bull through scandals that would have felled many other politicians, most obviously over her mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against Salmond.

But an army commanded that way relies entirely on the strengths of the leader – and does not cultivate able and agile junior officers who might replace them. Yousaf’s career at Holyrood spanned an unprecedented period of hegemonic politics, both within the SNP and without. Little wonder it didn’t equip him for 2024: a hoplite without a phalanx is never long for this world.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.