27 March 2023

Humza Yousaf can celebrate victory, but this race revealed the depth of Nationalist divisions


So close. Humza Yousaf, the SNP establishment’s anointed candidate to succeed Nicola Sturgeon has leader and First Minister, has narrowly (52/48 strikes again) beaten Kate Forbes. Scotland will soon have a new leader.

The result is remarkable in several respects, not least that it was so close. Ash Regan, eliminated in the first round after garnering just 11% of the vote, never had a look-in. But it was only a few weeks ago that Forbes’ campaign too seemed to have exploded on the launchpad, as large parts of her party suddenly realised that her deeply held religious convictions were real.

It’s too early to tell why this happened. But the mere fact of a revolt of this scale against the clear wishes of the Nationalist hierarchy may signal the end of an era. 

For over two decades, under Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond before her, the SNP’s phalanx-like discipline has been one of its great strengths. Any disputes were worked out behind closed doors, and the leadership – especially the husband-and-wife diarchy exercised by the First Minister and Peter Murrell, the outgoing Chief Executive – maintained an iron grip on the machine.

It also feels significant that turnout was so low. Despite the bruising contest and the high stakes, only seven in ten party members cast their ballot. Following the revelation that the SNP had been covering up the loss of tens of thousands of members in recent months, it suggests there is deep disaffection in the Nationalist ranks; the unwinding of that remarkable surge after the 2014 referendum may have a way to go yet.

So how should unionists react to the result? We can, I think, be forgiven a little jubilation, not to mention indulging in some long-awaited schadenfreude. Ever since the separatists fought the referendum much closer than anyone expected, and the bulk of the ‘Yes movement’ folded into the SNP, pro-Union forces have been on the back foot. 

Important victories were won – not least Douglas Ross holding the Conservatives’ position in 2021 and depriving Sturgeon of a majority – but they were largely defensive actions. Events which looked like they might actually topple the First Minister, such as the collapse of the Scottish Government’s defence in the Salmond trial and subsequent inquiry, came and went.

All the while, voters animated by independence above all else seemed not to care as the Nationalists wracked up failure after failure on the day-to-day business of actually governing Scotland. It will be much easier to make those charges stick now. Not just because, as a gradualist, Yousaf may struggle to maintain the illusion that the next big push is just around the corner, but also because he and Forbes weaponised each other’s records during the campaign.

For all that, however, we should acknowledge that this was almost certainly the best result for the SNP.

Yousaf is by no means a formidable politician. His record in office is woeful, and he lacks the communication skills that placed Sturgeon in the front rank of British politics. Commentators weren’t wrong to claim Forbes looked like the most talented member of the Nationalists’ next generation.

However, and not to damn him with faint praise, he does have the merit of not being obviously destructive to the political coalition his predecessor has assembled, and to which the SNP owes its dominant position in Scottish life.

Any timeline where Regan won is sufficiently remote from our own as to be hard to imagine; it would basically involve the Nationalists being much more like Salmond’s breakaway, Alba. But if she had, she would either have dashed the party against the rocks trying to deliver independence without a referendum or watched it fall to pieces beneath her as she tried.

Forbes was always a much more plausible candidate than Regan. But whatever her personal ability, she too is a relic from an older iteration of the SNP – the ‘tartan Tories’: culturally conservative, leaning right on economics, and concentrated in rural areas where they had captured the receding Conservative vote.

The impact of this bad fit would have been immediate, because the Scottish Greens had threatened to terminate their coalition agreement if she won. (This in itself is telling, since they have been content to essentially serve as Nationalist foederati for years, profiting from separatist voters gaming Holyrood’s two-ballot system and prioritising independence over any actual green issues.)

But even had a Forbes government survived that, it’s hard to see how she could have squared a pivot to the right on economics and a push for the Tory vote with holding on to ex-Labour heartlands in the heavily-populated central belt. Anas Sarwar will certainly be sorry she lost, and such a programme may well have been better for the Scottish economy, but as a strategy for holding on to power it was at best a very risky play.

However, that Yousaf’s victory was the best result for the SNP in the circumstances does not mean they’re in a good position overall.

Despite his win, much of the old guard has been routed; Murrell’s early departure, precipitated by the membership numbers scandal, means there can’t be a smooth behind-the-scenes transfer of control over the machine. Nor will the new First Minister be able to impose his personal authority on the party as did Sturgeon; Forbes may have lost, but such was the scale of the revolt that a seal has likely been broken on that front.

Yousaf inherits the difficult position his predecessor abandoned: a mounting pile of scandals and governance failures, a dwindling and increasingly restive activist base, and no clear path forwards on the question of independence. 

Despite the better part of a decade in command at Holyrood, not to mention Brexit and years of shambolic government at Westminster, the Nationalists have failed to shift public opinion on the only question that really matters to them. The economic case for breaking up the United Kingdom, if it exists, remains undiscovered.

As a new leader, Yousaf will be able to reset the clock somewhat, persuade his troops that there are a couple more horizons to march over to get to the promised land. But only somewhat; he will never have that sense, as Sturgeon seemed to have when taking the reins in 2014, of having all the time in the world.

And when that clock ticks down, as it will, he will face the same choice she did: risk it all on a reckless rush at the grand prize, or watch as a movement united by little more than the dream that independence is imminent starts to wake up, and look around them at the state of Scotland.

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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.