Alas, poor Humza Yousaf. Scotland’s new First Minister has enjoyed a gilded ride to Bute House but, as he is on the brink of discovering, the buck now rests nowhere else. This might give a less self-confident politician pause for thought, but no-one has ever suggested Yousaf underestimates his own abilities.
The contest to succeed Nicola Sturgeon was more bruising than either she or Yousaf anticipated. Wounds were opened which shall not heal easily and even if they do, the scar tissue will remain. Kate Forbes’ views on matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage may have antagonised the virtue-parading ‘progressive’ wing of the SNP, but her real crime was to dare to speak the truth about her own government’s record in government.
‘More of the same is not a manifesto, it is an acceptance of mediocrity’, Forbes said, making a case for change that proved more compelling than the SNP leadership anticipated. This was the defining moment of the campaign and a message which resonated with a public quietly growing tired of the SNP. Not so tired that an election defeat is either imminent or probable, but tired nonetheless. All the hope and enthusiasm that Nicola Sturgeon generated when she succeeded Alex Salmond eight years ago has, over time, faded into a resigned acceptance that this probably is as good as it gets. Not very good, that is, but just about better than any possible alternative.
‘You were transport minister and the trains were never on time,’ Forbes said. “When you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point. And now as health minister we’ve got record high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?’. A good question, and a palpable hit, to which neither Yousaf nor any of his backers had any fine answer.
Noting the structural challenges within the NHS, Yousaf conceded that, in effect, it really doesn’t matter who is health secretary. Whoever holds that cursed chalice would face the same intractable difficulties as he has done and have no better luck in solving them. This admission had the advantage of being largely true, but an admission of impotence is not necessarily what Scottish voters wish to hear from their First Minister.
It is consistent with a long-established pattern of SNP thinking, however. Ask not what the Scottish government may do for you; ask instead what it cannot. If only Scotland were independent, with a government possessing the full panoply of ‘tools’, ‘levers’ and ‘powers’ everything might be more pleasingly arranged. There is a soupçon of merit to this argument, but no more than that.
Ultimately, however, this is politics somewhere over the far side of a rainbow, in some happier land where all outcomes are above average. Real life is messier and more complicated than that and, as Yousaf is about to discover, once voters are presented with a vision of change they are likely to thirst for more of it.
That is the real meaning of Sturgeon’s departure. An era ends and it stands to reason that a new, different, chapter awaits. That was the logic of Forbes’ insurrection and Yousaf may now regret being the ‘continuity’ candidate. Initial impressions are hard to shake and Yousaf has been defined by his internal opponents just as much as he has been framed by his external ones. With friendly fire of this sort, he has no need for enemies.
The best he can report from his time as health secretary is that the NHS in Scotland has not been hit by strikes this winter. As ever, the reference point is England and so long as SNP performance in Scotland can be presented as being half a step ahead of whatever the wicked Tories are doing south of the border, then all is well. Or, at least, well enough. You are not encouraged to dwell upon the thought that this is a miserably low standard for success.
Then again, what other metrics are available? Some NHS targets have not been met in a decade. Avoiding strikes is a kind of entry-level qualification easily, and rightly, discounted by voters who reasonably ask, ‘What have you done for me, lately?’. To which the sad answer is: not a whole lot.
This is not exactly Yousaf’s fault. He has risen without much of a trace. Even his supporters struggle to pinpoint his significant achievements in ten years as a government minister. He is a polished and superficially attractive media performer but the smoother his presentation the more, unwittingly, it hints at a lack of concrete substance beneath.
As if to demonstrate the problem, in his first remarks as SNP leader Yousaf declared that ‘there will be no empty promises, no easy soundbites when the issues in front of us are difficult and complex, because government is not easy and I won’t pretend it is’. A few minutes later he told ITV that of course he would ‘right away’ demand Rishi Sunak grant a Section 30 order to allow for an independence referendum most Scottish voters do not actually want. This is politics as performance, not delivery, and it seems a harbinger of troubled times ahead.
At some fundamental level of instinct, voters can discern between politicians who ‘have’ it and those who do not. Star quality and substance are hard to define, but the electorate can easily recognise their absence. This is poor Humza Yousaf’s fate: he is a salesman for the early days of a fresh and happier government, not a man for the difficult and disagreeable task of reinventing a tired government that, stymied on the only thing which really counts, has run out of ideas and inspiration for every other part of its portfolio of responsibilities.
And with independence off the table for the short to medium term the question for Yousaf – for which he has not yet furnished an answer – is as simple as it is haunting: what is it all about?
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