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Yousaf’s Fall: A Reckoning Long in the Making

Humza Yousaf’s fall is no one-off incident, explains Mark McInnes. Rather, Sturgeon’s legacy of failed government and the leftwards lurch of her SNP away from Alec Salmond’s broad movement could not hold.

The fall of Humza Yousaf over the last week would appear, at first glance, to be the stuff of froth and personality that seems increasingly to define British politics. Mr Yousaf appeared to be out of his depth through the last year as First Minister, eventually over-reaching, misjudging and bringing his time as First Minister to a humiliating and very public end.

However, what we have seen writ large is the inevitable tension and fissure that exists in any Party based on a single defining issue when that movement has to deal in the skills needed for day-to-day government and non-constitutional politics and away from the big question at its core. The SNP’s future as a coherent Party without the leadership defining personalities of Salmond and Sturgeon is now in question as tensions around its historic, incoherent voter coalition bubble to the surface.

From its formation until 1999 the Scottish Nationalist’s ideological position was dictated by its supporters, a nationalist movement based around protest amongst Scotland’s forgotten communities: communities like Galloway and Banffshire, far away from the central belt, socially and economically conservative and concerned about modernity and elite rule from the centre. An electoral purpose was created in removing Conservatives from these constituencies – seen to be distant from their communities and no longer representing such communities.  The catalyst of oil discovery gave an economic coherence and the ability to challenge a Labour party in central belt Scotland in by-elections.

Salmond’s arrival as leader in 1987 from a radical wing of the Party (while still representing deeply conservative Banff and Buchan) gave fresh energy to the Party and a couthy understanding of the Scottish electorate.  Salmond’s long-term strategy was always to remove the Labour Party from its central belt dominance – something he did by building not only a coalition of radicals who saw an independent Scotland as being a social democrat utopia, but more importantly the small ‘c’ conservatives of central belt Scotland who wished to see Labour defeated. Today it seems incredible that as recently as  2000 the now ‘gender progressive’  SNP opposed Labour’s intention to  repeal Section 28 on the promotion of  homosexuality,  though not if one considers the alliance of socially and small ‘c’ conservatives who were its electoral base.

The unpopularity of the Labour government in the late noughties allowed the SNP under Salmond to become the anti-Labour vehicle not just for those on the centre right who wanted Labour out, but also for those on the left who believed the Blair Government had moved too far from traditional socialist values.  The defeat of Labour in 2007 and the competence of a populist SNP minority government, legislatively helped by the Conservatives, moved the SNP into a party of natural government for all Scots. Any further introspection on policies or ideology was removed by the constitutional focus unleashed in 2012 with the agreement that there would be an independence referendum in 2014.  While Salmond lost, the Yes movement which the referendum created, became interchangeable with the SNP. That in many ways was the beginning of the end for the traditional iteration of the nationalist party. Labour was wiped out in the central belt, but the new electoral coalition was too large. Nicola Sturgeon’s party, a party of the radicals, the young, the urban left and greens, lost the connection with the traditional core of rural Scotland – Salmond himself losing in affluent Aberdeenshire in 2017.

By 2019/20 the Scottish public services were beginning to creak – most especially education. The SNP’s almost automatic approval ratings began to decline. At the same time (despite as the BBC would say Brexit and Boris) the desire for an independence referendum declined: the questioning of the SNP’s competence rose from a whisper to a drumbeat of concern.  The Covid crisis provided a shot in the arm for Ms Sturgeon and her brand of nationalist Scottish unity, and her first-class communication skills built a new wave of respect for her performance.

By May 2021 the post Covid bounce that Ms Sturgeon had enjoyed had dissipated and (something that surely haunts her) she failed to get a majority in the Parliament despite the covid plaudits. Ultimately, she did not have the chutzpah of Salmond to hold together his wider assortment of support. Right of centre Scotland had rejected her.

The Bute House agreement with the Greens to maintain her government and desire for independence was an official revocation, if one was needed, of small ‘c’ conservative Scotland – an obsession with ‘gender progressiveness’, “hate crimes” and increasingly stringent climate policy far removed from the concerns of the traditional SNP voter.

That then was what Humza Yousaf inherited last year, and it is little wonder that he could not grapple with the fundamental schism of drifting too far to the radical left – his views being the epitome of the new left urban elite of the SNP.  A legacy of parliamentarians like Fergus Ewing were able to form a caucus of centre right opinion, along with those like Joanna Cherry, who held gender critical views.

At the time of writing, it seems likely that John Swinney will be the next leader of the SNP and first Minister of Scotland. His greatest task will be trying once again to create a coalition of centre left, centrist and centre right Scotland. If he fails to do so the SNP’s catch-all properties may be lost forever. Time will tell if Kate Forbes and others, those who see the opportunity of right of centre votes for independence, will have to leave the SNP if such voters are to be re-captured.  Mr Yousaf’s demise will not be judged as a one-off incident, but rather a reckoning which was always coming.

Lord McInnes of Kilwinning CBE

Mark McInnes (Lord McInnes of Kilwinning CBE) has been a member of the House of Lords since 2016 having served as the Prime Minister’s Special Adviser on constitutional matters at No10 Downing Street. His special interest is in designing and implementing strategies to strengthen the constitutional settlement in the United Kingdom and his wider interests include international development, humanitarianism and post-conflict stabilisation. Lord McInnes, who graduated from the University of Edinburgh, was campaign Director, Chief Executive, and Political Strategist of the Scottish Conservative Party for 18 years until 2021.

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