6 April 2023
Scottish Politics Post-Sturgeon
A change of guard.
Funny things, leadership elections, especially in Scotland.
One day, there’s a political stasis, with Nicola Sturgeon in post as first minister for eight years (Reminder: UK count over the same period – five PMs) and has given no hint of departing. The next day (15th February) she says she’s resigning and less than six weeks later, after a bitter contest between three candidates, we have a new SNP leader and ergo first minister.
So all change at Holyrood. Or is it?
In a statement of the blindingly obvious, we have the same political party in government that has dominated Scottish politics for 15+ years. Thanks to some nifty footwork by their new leader Humza Yousaf, they can continue to rely on their minor coalition partner, the Scottish Greens, to secure a slender majority in the Scottish parliament. Incidentally if either of the other SNP leadership candidates had won, Kate Forbes or Ash Regan, the Greens would most probably be out of the door, disagreeing with both on much, not least the key environmental issue of gender recognition reform.
Yousaf himself began the leadership contest with the boast that he was the ‘continuity’ candidate, a claim he subsequently muted though, as I write, still seems a valid admission.
Within his party, continuity means that as leader he inherits a poisoned chalice – an unfinished police investigation into where £600,000 pledged by donors for a new independence campaign has gone; why their chief executive Peter Murrell, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, loaned the party an undeclared £100,000 a while back; why the party spent £80,000 buying motor vehicles; and most immediately why it initially and bizarrely refused to tell the leadership candidates how many members it had, and therefore the size of the electorate in the contest. It turned out to be just over 70,000, down from a recently claimed 100,000. In the fallout, their head of communications resigned for having unwittingly misinformed the media on the numbers, blaming ‘senior’ SNP staff for the error. Peter Murrell then resigned in short order.
So as party leader, Mr Yousaf has inherited what we call here a right guddle (mess) that needs sorting out.
Arguably, his inheritance in relation to government is little better. The gender recognition proposals (essentially self-certification for trans people) are said to be at the heart of much of the loss of SNP membership and have caused wider concern amongst many of all political persuasions and none, especially women. They look as if they’re going to be blocked by the UK government because they intrude upon a reserved matter, equalities. Beyond that, the list of people’s concerns and the government’s inability to meet them is long – a faltering NHS; a school education system stuck in mediocrity; two massively overdue, over-budget and poorly specified and constructed ferries to serve the Western Isles; a weak economy; a widely-criticised deposit return (for drinks in single-use containers) scheme; and much else.
Experience shows that governments in democracies have a natural shelf life beyond which it’s difficult to maintain impetus. If they are to do so, a change of leadership and approach may offer the best hope.
Early signs are that Humza Yousaf is unlikely to be the leader who could effect significant improvement in his party’s fortunes. On election he made the right noises about governing for all Scots but his list of priorities was scarcely different from what had gone before. And overarching any specific policy or actions is the self-evident fact that the SNP’s number one priority is independence. Yousaf claims that ‘we will be the generation that delivers it’.
Unfortunately for him, the three most recent opinion polls by reputable companies (YouGov, Survation and Redfield & Wilton), all carried out during the SNP leadership campaign in March, suggest that the desire for independence remains unchanged since our 2014 referendum – all have Yes (for independence) at 45%, No at 55%. Political stasis indeed.
In 2015, ‘senior SNP sources’, believed to be Nicola Sturgeon herself, were quoted as saying that they would not seek another referendum until opinion polls showed sustained support for independence at 60% for more than a year. In retrospect, that was a sensible precaution (no point in losing a second referendum) although much forgotten in the intervening rough and tumble of politics as the SNP proved unable to shift opinion on independence in their favour.
As well as policies and actions to improve lives, mood music is important if the SNP are to persuade 15% of the electorate to move from No to Yes in order to achieve that 60% sustained majority for independence. Governing for all Scots is fine and dandy, but referring to the UK government as ‘foreign’ as Yousaf did during his leadership campaign is unlikely to change minds, let alone his demand (his word) in his first conversation with Rishi Sunak for the right to hold another referendum, and the curt and silent nod that was all he could manage when taking the oath of office and pledging his allegiance to the King. These gestures may play well to the faithful but not to those whose minds he needs to change.
As a final thought on our new first minister, throw into the mix that he only won his party leadership with just over half the vote on a second round run-off against Kate Forbes. At best, a shrunken SNP is in a grumpy mood, at worst it’s split down the middle. Meanwhile the fundamentalists of the Alba party (Alex Salmond & Co.) continue to snap at the SNP’s heels, probably unlikely to win seats in any future Westminster or Holyrood election but sapping energy and taking at least some votes.
The next major electoral test for the SNP will be the UK general election, due to be held by January 2025 at the latest. For what it’s worth that far away, recent opinion polls suggest that the SNP and Scottish Conservatives might both go into that election significantly weakened, while Labour is strengthened. How that pans out in number of seats is another matter. The next Holyrood election lies beyond, in 2026. A more immediate test of electoral sentiment might be a by-election in the disgraced ex-SNP Margaret Ferrier’s constituency if a petition for her recall is successful (she broke Covid rules). We shall see.
A final thought. Scottish nationalism as a sentiment and a political force will not go away in the short term. It may be weaker for some time, it’s unlikely to be stronger in the short term, especially if Labour form the next UK government. A significant part of the Scottish electorate will never vote Tory but many would, as they have in the past, turn to Labour. As a nationalist friend of Antoninus said recently, ‘Chances of independence in the next five years? 30%’.
Astute readers will notice that this piece says nothing of Humza Yousaf’s ethnicity or religion. Both have been much commented on elsewhere, but the author does not believe they are fundamental to the future of Scottish politics. If you’re in favour of diversity, you must applaud the fact that the Muslim grandson of Pakistani migrants can attain high political office in Britain. But then the Tories and Rishi Sunak (different national origin and religion, same principle) got there first.