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Flip Flop First Minister
Humza Yousaf's defining personal mission was as heartfelt as that of his predecessor.
First, let’s agree that it’s good to have politicians who can change their position on an issue. When Neil Kinnock was criticised about the changes he made to the Labour Party in the 1980s his response was that the only people who have never changed their minds on an issue were those who never had a mind in the first place.
We all want thoughtful politicians who can reappraise their position in response to our concerns while remaining faithful to their values. What we don’t want is flip-floppers. The difference lies in the sincerity of the decision and the strength of the politician.
An example of failing the sincerity test was Pete Wishart’s journey from ranting “I have never felt British in my life. I do not even know what Britishness is” to gushing during the 2014 referendum about how “Britishness is one of our many identities and one that will be forever cherished in an independent Scotland.” When politicians travel too far, too fast we doubt they really believe what they’re now saying. Often we’re left wondering whether they ever really believed in anything they said.
The other factor that makes a flip-flop is whether the change in position is a strategic choice by a leader in control or something a weak leader has been forced into, against their instincts, by political circumstances. Keir Starmer’s determination to bomb-proof policies announced in an earlier period of opposition risked being presented as inconsistency - but those changes are now part of a story about a Prime Minister-in-waiting. His poll lead and by-election victories make him appear strong. When you are under pressure and facing bad polls the perception is that changes are a forced departure from your intended plan. That is where Labour’s opponents now find themselves.
As Catriona Stewart in The Herald argued:
“In echoes of the Uxbridge by-election, where the Conservatives pivoted on their green commitments due to the assumed preferences of a small number of voters, so has the First Minister over-corrected his council tax proposals in the light of the ballot box choices of people in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.”
Yousaf has failed the test of both sincerity and strength. To decide on a spending commitment of hundreds of millions of pounds 24 hours before your conference speech because you were spooked by the sampling from a few middle-class polling districts in a byelection is weak. A First Minister who claimed his leadership would be defined by using his tax powers to help the poorest, only to give up on that to introduce a panic measure that offers more to the wealthiest, has a sincerity problem.
The Fraser of Allander Institute suggests that Yousaf’s conference policy, which benefits the richest most, will cost £417 million. Remember, Yousaf has rejected reversing the impact of the two-child cap in Scotland because he said the £100 million cost was too expensive. He was already facing a £600 million black hole in his budget and the prospect of cuts to services but chose to increase it.
A story this evening suggests another flip-flop is on the way. A well-briefed account of a crisis meeting in Bute House appears in today’s Sunday Times suggesting that Yousaf is to ditch planned income tax rises in December’s budget.
It’s difficult to believe that, between the Spring and Autumn of the same year the First Minister has been on an ideological journey on the progressive taxes he said would define his leadership. At best he is now left looking inconsistent and incompetent, at worst he looks desperate and devoid of principle.
We learned from Nicola Sturgeon’s lack of action on her own 'personal defining mission’ of abolishing the attainment gap that there is only ever one real priority for the SNP. Yousaf’s abandonment of his supposed defining mission after just a few months is more politically damaging than a mere policy failure.
His chief attack line against Labour, and argument for the political independence of Scotland, is that the left in other parts of the UK always has to trim their progressive ambitions in order to win the votes of the middle classes. It’s tough when your chief critique of your competitor is also your plan to save yourself.
It is clear from the panicked policy-making in Bute House that the SNP are worried a Labour recovery that starts in the UK Parliament will end in Holyrood.
In Case You Missed It…
There is more than a little whiff of decay around nationalism at the moment:
The bizarre arguments with journalists about the empty seats in the conference hall during the leader’s speech.
Alex Salmond casting a fictional ballot in an imaginary referendum.
Meanwhile, Have I Got News for You picked up on the lack of enthusiasm at SNP conference…