Discover more from Notes on Nationalism
Let's Look at What You Could Have Won
Kate Forbes is positioning herself as an alternative to Humza Yousaf's failing leadership. A snapshot poll for this newsletter suggests that voters aren't buying it.
Is a Kate Forbes leadership really the answer to the SNP’s troubles? A new poll for this newsletter suggests not. So why does that narrative continue?
There is nothing new under the sun, so says the Good Book. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.”
Certainly there is nothing new in politics. Political leaders are squeezed into existing narrative frameworks that make it easier to tell a story about their fortunes.
Time and time again, a leader toiling against difficult political realities finds they are also up against the fantasy of what might have happened had their seemingly more attractive rival taken the crown. Ed Miliband had his older brother; David Cameron was haunted by Boris Johnson; both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith had the counter-factual of Ken Clarke to live up to. Bullseye-style, we were invited to see what we could have won.
For Humza Yousaf it was inevitable that his leadership would fit this paradigm. A majority of SNP members voted for other candidates with their first vote. After transfers, he won with 52% of members before the political establishment which had delivered his narrow win disintegrated into scandal.
Kate Forbes is now cast as the Prince Across The Water - a role she more easily inhabits having chosen exile over agriculture when Yousaf appointed his cabinet.
Existing as the ‘what if?’ means she does not have to face the harsh realities of the SNP’s internal problems. While Humza Yousaf was introduced as First Minister through daily media scrums with questions about potential criminal enterprises, a surprise campervan, and the arrests of SNP politicians, Forbes dodged all that. Of course, had she squeezed a few more percentage points out of the SNP’s selectorate she would have shared Yousaf’s fate.
But having lost Forbes also avoids blame for the lack of vigour and vision in the nationalist movement. It was Yousaf who was left to reheat old announcements of rebuttal units, relaunch the campaign and recycle the defacto referendum strategy.
Meanwhile, the fantasy of Forbes exists with no responsibilities, only possibilities. She is clearly on manoeuvres, expecting a vacancy after a disappointing by-election or General Election result. She carefully hints that the things many party members don’t like would be different if she’s given a second chance:
The deal with the Greens would be rethought.
The good old days of resource nationalism would not be over.
Angus MacNeill wouldn’t be expelled.
These are all messages tailored to an internal party audience rather than the people of Scotland. So what do Scots make of an imagined Forbes leadership? Do they share the interest in Forbes and the positive expectations suggested by this narrative?
I asked Find Out Now to take a snapshot of Scottish voters to explore the impact she might have on the party’s fortunes. Despite so much media attention, most Scots don’t have a firm view of Yousaf’s potential replacement. Among the 40% who do have a view, more are likely to view her as a reason not to vote SNP than are attracted by the thought of her leadership.
Voters aren’t bought into the narrative that Forbes is the answer to the SNP’s problems. A big thank you to paid subscribers who fund content like this poll.
Kathleen Nutt wrote in The Herald yesterday that Forbes's criticisms of Yousaf come with a risk:
“In politics, as in sport, a little humility and good grace go a long way. Instead, in her drive to be the candidate of change, the saviour waiting in the wings, Ms Forbes is in danger of beginning to look like the sour grapes loser.”
If you’re going to offer yourself as a better alternative, you had better be better. This poll suggests she isn’t. At best, she is a divisive figure, at worst a disadvantage to her party. Whatever the SNP’s troubles, it doesn’t appear there is an easy answer waiting in the wings.
The ‘What If?’ narrative that Forbes and Yousaf now inhabit invites only comparison with Humza Yousaf’s weakness and so allows us to forget Forbes's mediocrity. Of course, a politician can reinvent their public image, but there’s plenty of evidence that she’s lacking the judgement, values and experience to lead Scotland.
Losing means nobody now talks about how her leadership campaign was catastrophic. She was defined through her opposition to equal marriage, having kids outside of marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and feminism. As the SNP loses votes to a resurgent Labour, and with cuts to already stressed public services on the horizon, she continues to argue that the party move to the right on the economy, building on her promise of a “smaller state” under her leadership still stands.
She began the Edinburgh Festival by embracing Alex Salmond, a man with toxic opinion poll ratings and very questionable recent history. And she has endorsed the All Under One Banner group which includes the extremes of Scottish nationalism.
We have just had a reminder that she also lacks experience. In another Festival appearance, the brilliant Matt Ford asked her a mischievous question about what she thought would come first: a second referendum or the Second Coming? Unable to think on her feet she gifted her opponents with headlines such as:
“Kate Forbes says Second Coming of Jesus could take place before IndyRef2.”
Scottish nationalism has always been millenarianist, just not that millenarianist.
This was a gaffe in the true sense. It is a blunder that reveals a damaging truth: the SNP doesn’t have a credible plan to offer change any time soon. Such gaffes can be laughed off when you are the imagined leader rather than the real one but this is the sort of thing that, if you were the real leader, makes you look like, well, Humza Yousaf.
As Forbes continues her manoeuvres perhaps the more deft leadership she supposedly offers really is just imagined.
In Case You Missed It…
The latest batch of statistics make for depressing reading. Deaths from alcohol are at a 15 year high and have overtaken drugs misuse as a cause of death. Poorer Scots are three times more likely to end their own lives than wealthier citizens. The numbers in the homelessness system are the highest since record began.
The infamous ferries are delayed again, to nobody’s surprise. John Ferry writes on the latest in this debacle.
Survation has Labour and the SNP neck-and-neck ahead of the next general election. Three years ago the same pollster had the SNP thirty points ahead.
The long-anticipated SNP accounts were published showing a £800,000 deficit. Somewhat at odds with Nicola Sturgeon’s reassurance to SNP NEC that “the party has never been in a stronger financial position than it is right now.” Three years ago the party had a £1m surplus.
Private Eye has its say on Humza Yousaf’s leadership.