More of the same but not as good.
5 things we have learned as Humza Yousaf narrowly defeats Kate Forbes.
Humza Yousaf just scraped a win over Kate Forbes. What does this tell us?
1. We Live in a Remarkable Country.
We will now have both a First Minister and a Prime Minister who can trace their families back to South Asia. We will have our first Muslim and our First Hindu heads of government.
While a shrinking minority will see this as a negative, I love that most of us see it as something to celebrate, or, perhaps more typically, as something that is no longer even worthy of mention. That minority will continue to make their voices heard and remind us that racism and islamophobia are still serious problems and I’m sorry our new First Minister will face that.
Before returning to politics as usual, we should celebrate that we live in a country where you can be many things at the same time and where our layered identities are not exclusive to each other.
Even as we oppose each other, we should celebrate that UK is the country of Sunak, Khan, Sarwar, and now Yousaf.
2. Tartan Toryism is Alive and Well
Nearly half of SNP members just voted for a very right-wing candidate.
I choose that language carefully. Forbes was not just the choice from the right of the SNP, she was the choice from the right of politics.
Almost half of SNP members looked at a politician who is against gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, feminism, and having children outside of marriage, and they thought that politician best represented their view of Scotland’s future.
When she wasn’t espousing these socially conservative views, Forbes spent the campaign criticizing those who argue for more money for public services and promising smaller government, and still, twenty four thousand SNP members choose her.
You might argue that Forbes near-victory does not tell us anything about the ideology of the SNP but instead is about the nature of this contest. I’m not sure an argument that Yousaf was so unconvincing that the party nearly opted for the political love child of Margaret Thatcher and Brian Soutar.
Yousaf’s chief attack line on Labour is that the party is “a pale imitation” of Sunaks’s Tory party. The SNP has liked to portray itself as a more morally pure, more socially democratic organization than its Labour rival. That conceit died today. Tartan Toryism is alive and well inside the SNP.
3. The SNP is Split and Weaker Than Before
What the last few months, including the period before the leadership contest, is that SNP is a disciplined and united machine - if they believe the end of their long journey is within reach. It is a movement glued together by faith in the inevitability of its own success, despite the absence of any evidence of this. If you don’t keep them moving, if you can’t keep them believing that the promised land is just over the brow of the next hill, the caravan will quickly disintegrate.
Most leadership campaigns begin with the candidates making veiled attacks on each other as they seek to define themselves against one another. Usually, the last few days are spent with the candidates praising each other’s abilities and talking about how they would happily serve each other. By contrast, today’s interview by Yousaf in the Daily Record saw him continue to attack his rival:
“For me the choice is a pretty stark one. We can either continue to build on that progressive agenda and legacy that has been left behind by Nicola and John Swinney, that has helped us to become the largest political party by quite some distance in Scotland, or we roll back and we don’t make progress.
“I think we will simply struggle to win our independence.”
He added: “I think some of Kate’s policies that target economic growth and some of her other policies, particularly around the equality agenda, I think jar with those that are on the centre left.”
Remember that, until a few weeks ago, Forbes was talked of as the most talented nationalist of her generation. Even with the party establishment doing everything to tip the scales against her, she now represents half the membership. A party that cannot find a way to accommodate ability and ambition will find instead antagonism and acrimony.
In the background to all of this is the malevolent presence of Salmond and his Alba party. During the contest, he lent his chief adviser to Ash Regan. Kate Forbes used the same press officer as Salmond used during his trial. Now that the final chance to get revenge over his old protege has passed, and with Putin’s money no longer available to him, will he go off and paint watercolors in peace? I doubt it.
Yousaf takes the helm of a party that was already deeply divided, but without the mandate or machine that Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed.
4. The New SNP Leader is a Downgrade.
Polling from Ipsos shows that after weeks of the leadership campaign, voters still prefer the conservative Forbes to Yousaf. Forbes has a net favourability score of -8, while Yousaf’s score is -20. Just one in five Scots have a favorable opinion of the new SNP leader - less than half the favourability of Nicola Sturgeon.
Worrying for the SNP, the same poll shows three in five Scots say they have been paying close attention to the contest where the hopefuls have been damning of each other, most memorably in this clip by Kate Forbes:
This is perhaps the single most damaging thing about the SNP’s contest. The debate has exposed that the candidates understand that the record of the SNP government, and its stewardship of the nationalist movement, has been mediocre, but they have chosen the candidate whose entire pitch has been to offer more of the same.
Chris Deerin’s analysis in the New Statesman is worth a read on this:
“The polls suggest voters have taken a look and are unimpressed by what they see – a pet who is being asked to become master, a politician unaware of his own limitations and who lacks the qualities needed in a national leader.”
The SNP have chosen more of the same, but not as good. SNP members knew this. That is why, even with the entire SNP establishment throwing its weight behind him, Yousaf could only scrape a narrow win over a deeply conservative candidate.
5. Scotland Will Remain in the Union.
Humza Yousaf and the other candidates went through the motions of telling SNP members that independence was between three and five years away. In reality, Yousaf now finds himself without any policy on independence, without a process to deliver it, and without public support for leaving the UK.
Yousaf has dropped Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to use the next general election as a de facto referendum leaving the SNP government without a process for delivering an exit from the UK.
Yousaf has chosen to continue with Sturgeon’s Sterlingisation non-plan and has attacked Regan for being the only candidate to talk about the economic truth of independence: that Scotland would immediately have to move to create a new currency, implying enormous austerity. The new leader has aligned himself with the embarrassingly threadbare plans published by his predecessor. He is many years away from having a real plan for breaking away from the UK.
Finally, Yousaf has acknowledged that there is no ‘settled will’ in support of independence. YouGov, Survation, and Redfield & Wilton have all polled during the contest and found that the nationalist movement has made little or no progress since 2014 - despite hundreds of thousands of No voters dying in that period. For all the talk about inevitability, despite all the crises that have occurred in the last few years, even with the huge resources of the Scottish Government focussed on nothing but making the case for leaving the UK, it seems that people are drifting away from nationalism, not towards it.
For the foreseeable future, Scotland is going to continue as part of the UK. Even Nicola Sturgeon lacked the strength to stand up to her members and tell them the truth. She found she was able to keep stringing her party along indefinitely to avoid coming clean to them. I doubt Yousaf can do what she could not.