Continuity won’t aid the SNP

It’s over. After five short but eventful weeks Humza Yousaf has been appointed leader of the Scottish National Party and prospective First Minister. The health secretary pipped his main rival Kate Forbes to the post by a narrow margin of 52% to 48% in the second round. Today, he will seek nomination for the top job in parliament and, if he clinches this, be sworn in at the Court of Session in Edinburgh tomorrow. Come Thursday, he’ll be fielding his first FMQs.

The news is galling for supporters of Kate Forbes, his main rival, who fought valiantly despite a secular inquisition against her, betrayal by supposed allies, and the full force of the SNP establishment undermining her at every turn. The fact that Yousaf, the chosen ‘continuity candidate’, only scraped a win underlines how formidable she is. The narrowness of the result also highlights deep fault lines within the SNP, which won’t simply evaporate when Humza enters Bute House.

Yousaf’s campaign emphasised his identity as a social “progressive” who supports divisive policies such as the gender recognition legislation blocked by the UK Government earlier this year. Immediately after the result was declared on Monday afternoon, he committed to a court battle over this bill if legal advice suggests his government might win. It was a signal of allegiance to a coterie of activists in the SNP whose policies are alienating to many Scots.

Going to court over this legislation will anger SNP politicians and party members who are acutely concerned that it threatens women’s rights, and child safeguarding. Damage to party unity is likely, at a time when the SNP can least afford it. Under Yousaf’s premiership, the Greens are also set to keep their place in government, where they will be able to leverage a divisive agenda. Their work in government has already upset the business community and northeast voters.

Yousaf assumes a party that is deeply at odds on how independence should be won. He will be tasked with bringing together deeply disgruntled members who feel the Sturgeon years were a wasted opportunity with moderates who favour an incremental approach. His campaign provided little detail on how he intends to do this. Yousaf also has a bad rep to shake: his performances in his previous ministerial posts are seen as poor, even by allies. Winning trust and confidence is a tall order.

A Kate Forbes premiership would have been hated by the most intolerant progressives in the SNP, but I suspect it was the party’s best hope of success. She was shrewd enough to know prioritising toxic policies is a bad move. She articulated a viable approach for building support for independence (good governance that delivers for Yes and No voters) and was thought competent enough to deliver. Crucially, she also showed an ability to dialogue with those who need to be won over.

Scotland’s largest independence-supporting party needs fresh ideas and dynamism to tempt more people over to its cause. Brexit and years of open goal blunders by the Tory party haven’t been the boon to independence support you might expect, which rather suggests it’s confidence in the SNP that’s the problem. People are not convinced this is a party that can usher in a viable independent country. Yousaf, like him or not, does not seem capable of garnering the respect necessary to change this.

Forbes’ loss this week could turn out to be a big loss for the SNP. The party is mired in division. It’s beleaguered, and bereft of ideas. As the Highland MSP herself has said, ‘continuity won’t cut it’. In fact, it’s the last thing the SNP needs. It’s opponents will sleep soundly for the foreseeable future.

Image credit: Scottish Government Flickr page

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