Humza Yousaf’s victory in the hard-fought race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland is the best result for the SNP – not because he represents any great step forwards for the separatist cause, but merely because he won’t throw it immediately into reverse.
Ash Regan and Kate Forbes, his defeated opponents, are very different politicians. But both would have had enormous difficulty trying to take command of the Nationalist machine.
Regan, the hard-liner, was committed to an all-out push for independence at any cost, if necessary without a referendum or any legal recognition by Westminster. As an exercise in finding out what the separatist core vote is, it has some merit. As a strategy for either delivering independence or holding on to power in Edinburgh, it was pure political hemlock.
Forbes, the current finance minister, is a much more individually impressive politician. But as a social conservative who leans right on economics and represents a rural constituency, she is an artefact of an earlier age.
Sturgeon’s great achievement was smashing the superficially-formidable but increasingly hollow Labour Party and capturing its heartlands in Scotland’s heavily-populated central belt.
This involved a big shift to the left on both economic and social policy; the ‘Tartan Tories’ were consigned to history. As the preferred candidate of the SNP hierarchy, Yousaf was the best candidate to try and hold this coalition together.
But that isn’t quite the same thing as his actually being a good candidate in any broader sense.
His ministerial record, as justice secretary and later health secretary, is poor, and he lacks his predecessor’s first-class communication skills.
He also inherits from her an extremely difficult political position. Despite Scotland voting against Brexit and all the chaos that has wracked Westminster over the past few years, the SNP has failed to shift public opinion
This failure is not just disappointing for the Nationalists, but dangerous. They owe their dominance to uniting the separatist electorate, and that electorate is united by little else, least of all the Scottish Government’s woeful domestic record.
Signs of disaffection are already apparent: there was a scandal during the campaign when it turned out the party had been lying about losing tens of thousands of members, and only 70 per cent of those that remain bothered to vote.
Trapped between his increasingly impatient activists and a stubborn public, Yousaf’s honeymoon as First Minister may be very brief indeed.
- Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome