Scottish National Party’s Humza Yousaf inherits ‘tremendous mess’

Scottish National Party’s Humza Yousaf inherits ‘tremendous mess’
Опубликовано: Monday, 27 March 2023 15:32

The new leader of Scotland’s governing party faces splits, discontent and falling membership.


LONDON — Good luck to Humza Yousaf — Scotland’s next first minister is going to need it.

Narrowly elected as the new leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party Monday (SNP), Yousaf faces the monumental task of bringing together a party that has been driven apart by a bitter leadership contest.

And he must now step into the shoes of Nicola Sturgeon, who took the SNP to new heights but left her successor with a formidable in-tray, including major strategic questions about the future of Scotland’s fight for independence from the United Kingdom.

“Where there are divisions to heal, we must do so quickly,” Yousaf said Monday. His slim margin of victory over his nearest rival, Kate Forbes, lays bare the scale of that task.

“I think it’s been a lot more robust than people anticipated at first,” one former Scottish government adviser said of the contest, with some understatement. Others have been more forthright.

“There is a tremendous mess and we have to clear it up,” the party’s interim chief executive Mike Russell told the BBC, in the wake of a mid-contest row that led to Sturgeon’s own husband Peter Murrell resigning his post as chief executive.

Messy contest, messy party

Almost two decades of uninterrupted top-down party rule by Sturgeon and her predecessor — mentor-turned nemesis Alex Salmond — were brought to an abrupt end when Sturgeon announced her shock resignation February.

Major differences were already bubbling under the surface on Sturgeon’s watch — and some of her critics argue she has handed a toxic inheritance on to her successor.

The SNP’s outgoing leader faced widespread internal opposition to both her strategy for gaining Scottish independence and — to a lesser degree — her government’s plan to make it easier for people to legally change gender. The party split over both issues, with politicians once loyal to Sturgeon beginning to openly express their discontent.

“[Sturgeon] clearly allowed all this toxin to fester, and now all the pus has burst all over the body politic of Scotland,” said the pro-independence columnist Neil Mackay, who writes for the Herald newspaper.

Indeed, Yousaf now faces the prospect of leading a party that only narrowly voted for him — and the closeness of the result is likely to be studied closely because Forbes at one point looked definitively out for the count.

The finance secretary and devout Christian faced a flurry of questions about her socially conservative views in the opening days of the contest, admitting among other things that she would have voted against legalizing same-sex marriage.

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A raft of early supporters promptly announced they were withdrawing their support, and some suspected Forbes would withdraw just days into the contest.

Instead, she came out fighting — and it was Yousaf’s record as a minister in her firing line.

In the campaign’s first televised debate, Forbes slated his record in terms that had one activist accusing her of “using opposition hit lines against a colleague.” Such public splits are particularly significant in a party once famed for its ability to keep big disagreements behind closed doors.

“When you were transport minister, the trains were never on time,” Forbes told Yousaf in that debate. “When you were justice minister, the police were strained to breaking point. And now, as health minister, we’ve got record-high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?”

The rival Conservative and Labour parties could hardly have hoped for a better attack ad against the man who’ll now lead the SNP.

Asked if the party has been in a worse position in recent history, a former SNP adviser said it had not. “But tales of our demise are greatly exaggerated,” they insisted.

Record questioned

If the party is to prove that is the case, however, Yousaf must begin to quickly turn around public perceptions of the very government Forbes openly derided.

While Sturgeon largely enjoyed positive approval ratings among the public throughout her time in government — and leaves office with a net approval rating of +8, according to an Ipsos poll — the same can’t be said of the government she led.

Ipsos’ polling found that across a number of policy issues — including on health care, education and standard of living — “more people think that the Scottish government is doing a bad job than think they’re doing a good job,” the pollster’s Rachel Ormston explained.

The government’s handling of the NHS — Yousaf’s current portfolio — is “rated particularly poorly,” she added, while most polls find that Yousaf himself is not popular with the wider Scottish electorate.

Some in the party also question whether he’s up to the job, given his struggle to avoid negative headlines in previous Cabinet jobs.

“Nobody — including his backers — looks at Humza and says ‘there’s our leader for the next 10 years’ or even that he’ll win independence,” the same former SNP adviser said. “Even the [SNP] establishment probably see him as a placeholder for someone better.”

The tightness of the SNP election result is likely to be studied closely because Kate Forbes at one point looked definitively out for the count | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty images

Membership drop

Speaking in Edinburgh Monday, Yousaf vowed to “lead the SNP in the interests of all party members, not just those who voted for me” and to “lead Scotland in the interests of all of our citizens.”

But as he tries to rally the troops, Yousaf must also contend with a stark drop in the SNP’s membership numbers.

Figures released by the party amid a bitter row that in itself claimed the scalps of the SNP’s chief executive and its head of communications at the Scottish parliament show it has lost more than a third of its members over the last three years — dropping from a height of around 125,000 in 2019 to 72,186 at the latest count.

Optimistic SNP supporters put the drop down to drift, meaning members simply forgot to renew amid the pandemic and then cost-of-living crisis. Others point to the party’s lack of progress toward its ultimate prize of gaining independence from the rest of the U.K. its mixed record in government after more than 15 years in power. Low turnout in the leadership election — just 70 percent of eligible members cast their votes — will only add to doubt about whether the SNP remains an engaging force.

Yousaf becomes first minister in the coming days — and Scotland will soon discover if it’s sink or swim time for the party he leads.

“It has to be the most poisoned chalice of all the poisoned chalices … this is a disaster that even the best political operator would drown in,” Mackay said.

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