Sturgeon Eyes square

Can Yousaf ever come out of Sturgeon’s shadow?

WHO HASN’T been spell-bound by the drama unfolding in Scottish politics since Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation? When she resigned, I wrote about tectonic plates shifting, but not in my wildest imaginings did I think that within two short months the Scottish political world would turn upside down.

Nicola Sturgeon, once queen of all she surveyed, is gone – in hiding, silent on Twitter, too feart to make personal appearances and widely predicted to soon disappear entirely from the political stage. At least that was the case until Tuesday when she opted for an impromptu press audience at Holyrood, ensuring her domination of the following day’s front pages.

She rehashed the routine she perfected over the Salmond affair – lamenting her inability to speak about the matter, playing the victim and going all-out for the sympathy vote. She rightly stayed away from Holyrood when the new First Minister returned after the Easter recess for fear she would overshadow him, but nothing has changed – except that an interview under caution, or her outright arrest, must surely be inevitable following the arrests of party CEO Peter Murrell and treasurer Colin Beattie. She is the only one of the three signatories of the SNP accounts lodged with the Electoral Commission to have evaded the boys in blue, and she is there as leader.

If ever a buck stopped with Nicola Sturgeon, this is it.

Sturgeon’s tellingly nervous presser on Tuesday had nothing to do with helping her successor or the party’s standing, for it was always going to do the opposite. This was a purely egocentric intervention by a narcissist who is habituated to the limelight. Sturgeon is accustomed to choreographing her own image as a media darling and nationalist icon in blatant defiance of the laws of political gravity; she, and a not insignificant number of SNP diehards, cannot believe that time is now past.

With the queen dead, ghostly emanations notwithstanding, the SNP, her electorally unassailable party envied by politicians the world over, is a basket-case. The personality cult which kept the party together and ensured iron discipline has gone up in smoke. The SNP online store has deleted all its Nicola merchandising.

Just as Sturgeon’s appearance yesterday signified the total lack of messaging discipline at the top of the party, so the on-going public spats between the current and former Westminster party leaders, unimaginable a few months ago, signify the breakdown of discipline further down the food chain. The common cause, of course, isn’t just a vacuum in leadership or an immolated comms operation. Rather everyone from Sturgeon downwards is busy saving their own skins. The current SNP Westminster leader blamed his predecessor who in turn blamed his hapless treasurer for not informing the parliamentary authority about the loss of auditors – who of course also denied any legal responsibility to do so. This merry-go-round is likely to spread as the party’s troubles worsen.

In place of the Nicola personality cult, we have Humza Yousaf who can neither shake off his sobriquet “Humza Useless” nor the defining video of himself falling off a mobility scooter in a Holyrood corridor; both are emblems of his multiple failures in a series of ministerial jobs and a portent for his performance as First Minister. According to a YouGov poll last week, Scottish voters regard Yousaf as “incompetent, weak and out of touch”. Depressingly for Yousaf, this followed his attempt to “reset” the Scottish government when he announced his programme two weeks ago, leaving him with an approval rating in Scotland only two points higher than Sunak.

Like his initial First Minister’s Questions, Yousaf’s second FMQs also sported many empty spaces on the SNP benches. There is little sign of the affection “oor Nic” inspired. At his first outing he showed the nastiness and aggression necessary to play to the nat gallery, but he lacks his former boss’s capacity for performative empathy and sure-footed PR.

Doorstepped by the press whenever he enters or exits the chamber at Holyrood, Yousaf is perpetually on the back-foot, coming over like a bemused press secretary for the previous administration, rather than a leader in his own right. He’s always explaining and reacting, rather than keeping shtum or leading.

“Humza Yousaf, the gaffe that keeps on giving”, as one commentator put it.  Asked if he was surprised by Colin Beattie’s arrest, Humza paused. “Ah well”, he began with the most pregnant of pauses, before adding “Yes of course I’m surprised when one of my colleagues has been arrested.” He keeps on making the kindergarten mistake of repeating the charge against him. Later he was asked if he could guarantee that the SNP wasn’t acting in a criminal way under his leadership. “I certainly don’t believe it is,” came the retort. “At all.” Meant to be reassuring, his response was anything but.

The latest own goal came when the First Minister was asked about burner phones – paraphernalia more commonly associated with organised crime syndicates – following the news that the police were searching for them. He saidhe would be “surprised” if sim cards were used to “preserve anonymity”, adding the party was not “operating in a criminal way”.

The prospects for a Yousaf government are grim. The main takeaways in his agenda for government were delays to the implementations of the Deposit Recovery Scheme (DRS) and National Care Service, both of which were so ill-conceived and roundly criticised that he had little choice. If these actions were supposed to put clear blue water between himself and Sturgeon’s regime – as if he were not the much-touted continuity candidate – they failed.

Yousaf remains shackled to the Greens  and their deeply unpopular policies – not just on the DRS, as fronted by the universally loathed and increasingly grotesque “wine bar revolutionary” Lorna Slater, but also on running down the oil and gas industries, on road upgrades and now Marine Protected Areas which will decimate much of Scottish fishing and marine tourism. Appealing the Government’s Section 35 order on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill is of course another red line for the Greens which Yousaf is bowing down to, despite four fifths of the Scottish electorate opposing the terms of the GRR.

Yousaf’s cabinet and wider ministerial appointments were widely decried as stuffed with “cronies, lackeys and proven flops” such as the twice-sacked Angela Constance. More dangerously, he deliberately excluded Kate Forbes, his rival in the leadership race, and her supporters. This matters because Yousaf only won by a narrow margin (48% to 52%) in an election in which he was relentlessly pushed as the candidate favoured by the SNP hierarchy to the point that many thought the contest had been rigged. There is now a phalanx of perhaps 12-15 Forbites on the back benches, an alternative and considerably more talented government in waiting.

Pro-SNP commentators like Stephen Gethins, Lesley Riddoch and Kevin Pringle have been wheeled out to argue the scandals and missteps do not suggest a party in inexorable decline, hastily pointing to how comparatively well the polls have held up in the circumstances and above all, the continuing 46% support for independence. I have the impression that these loyalists doth protest too much. As soon as political momentum turns against a leader or government, as it has with Yousaf and the SNP, it is extremely difficult to halt and reverse. Labour is predicting that it can win up to 20 Scottish seats in next year’s general election, when it currently has only one Scottish MP in the Commons.

Regardless of what further scandal – or indeed charges – emerge in the present police inquiry (and don’t forget there is also an ongoing police investigation into allegations of perjury on the SNP/government side in the Salmond trial – and an investigation into Sandstone Press  receiving public funds for a book on Nicola Sturgeon’s speeches), we should recall what the SNP has already lost in recent months: Westminster Leader, Westminster Deputy Leader, Party Leader & First Minister, Party Deputy Leader, Deputy First Minister, Head of Parliamentary Comms, CEO, First Minister’s Chief of Staff, National Treasurer, independent auditors. Lady Bracknell would be speechless.

How can any organisation or company expect to retain the trust of its members or customers after such a wholesale clear-out? The cabal at the top has spent the post-Salmond years purging the party of people with experience and the capacity for independent thought. It is little wonder the party is now facing severe financial difficulty, with the imminent prospect of the Westminster Parliamentary party losing over £1.1 million in short money.

For some years now, the best and most informed analyses of the SNP’s travails are to be found in the blogs of Stuart Campbell (aka Wings Over Scotland) Robin McAlpine and Craig Murray. All are long-standing, committed independence campaigners and one-time SNP supporters; indeed Wings broke the story about the missing £600,000 over three years ago. At the moment their writing is indispensable if you want to know what is really going on in the SNP and the independence movement. All have links to Alba, the alternative independence party set up by Alex Salmond in February 2021. Strikingly, Alba is almost never mentioned by the official SNP (as if they can pretend it doesn’t exist) and has little exposure in the mainstream press, but it represents a split in the independence movement, away from the SNP, which can only now grow. Alba is presently playing its cards close to its chest, by being careful, for example, not to endorse publicly Ash Regan in the leadership contest despite her advocacy of key Alba policies, and by holding low key town hall meetings in a current tour with Alex Salmond across Scotland. The latest polls already give it a handful of list seats in the 2026 Holyrood election.

What is already clear, I think, is that the independence vote in Scotland will in future be split in the way that the unionist vote has been. The SNP will no longer be able to monopolise or even dominate either the independence movement or Holyrood. With the demise of the SNP, a second independence referendum is off the agenda for a very long time. No one should pretend otherwise, although Yousaf has gone curiously silent on the subject of independence. Remember Sturgeon’s boast “Indyref 2 – 19th October – no ifs no buts”? It now sounds as fantastical as a flat earth conspiracy. Perhaps that’s why it has been very quietly cancelled, as intimated in a letterfrom the Scottish Government’s Referendums Scotland Bill Team, leaked by Wings.

What of Scotland’s official opposition? They obviously can’t believe their luck, but true to form, they are failing to exploit the opportunity. Douglas Ross seemed to be keener on joining Angus Robertson on his jolly to Tartan Week in the Big Apple than attacking Yousaf’s programme for government; his novice deputy Meghan Gallagher was left to stumble through a weak script. Anas Sarwar is stronger, but like the Tories, Labour has failed to go for the jugular in the way Nicola Sturgeon would have done had a scintilla of the scandal engulfing the SNP emerged about her counterparts. Of course, there are worries about contempt of court during a live police investigation – the smokescreen Yousaf and company try to hide behind – but that does not account for the weakness of the opposition response.

It is saying something, when the most trenchant opposition to the Scottish Government comes from the likes of Campbell, McAlpine and Murray and from the SNP back benches – no one should miss the rhetorically delectable attack by Fergus Ewing at last week’s FMQs.

One obvious way the opposition could capitalise on the SNP’s troubles is by blowing up the nationalist myth of Scottish exceptionalism: that Holyrood, the Scottish Government and the SNP are morally superior to their UK equivalents. It was one of Sturgeon’s favourite sermons and it should be turned back on her at every opportunity – Rishi Sunak managed a put down along these lines at Prime Minister’s Questions this week.

Finally, as the Sturgeon era comes to end – not with the bang of independence or major reform of Scotland’s ailing public services, but with the many whimpers of corruption and regret – what does it mean for devolution and the set-up at Holyrood? The malaise that has afflicted Scottish politics and wider society since 2014 isn’t just down to contingent personalities; it is also cultural and structural.

This was the thrust of Lord Frost’s article in the Telegraph last week:

“Devolution was about enabling powers to be exercised closer to the people in a more practical and accountable way. Instead it has resulted in the creation of closed-shop fiefdoms, effective one-party states, a tinpot amateurish one in Wales and a seriously dangerous one in Scotland. Let’s not forget that most people in Scotland oppose independence and in Wales there is real ambivalence about the extent of devolution. Yet that Scottish majority has to live with permanent uncertainty about their future as British citizens, and with a bullying, hectoring political culture that, hitherto, has intimidated SNP critics into submission.”

Shamefully, Scottish Tory MSPs joined the chorus of condemnation which deliberately misread and mischaracterised Frost. In his Scotsman column Brian Monteith speculated that this moronic response by the Scottish Conservatives was down to a sense that being seen to criticise Holyrood in any meaningful way would incur a high electoral cost: “Better to allow the SNP to abuse Holyrood’s limits by leaving Holyrood unreformed.”

Beyond the current gripping dramas, the overriding task for unionists in Scotland is  surely to map out a devolution settlement which can ensure better governance than we have endured in the last decades. Nationalists like to talk about having an Independence Convention. Why can’t unionists put aside party rivalry for a minute and hold a Devolution Convention? Nationalists interested in improving Scotland in the here-and-now as opposed to the never-never land of post-independence would be welcome to join.

More by Linda Holt: Sturgeon’s time was up – leaving a legacy of abject failure

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