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Happy Anniversary to Scotland’s First Minister, We Should Cut him Some Slack

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As Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf ends his first year in office many commentators will remark that he has had a terrible start to his period in Bute House. But that would be unfair on him.

The SNP’s failings aren’t really because of his single year in post, but rather because this feels like an eleventh year in his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon’s ten years in power. In fairness to today’s beleaguered First Minister so many of the problems he has faced were inherited from the woman who did so much to ensure that he succeeded her.  

Most memorably his start was overshadowed by a police raid on SNP headquarters, the seizure of a luxury campervan and the arrest of his predecessor. Behind the edifice of Sturgeon’s rule was a reality where the party was financially broke, and tens of thousands of members had resigned. The financial implications are most painful in an election year with the SNP now spending less on social media advertising across the whole of Scotland than Labour are spending in single constituencies. 

Sturgeon also bequeathed to him a government beset with delivery failures. One in seven Scots are on NHS waiting lists. The acclaimed defining mission of the previous administration, to cut the attainment gap between the rich and poor in schools, was abandoned to failure. Island economies suffer from a ferries crisis. Drugs deaths are the worst in Europe.

A more powerful Scottish Finance Ministry, after the extension of the 2016 Scotland Act, failed to grow the economy while offering populist giveaways to the middle classes. The result has been a budget crisis resulting in tax rises for everyone earning over £28k accompanied by cuts which mean voters are paying more for less in an election year.

Meanwhile the process of remaking the intellectual case for leaving the UK that Nicola Sturgeon initiated has limped on, largely unnoticed, avoiding the strategic issues that lost the SNP the referendum in 2014. As the change offered by independence has looked less credible and is less credibly led, Labour’s revival has presented voters with a more immediate, reliable path towards something different.

Yousaf will understandably be judged on much of the above but, in truth, none of these things is his doing. Of course, that is not to say that he didn’t have other, more politically astute, choices available to him as he dealt with the challenges bequeathed to him. The best leaders are able to use difficult choices and moments of crisis to define themselves positively. Yousaf, so far, has lacked that skill. 

If you had read all of the above, from a position of ignorance, you would believe that the SNP had totally collapsed. Certainly, there are grim rumours around Parliament: there is little budget for the General Election, Glasgow has already been written off, SNP MPs grumble and some no longer see a loyalty inducing future in politics. However, amid the worst series of political and policy crises one could imagine, the SNP are still neck and neck with Labour in Scotland.

This is because they still enjoy important structural advantages. For one thing the SNP appears to have a base of support that has been impervious to the political disasters of this past year. Many of the non-nationalist voters of the Sturgeon era appear to have deserted him, some have gone to other nationalist parties, and the 2014 No Vote appears to be coalescing around Labour’s Anas Sarwar. Despite this, Yousaf can still count on much of the hardcore of independence support.

Likewise, the frame of Scottish politics has been a nationalist one for a generation. A Labour recovery allows Sarwar and Starmer the opportunity to recast the terms of the debate away from a nationalist prism.

The margins in so many seats in Scotland are incredibly narrow. Yousaf knows that the difference between a result where he loses less than ten seats to Labour would now be seen as a triumph, and a platform on which his party could attack a Starmer Government on various populist causes. Of course, such narrow margins make it easier for Labour to win many more seats, but Yousaf will be telling himself that a small recovery in the SNP’s position in the short campaign of the General Election could make an enormous difference to what comes next – for his party and his leadership.

However, it is possible that by the end of the year Yousaf may find that his position is untenable: continuing crises in public services, heavy losses in the party, and a likely leadership challenge from the right of his party – which he would probably lose as his own SNP faction continues to be mired in scandal. 

He will be sustained with the thought of the other scenario: his losses are small enough to claim a moral victory, he repositions to become the opposition to a Labour government, the Sturgeon investigation wraps up without real consequence and, finally, he has the space to tell his own story rather than picking up the broken pieces of someone else’s leadership.

The margins between these two potential futures are wafer-thin. That is why this is the most exciting election in Scotland for a very long time.

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