Humza Yousaf will regret winning this contest

·5 min read
Humza Yousaf speaks after being elected as new SNP party leader
Humza Yousaf speaks after being elected as new SNP party leader

Much was made, during the SNP leadership campaign, of Unionists’ desire to see Humza Yousaf triumph in the contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon as party leader and Scotland’s first minister.

Now that the health secretary has achieved his ambition and is about to be put in charge, not only of his party but of the devolved government in Edinburgh, we shall soon see if his detractors’ gleeful anticipation was justified.

Before we get into that, I should say that in the few dealings I have had with Yousaf, I have found him courteous, pleasant and thoughtful, so even though we hail from opposing political traditions, I want to offer him my sincere congratulations.

The oft-heard argument in the last month was that Yousaf, having failed to shine in any of the departments he has led as a minister, would quickly find himself out of depth as first minister, an easy target for clever opposition barbs at First Minister’s Questions and an unreliable figurehead for the nationalist movement.

It’s always a good idea to offer any victor the benefit of the doubt, so let us assess Mr Yousaf’s qualities in as dispassionate a manner as possible. First of all, we should not underestimate the value of being underestimated: Yousaf will face his first session of FMQs this Thursday (despite an earlier attempt by SNP business managers to cancel it, which would have given the new first minister a breathing space that would have lasted until after the Easter recess). Whatever his personal weaknesses, Yousaf knows how to deliver a good sound bite; it is more likely than not that at his first outing, spurred on by an almost united party behind him, he’ll emerge largely unscathed.

Cue headlines about the new first minister’s mastery of the chamber. None of them will be true, but first impressions count, and a good performance, even an insubstantial one, will see him through the difficult early weeks of his leadership.

And then the fun will really start.

It will not be long before the insoluble challenges that bedevilled – and ultimately defined – Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure re-emerge to give her successor some sleepless nights. Even before he was elected leader, Yousaf was listed as a guest speaker at the next rally of the nationalist umbrella group, All Under One Banner, due to take place in Glasgow on May 6. If he chooses to appear, the crowd will likely give him a warm welcome; he was, after all, the “continuity candidate” in this election, and will say all the things about Scottish democracy and Westminster perfidy for which Sturgeon became known.

But there will be many in that crowd who will sense they’re being strung along the same path offered by Sturgeon, a path packed with all the right language and rhetoric but which ultimately leads the movement no closer to independence.

It was Sturgeon, after all, who helpfully forced the Supreme Court to confirm what most of us already knew: that Holyrood has no legal authority to hold another independence referendum. It is that uncomfortable fact that finally created a fissure in the SNP’s previously immaculate carapace, revealing to the world that a party once so confident in the ultimate success of its defining mission now seemed unsure of how to placate its impatient members.

Faced with the same implacable refusal by Westminster to indulge nationalist demands for another divisive referendum that finally stumped Sturgeon, Yousaf will need to come up with an alternative and credible strategy that will satisfy not only his own members but also nationalists across the wider movement. The danger he faces is that discouraged SNP members will give up on the party’s ability to deliver and defect to the likes of Alba, Alex Salmond’s rival party.

During the recent leadership campaign, Yousaf was careful not to commit to many specific policies, promising instead to “look at” various radical measures, from removing the charitable status of private schools to increasing taxes on the wealthy. That approach saw him successfully through a leadership contest. It may even see him through the first six months or so of his tenure in Bute House. But it will not satisfy those expecting him to do what even Sturgeon – universally appreciated as a far more accomplished politician than Yousaf – failed to do, and act as the Moses who will lead his people out of bondage and into the promised independent land of milk and honey.

That is a pressure point that First Minister Yousaf can simply not hope to evade for long. Another is his party’s poor record of delivery when it comes to economic growth and public services, neither of which excites nationalists much but which are of vital importance to the rest of Scotland. With the departure of not only Sturgeon but her deputy, John Swinney, Humza will need to recruit new talent to his cabinet; given the relatively shallow pool of talent at Holyrood, this will be a challenge in itself.

Add to the mix the dire need to bring a firm managerial hand to his party and to find a permanent replacement for chief executive Peter Murrell, who resigned under a cloud two weeks ago after furnishing a senior press officer with misleading party membership figures, and the task facing Yousaf seems almost insurmountable. And that’s before the implications of the ongoing police investigation into the SNP’s accounts are considered.

Mr Yousaf begins his period in Scotland’s highest political office with a degree of good will. All the signs are that, before too long, he will come to regret winning this contest at all.