What have we learned from the SNP leadership race?

THIS, of course, is just the beginning.

Naturally, for two politicians in particular, it will feel like the opposite. God may have been on Kate Forbes’ side, but the Almighty did not reckon with a narrow majority of the SNP membership. Those who were on Ash Regan’s side, meanwhile, can take some comfort in all sharing the same bus home.

So what can we conclude from Humza Yousaf’s election to the role of SNP leader? A look at those rivals he overcame to reach this point may be instructive, or failing that, funny.

Forbes’ campaign could be interpreted as a lesson in the dangers of defining political victory as ‘triggering the libs’. For many of her most high-profile supporters, particularly within the Scottish media, it was not that they shared her faith as such – Forbes’ church is called ‘wee’ for a reason – but that they took a visceral and vicious enjoyment in the reactions it provoked, particularly among those who might end up in the crosshairs of her worldview were it put into power. Definitions of ‘wokeness’ may be forever nebulous – often intentionally so – but its sundry critics recognise its diametric opposite when they see it.

Thus, they delighted in the elevation of Forbes and mounted a curiously well-choreographed media offensive on her behalf, which appeared to be working off a shared script. It was wrong – perhaps even prejudiced – to judge a candidate by their views, we were told, even if those doing the telling could not conceal their glee that such views were being aired so prominently; it was also laughable, apparently, to wonder if those views might have some bearing on policy if the politician who holds them rose to the highest office in the land. From Monday’s result at Murrayfield, we may conclude that this argument was not universally convincing.

Nevertheless, there are lessons that should be drawn from Forbes’ campaign beyond its failure. Despite the contentions of some, what we euphemistically describe as ‘social conservatism’ – there are other, less polite terms for it – is not yet a vanished, bygone force in Scotland, much as many would like to think otherwise; Forbes’ 47% of second preference votes should demonstrate that. Moreover, naked proof of its zombie-like resilience in certain quarters, up to and including Scotland’s dominant political party, has been useful – it has revealed those who will endorse it, those who are prepared to lie down with it, and those who prefer to shut their eyes, plug their ears and pretend it does not exist. Meanwhile, the people whose rights, liberation and lives require a never-ending struggle against those who would deny them all three will, I suspect, remember the name of every grifter who blithely told them it was no big deal.

Regan’s candidacy told us little we did not already know, but served as another useful reminder regarding certain people’s priorities, as well as the gulf between what they tell us and what is actually true. For her most vociferous backers, Ash Regan’s opposition to trans rights was a feature – indeed, as far as they were concerned, the only feature that mattered – rather than a bug. For years, such mysteriously confident cranks have asserted that opposition to self-ID would eventually deliver an electoral earthquake. It shouldn’t need pointing out that this has not yet come to pass – evidence that Sturgeon’s resignation could be attributed to the blocking of Gender Recognition Reform is scant, to say the least, while every electoral vehicle in Scotland that has tried to muster a strategy around denying the basic humanity of trans people has had all the impact of a dropped trifle.

It won’t stop them trying, however – transphobia is among the few actual principles these people have, and no amount of inconvenient realities will make them abandon it. The fact that they have on their side a UK Government which considers frustrating devolution both necessary and fun should warn us against complacency.

What does the election of Humza Yousaf signify?

Arguably, less a victory for his campaign, hard-fought though it no doubt was, but rather yet another defeat for the noisome, motley assemblage who style themselves as opponents of Sturgeon and her legacy within the party over which she presided. Forbes and Regan, the latest understudies to audition for the role of adversary to a nefarious SNP establishment (of which both were high-ranking members as of about five minutes ago) were anointed by that constituency who sustain themselves on the faith-based delusion that someone – anyone, really – worthy of their mercurial approval could do more, do better and deliver on the dreams they felt Sturgeon has maliciously betrayed. Unfortunately for this cohort, doing so would require they not take every single pratfall and custard pie the circus of modern Scotland deigns to throw at them. In the wake of yet another defeat, I’m sure they will react with their typical grace and good humour. Real clowns, by contrast, understand that one is supposed to cry only on the inside.

Some have argued, with increasing volume in recent years, that while the iniquities of Toryism and the British state over which it presides are obvious and manifold, the failure of the SNP under Sturgeon to effectively frustrate or challenge these forces render the party of Scottish government responsible for, or even complicit in the status quo it purports to oppose. There is much truth in this assertion, but the logic of that argument does not end at the edge of Holyrood’s cloisters. If you despair, as many do, of an SNP feart of redistribution, with a paucity of radicalism and an apparent inability to advance beyond the intransigence of a UK Government that need do little other than just say ‘no’, at what point should we begin to interrogate those who have utterly failed, at every turn, to reform the chief electoral vehicle of Scottish independence, or offer an alternative worth the name?

There are critics of the Scottish Government under Sturgeon who have conducted themselves with principle and a furious articulacy – as it so often does when I seek inspiration within the national political landscape, the tenants’ union Living Rent comes to mind, with its rare and laudable refusal to be distracted from the rights and interests of its members. There are also swathes of the Scottish trade union movement and those campaigners who have fought to put the cost-of-living crisis at the forefront of our political discourse, who have clearly identified the key issues facing Scotland and have endorsed no politician or party while doing so. Others, to put it mildly, have been less disciplined, and have displayed what can only be described as a distinct lack of pickiness when choosing who to hitch their wagon to next.

I have wondered, in the weeks since Sturgeon announced her resignation, about what impact her sudden absence would have upon those who made a loathing of the erstwhile first minister the central part of their political identity – an all-consuming hatred which had precious little to do with ideology. At the risk of stating the obvious, one cannot condemn Sturgeon’s government for its neoliberalism and managerialism and then throw your enthusiastic support behind Kate Forbes or Ash Regan, unless one’s feelings towards Sturgeon are more personal than political. Nevertheless, so desperate were they for something, anything, to finally secure the downfall of their nemesis – which, rather unsportingly, she deprived them of by stepping down unprompted – a good deal of her loudest critics refuse to hold themselves and each other to the standards they apply to Sturgeon’s government and its many genuine failures. It can only be for the good of both the Scottish Left and the independence movement if these playground attitudes are no longer indulged. There is serious work ahead, and it demands a serious approach.

That approach will be necessary when Yousaf begins the actually business of governing. Contrary to reports that the SNP under Sturgeon was a Jonestown-style cult of personality, its real problem was the opposite: the party was and, unless bold steps are taken or a mass-exodus of Forbes and Regan voters takes place, presumably will remain a tent so big it can accommodate a perpetual fistfight, with the recurrent pugilists shown – for some unearthly reason – near-infinite patience. This is a party in which John Mason, in defiance of human logic, still comfortably resides. All the old familiar faces, along with their abiding grudges and preoccupations, will stick around; it is naïve therefore to expect the SNP to transform overnight – particularly in light of the issues that emerged over the course of the race – or that the reactionary ugliness it contains will dissipate.

The fact that Yousaf described himself as a “socialist” in the latter days of his campaign is further proof that the term has become so debased as to be useless (“communist”, on the other hand, has a rather useful specificity, which is one reason I’ve always preferred it). Regardless, it will be the job of actual socialists, among others, to press the new first minister on the wealth taxes he is reportedly considering, just as it will be the role of a mass-movement to demand progress on everything from rent controls to LGBT+ rights, council tax abolition to welfare provisions, the cost-of-living crisis to Scottish independence itself. Too many act as though holding the Scottish Government to account requires little more than yelling on social media and writing pissy blogs. Unless you have absolute faith in Yousaf’s ability to deliver on all fronts – a faith that he has far from earned or justified – more than that will be required.

Comments (21)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    An article crying out for editorial intervention.

    If some Bella contributors could wrest their attention away from political-party infighting and focus on the real opposition, they might see an opportunity to attack the British Empire on women’s rights issues not unconnected to the views of patriarchal Christians. Prime example: abortion. If the British are supposed to be a superior culture, why are women’s abortion rights so oppressed in their Empire, formal and informal? Was it only just in 2021 that “the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar had the strictest prohibition on abortion in Europe.”?
    Does the misogynist colonial past of the British Empire still cast a dark shadow over Caribbean and African legislation? Surely worth an article.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      Well, I did try to entreat, cajole and warn, but that lumbering behemoth of corporate newsmongery, The Guardian, has outmanoeuvred Bella. Today, its Editor, Katharine Viner, writes at the end of an apology:
      “We will do more, and in particular we will do more to report meaningfully on Black communities across the world. Over the next 12 months we will create new reporting roles based in the Caribbean. We will add to our teams in South America and Africa.”

  2. Politically Homeless says:

    Looks like regularly scheduled programming has resumed after the interregnum when it wasn’t entirely clear which way Scotland’s Power Vertical was pointing, with Gerry Hassan sounding oddly like a watered down Kevin McKenna on this site…

    In a nutshell: everyone who threatened the Green-SNP consensus is evil, and we should start taking names.

    Or as Talleyrand deftly put it regarding another elite, “they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”

    But you all know this SNP government is doomed right? Do you seriously think Humza is going to perform well at the next election? Do you seriously think support for independence is going to rise with this eejit at the helm? Is it not obvious that no-one else in the party with clout wanted what is apparently a poisoned chalice?

    And as for the dodgy membership stats, the investigations, the ferry stuff, the risible lack of administrative transparency – such an example to set of democratic transparency for would-be creators of an independent nation state (noticed no-one in the establishment Yes movement, ever) – combine that the “puzzling” fact that roughly a third of Regan’s second preference votes went to Humza.. At the very least SNP loyalists can take comfort in the fact that their tediously familiar running battles with the “StuAnon” crowd will continue for years to come.

    1. BSA says:

      ‘Politically Homeless’ is short for ‘All over the Place’ right ? There is nothing at all ‘obvious’ in the present febrile and increasingly ugly UK situation and listing off the petty media menu of alleged SNP failures and misdemeanours does not make your predictions of SNP disaster any more obvious. The ‘ferry stuff’? Big deal ! ‘Dodgy’ this and ‘puzzling’ that. Nope, not yet ! StuAnon ??
      70% plus of a still massive 70000 membership engaged and voted in difficult circumstances and gave every indication of their stability, cohesion and decency. I’d tend to tone down the predictions and take some notice of that for the future.

    2. Alvin Vertigo says:

      I love the taste of Alba tears in the evening. Toddle off now. Nobody likes a bad loser.

  3. Niemand says:

    ‘transphobia is among the few actual principles these people have, and no amount of inconvenient realities will make them abandon it’

    Article fatally undermined in one fell swoop.

    1. Alvin Vertigo says:

      The article is lucid and correct. Toddle off back to Salmond’s soothing teets.

      1. Niemand says:


        And you are confused, perhaps understandably given what you erroneously think ‘lucid’, since ironically, ‘chest feeding’ is the sole preserve of women, so Salmond has no teats to suckle on.

  4. Alvin Vertigo says:

    Great stuff! It’s hilarious tonight to watch the Alba nutters rejoicing that pushing for trans rights will bring Humza down exactly like it “destroyed” Sturgeon and Murrel. What level of wingnut do you have to be to make that argument on the same day the person foregrounding trans rights won 52% of the vote, and the transphobe limped home with 11%?

  5. Evan Alston says:

    Are there any guidelines on the site regarding using actual names. Who’s who ? Are we all white middle aged blokes ?

  6. WT says:

    Disappointing article. Again pushing disinformation on the views of candidates opposed to GRR. Transrights are already there in law – it is wrong to say opposition to GRR is opposing transrights. And, you can’t pick and choose which groups are worthy of inclusivity – time for some people to stop bashing the likes of the Free Church – discrimination is discrimination.

    1. Dave Millar says:

      ‘time for some people to stop bashing the likes of the Free Church’

      They are delusional and bigoted; they need *more* bashing, not less.

  7. Graeme Purves says:

    …and progressive community mobilisation on climate change? …and rolling back corporate capture of public policy? …and land reform? …and a public-sector-led approach to housing delivery as recommended by the Scottish Land Commission? There’s a lot to be geting on with!

  8. Willie says:

    For me two things.

    One is the absolute failure of the SNP to pursue independence preferring instead to derail it.

    The second is the absolute failure to protect and uplift so many of our citizens as they struggle to heat and light their homes, feed and clothe themselves and get NHS health care in an increasingly under resourced service.

  9. Mrs Deirdre Budd says:

    Not agreeing with the GRR bill does not automatically make one anti trans/LGBTQ and I for one find it irritating that this is how some interpret that opinion. There are major faults within that piece of legislation which have not been, and don’t look like they are ever going to be addressed.
    Yes, the post of FM is indeed a poisoned chalice and I can understand the reluctance of some very clever people to put their hat in the ring for that post. The election of Mr Yousaf to FM is an error of judgement that the SNP will take some time to recover from. This man was totally ineffective when in other senior government posts. What possess any thinking person to conclude that this makes him an ideal FM I cannot possibly begin to imagine. Unless there are plans to make his a very short lived “First Minstership.”
    I’ve supported the SNP all my life but the last few years has made me doubt the value of that political party. I still want to see an Independent Scotland, but now I seriously doubt I’ll live long enough to see that achieved.

    1. Paddy Farrington says:

      It’s fine to disagree with Humza Yousaf’s politics. But the “Yousaf is incompetent” discourse that has emerged demands further scrutiny. It has been a mainstay of the Unionist press for a while, and was given extra oxygen by Kate Forbes during the hustings. You repeat it here with your “This man was totally ineffective when in other senior government posts” remark.

      Was he really uniquely ineffective? Sure, there were failures on his watch. But there were also successes. You could say the same of pretty much every politician in government, here in Scotland and elsewhere, including some with outstanding reputations. So why is Humza Yousaf being singled out in this way?

  10. Ottomanboi says:

    The only thing that matters is independence and political sovereignty. Without that all is just noise in the playground signifying nothing in particular.
    Just the way the Scottish and British establishments like it.

  11. Itsnotexactlythe communismanifestoisit? says:

    What we have learned is that the writer is neither a communist or an intellectual. Its just guff that very few people will rean and noone will be impressed by.

  12. Nick says:

    You have completely described my thoughts over the last few weeks.
    Excellent article.

  13. Edward Chang says:

    Forbes has,in my opinion,been the major beneficiary of this situation.She has grown her support in the Party and also managed to avoid the poisoned chalice.Now,as the whirlwind starts to gather around Yousaf,she can retire to the back benches,spend time with her new family and watch the disaster unfold.When its all over,which may be sooner rather than later,the membership will be begging her to save them.Sorted.

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