Where Stands Scotland after the SNP Leadership Election?
It has been a whirlwind five weeks. Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation on 15 February; Humza Yousaf was elected SNP leader on 27 March and formally became First Minister on 29 March.
So many fissures and fault-lines have come to the surface about the nature and character of Scotland, politics, both devolved and beyond, and the project of independence. Previously hidden assumptions and prejudices have been uncovered that will take a longer timeframe to fully do justice to. Below are my initial thoughts about putting things into a longer-term perspective.
The SNP after the contest
The leadership contest saw the SNP in uncharted waters: a difficult leadership election where the outcome could not be called alongside uneasy public debate. Much of the commentary on the contest threw little light on it seeing it in very simple terms: left/right, gradualist /fundamentalist, Sturgeonite/Salmondite. Yet the SNP cannot be reduced to such terms as Stephen Bush observed in the Financial Times:
“One important thing not to do when discussing the SNP is to over-apply precedent or examples from other political parties in the UK, because the SNP is completely unlike the Conservative Party, the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats.”
He went on: ‘While most members of the SNP are on the liberal-left, most members of the SNP are not liberal-lefties first and foremost. They are supporters of independence.’ That is the gaze through which the election of Humza Yousaf and his narrow 52:48 victory over Kate Forbes should be primarily seen (and which much analysis ignores).
Scotland and ethnic minority representation
Humza Yousaf, of Pakistani descent, is the first First Minister from Scotland’s black and ethnic minority communities. Scotland has always liked to congratulate itself on its diversity and inclusion but until recently in politics this was not the case. Lest we forget, the 1999 and 2003 Scottish Parliaments were all-white, and it took until the 2007 elections for this to be change with the election of Bashir Ahmad – for whom Yousaf worked. Sunder Katwala, head of British Future, noted that: ‘Yousaf is the first Muslim politician elected to be a national leader in a western democracy.’
Scotland and LGBT rights
The legacy of the SNP contest in terms of LGBT rights is less clear-cut. Kate Forbes early in the contest made her personal opposition to same-sex marriage clear as well as to other issues, while saying this would not affect how she acted as First Minister. Throughout the election a host of Forbes’ supporters and wider constituency tried to go beyond merely downplaying these remarks, but still denied their import.
Forbes’ advocates of all ages and types would say things like ‘Forbes is not a social conservative’ and that she had comprehensively stated her opposition to all gay conversion therapy, when she had deliberately done no such thing. Such perspectives were prepared to diminish and disrespect the importance of LGBT equality and rights, and to then pretend they were doing no such thing – which is a politics of deception.
Former SNP MSP and minister, Marco Biagi, stated the day before the election result – as an ‘out’ gay man: ‘Whoever wins is the legitimate choice of the SNP membership, and I’ll accept that. But if it’s Kate Forbes, with her openly-stated positions on LGBT equality, that membership will have shown it’s not the one I thought it was, but one that is willing to set our rights aside.’ Sean Bell writing earlier this week in Bella Caledonia observed: ‘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.’
Scotland and the Gender Recognition Bill
This will not go away as a controversy. It is not just the Section 35 order of the UK Government and whether the Scottish Government challenges it. This was a running sore in the SNP contest and has led a host of feminist voices to support what can also be seen as a politics of anti-feminism and wider social (as well as economic) conservatism. Whatever one thinks of the logic of such a journey, this a dynamic is not going away and may, as elsewhere in the Western world, take some feminists further into deeply reactionary politics.
Trans rights have become part of the worldwide ‘cultural war’ and this has already impacted on Scotland. The influence of American far-right groups on individuals and groups protesting outside Scottish hospitals and health clinics over abortion has escalated into attempts to intimidate and interfere with the work of Sandyford Sexual Health Services in Glasgow which runs a range of NHS services including some specifically for trans people. This issue will be weaponised by the far-right, evangelical Christians, the right-wing media and the Tories at the next UK election.
Scotland and Faith
The issue of faith became a major touchstone in the SNP contest, to an extent unparalleled in recent times. This was due to Kate Forbes’ candidacy and her Free Church of Scotland background. This brought forth a dramatic catch-up exercise on the part of secular and even Central Belt Scotland, who had little detailed knowledge about the Free Church or its roots in some Highland communities.
There was a typical conversation of the ill-informed. Some opinions laid forth the charge that Scotland and progressives had an issue with people of faith, with Richard Holloway talking of ‘secular intolerance of religious views’. An amplified version from the right charged that this whole problem was whipped up by what A.N. Wilson called ‘militant secularists’ which in the words of Stephen Daisley in The Spectator was characterised by ‘a secular inquisition marked by triviality and partiality.’
More reflectively, the charges and counter-charges do point to an inability to talk and understand religion and faith. Religion is part of Scotland’s rich tapestry; it contributes to who we are, where we came from and what makes us distinct. The Free Church may well be a small community, but on many issues labelled ‘social conservative’ such as LGBT rights and abortion, their views would be similar to the official line of the Catholic Church. There does need to be a more informed, respectful debate that understands the different communities of faith in Scotland and their respective histories and traditions.
Scotland beyond the Central Belt
A more broad-based idea of Scotland did appear in the SNP debate – aided by Kate Forbes’ Highland and Gaelic speaking backstory. This was Scotland beyond the Central Belt, including the Highlands, North East of Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway, and Borders – the parts that for all their iconography are regularly forgotten by politics and broadcasters.
A contributory factor has been the morphing of the SNP under Salmond and Sturgeon as it became more popular – from a party where North East Scotland was its stronghold to one focused on the Central Belt. One former SNP insider put it: ‘The SNP since 2007 have really forgotten about the Scotland north of Perth and given nothing to North East Scotland, which used to be their traditional heartland.’
The limits of Progressive Scotland
This is not only about the 48% of SNP members who voted for Kate Forbes, many of whom voted for a myriad set of reasons. It is more about the thin nature of what passes for ‘progressive politics’ in the SNP contest, representative of the wider poor state of such politics across Scotland.
The official narrative of Scotland – devolution class and beyond – is that for all the challenges and Tory austerity, we are slowly heading towards a better, fairer, more equal Scotland. The evidence of 24 years of the Scottish Parliament and 16 of the SNP does not bear this out. There has been no movement across those two decades plus in the Gini co-efficient – measuring income inequality, while the number of children in poverty was 24% when the SNP entered office in 2007 and remains 24% in 2023. Clearly we have some thinking to do about ‘progressive Scotland’, what it means in practice and whether it is up for the challenges ahead. Some honesty would definitely be a start.
The impact of the Scottish Government
The role of the Scottish Government does need some discussion. In the SNP contest the dominant political line was to defend the Scottish Government and its record uncritically, and to blame shortcomings on Westminster Tory cuts or lack of powers. But even in this debate there was a counter-charge from Kate Forbes of ‘mediocrity’. Beyond the party is a black and white account of devolution which sees it as an expensive failure and having achieved little. This is usually put forth by the ideological right in the Telegraph, Mail and Express, but finds a voice in sections of the radical left.
Strategies for Independence
The SNP under Sturgeon ran out of treadmill on an indyref. The contest showed a lack of candour and strategy from all three candidates. At points Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes seemed to escape the shadow of Nicola Sturgeon – aided by the posturing of Ash Regan – only to row back.
If the SNP are to develop a convincing offer and approach to independence, they must do something difficult. They have to have the confidence to stop banging the drum to the same beat everyday about independence, and create a very different approach to that which has dominated post-2014. This could be called explicitly ‘Next Generation Independence’, but just as the SNP changed its appeal and language in 2006-7 to dramatic effect, outwitting its opponents such as Labour who had a set caricature of how they imagined Nationalists would behave, so independence has to engage in a similar transformation.
Scotland’s Political Commentary
There were many losers in the SNP contest, but one of them was a large section of Scotland’s political commentariat. This was not their finest hour, and a whole segment – including many who have spent decades opinionating – seem filled with bitterness, miserablism and entitlement.
There is a generational issue at play, in that a group of folk who have commented since the 1970s and 1980s continue and cling to the same threadbare cliches. But there is something about the thinness and lack of substance in Scotland’s political debate, and how it is possible to just repeat inaccurate mantras and still inhabit mainstream media platforms. This has then been added to by frustration from some at the lack of change advanced by the SNP, which boils over into disappointment and then condemnation. All of this is reinforced by the constitutional divide and the trench warfare of parts of the press.
Kenny Farquharson who often has an informed take showed the desire to engage in retro-labelling writing in The Times of the 48% support for Kate Forbes: ‘The truth is out: almost half the SNP are Tartan Tories.’ This is harking back to the insults of the 1960s and 1970s and yearning for a Labourcentric age when the Nationalists could easily be dismissed.
What is Scotland?
The roller coaster events of the past few weeks beg the question – what is Scotland? Beyond the obvious: a nation, a territory, land and a landmass. As I laid forth in Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence, Scotland is an idea or more accurately a set of ideas, continually being discussed, argued over, changing, and never reaching a final destination. This is what a nation and imagined community entails: Ernst Renan’s nation as a ‘daily plebiscite.’
The SNP contest has brought forth various characteristics about what Scotland is and its past, present and potential futures which should cause us to pause and reflect. The conventional account of modern Scotland, dominant in recent decades, has been of a progressive, inclusive and enlightened nation and people. This has drawn on Scottish nationalism, social democracy, anti-Toryism, Highland radicalism, Presbyterianism, the Scottish Enlightenment and the unco guid.
There is a modern SNP version of the above – which has posed Scots as moral citizens acting in the public good, excluding complexity and other takes on Scotland, as Kenny Farquharson put it: ‘A rule of the SNP mindset is that Scotland has to think as one. There is a singular Scottish story, a singular Scottish attitude.’ Rather the belief in a singular Scottish story is part of the problem and a denial of who we are with our many differences.
The past few weeks feel like a watershed – one with many different streams and tributaries which will take time to digest. One stand of all this is the power of Scotland as an idea and within that of dreaming. Jonathan Wilson, of Caribbean-Scots descent, reflecting on the Scotland of the 1990s (in Francesca Sobande and Layla-Roxanne Hill’s Black Oot Here: Black Lives in Scotland) commented:
“I love Scotland and I love the dream, the fantasy, the mythology associated with Scotland. But along with awakening, I’m also acutely aware that there’s a lot of embarrassing past and history that’s uncovered to me.”
We have done much uncovering in recent weeks, not all of it has been pleasant or part of that official story. This may at times have been disconcerting, but is an integral part of growing up, maturing and facing who we are – honestly and warts and all. In that, the SNP contest has done all of us a service – having provided an unexpected wake-up call and challenged our cosy, congratulatory version of Scotland.
The chimera of invoking ‘progressive Scotland’, while sidling up to the establishment, vested interests and big business, has worked well for the SNP for a number of years. But it was always going to run out of traction when the parameters of that progressivism have not addressed who has power and voice in Scotland – and who has not. Instead, it has peddled the deception that political change and independence are possible without talking about such fundamentals.
This was never the case, and the SNP will soon be reminded of such political truths – that power and voice matter and always have. If they want to address the big issues in our country, the SNP and independence – and wider Scottish politics – will eventually have to face up to this.