Reinventing Independence, the challenge for Humza Yousaf

There’s a saying that ‘if you’re getting it in the neck from both sides you’re doing something right’ and this certainly seems to be the case right now. For the thought-crime of having been critical of Kate Forbes and Ash Regan in the leadership election I have been mis-characterised as an establishment stooge, slavishly loyal to the SNP leadership. This is laughable, the truth is I found the leadership contest pretty depressing and though I found Ash Regan comical and some of Kate Forbe’s views lamentable and reactionary, I didn’t find Humza Yousaf very convincing at all either. The Polish proverb ‘Not my circus, not my monkeys’ comes to mind. Given where we are though I hope I am wrong about Yousaf and his newly formed government. I remain cautiously pessimistic.

To be honest the binaries being presented between the three candidates are far more extreme than the reality. Their differences are matters of degree, and these differences are only amplified by the splits and divisions within the party and movement. Again, I hope I am wrong and that the more progressive words being articulated by Yousaf’s younger new government translate into action. But, as they say, I hae my doubts. 

As Dani Garavelli wrote in the Guardian: “It is clear from his campaign that Yousaf understands the disappointment many supporters feel about the SNP’s failure to improve the lives of the marginalised. His openness to introducing new taxes for the wealthy is preferable to Forbes’s more conservative economic bent. And yet his pledge to hold a summit for anti-poverty groups has all the hallmarks of the same old, same old: setting up yet another talking shop instead of taking action.”

This is perhaps the litmus test, can Yousaf’s government move beyond what many saw as performative, tokenistic acts to a more dynamic and transformative politics within the real-world limits of devolution? To what extend can Yousaf step beyond the timidity and softly-softly approach nurtured by his predecessor?

It is a strange world we live in. Kate Forbes – a relatively inexperienced politician with a reputation for competence – has ascended to the status of a minor deity, the saviour of the SNP/the independence movement/Scotland (delete as required). The evidence for such claims seems flimsy at best, but such is the vitriol now swishing around the gunnels of the independence movement that such desperation endures. Her competence is overplayed, just as Yousaf’s incompetence is. He was after all, health secretary during a global pandemic.

The experience of watching the leadership contest unfold was not an unedifying one but we would be mistaken for believing that everything was ‘back to normal’ or there has been a smooth transition back to a ‘Sturgeonite hegemony’ despite the more paranoid hysteria from some. There is much at stake.

One the one hand as Jamie Maxwell has pointed out (‘Under Humza Yousaf, the Scottish National Party Has a Choice Between Revival and Decline’) ‘Yousaf’s victory staved off an unexpectedly forceful right-wing revolt’ which combined elements of dissatisfaction and resentment from a range of recalcitrant players within the party. As Maxwell notes:

“Had she won, however, the party might well have split. Forbes is a member of the fundamentalist Free Church of Scotland. Her hard-line social views on abortion and trans rights echo what the late Tom Nairn once called the “rough-hewn sadism” of the SNP’s provincial, traditionalist wing. Under her leadership, urban millennials would have fled — and taken their disproportionately high levels of enthusiasm for Scottish self-government with them. But by electing Yousaf, the SNP — after a decade and a half of incumbency — has given itself a shot at progressive reinvention.”

Maxwell points out that Yousaf’s radicalism – his avowed republicanism – talks of the introduction of windfall taxes, wealth taxes, and the public ownership of Scottish renewables – is offset by his experience as a career politician, moulded by Holyrood ambivalence and hesitancy.

Maxwell writes: “There are the stirrings of a semi-radical platform here, anchored in Yousaf’s stated willingness to use the economic powers of the Scottish Parliament to their fullest extent. Crucially, unlike Forbes, Yousaf will also honor Sturgeon’s coalition arrangement with the Scottish Greens, which means maintaining the current pro-independence majority at Holyrood and bolstering demands for an accelerated Scottish transition to net zero.”

But herein there is a problem too, as I wrote the other day, we are in the midst of an angry denialist backlash against the green agenda. This dichotomy for Yousaf – between revival and decline – faces challenges on many fronts, but here’s two. The green agenda – the loose coalition he has maintained – is under assault on all fronts. Elements of the left are critical of the Greens for not being radical enough, the right hate them for their commitment to GRR, the business lobby (a powerful force in Scotland) hate them for them asking them to do something (anything). The main challenge for the SNP-Green coalition is to make meaningful progress on Just Transition, a progress that has been starkly absent. This is because its difficult and complex, but much flows from success in this field: the credibility of saying you can transition away from fossil fuels and offers jobs to people and regions that have been dependent on oil and gas is political (and ecological) gold.

The second challenge is constitutional. Yousaf may well succeed by Maxwell’s metric. He may be more radical than Sturgeon (possibly a low bar), and in doing so he may be able to convince people that change is possible. He may govern better. But he needs to do far more than this. He needs to reimagine the independence prospectus and he needs to do this in such a way that unites people with a credible economic alternative to the collapsing grotesque offer of the British state. Even as the British government presides over the worst cost of living crisis in decades and real-world living conditions are appalling, the Scottish First Minister still needs to reassure people, to bring people with him, that Scotland can be better, more secure, more resilient, more dynamic. We should take inspiration from Steve Clarke who struck a historic victory over football giants Spain at Hampden. He did so by doing an interesting thing, he changed the narrative. Before the game he said “I don’t want to qualify as runners up.” He said: “I know we like to be the underdogs but lets not do that any more”.  It was inspiring because it worked but it was also inspiring to hear someone doing things differently and changing the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Let’s draw on that confidence to challenge old assumptions and comforting stories and go forward with confidence and belief in ourselves.

But there are two problems confronting the new FM. With little to say and less to do, the Scottish Tories are now so desperate they are urging their supporters to vote Labour, according to the Sunday Times. This is death-pact of sorts but a tactical vote that might well work in certain areas, though it does have the cost of re-igniting the stain that Labour developed in Better Together days. The second major problem the revamped SNP has is the coalition. It is both a blessing and a curse. In terms of sustaining a Holyrood majority it is a necessity, but the Greens evoke an unholy alliance across Scottish politics, from the business lobby resistant to any challenge to any of their practices to the cultural warriors; to those clinging to economic orthodoxies in the face of omnicide; to those nurturing personal grudges and petty hatreds against Patrick Harvie, Lorna Slater, Ross Greer or Maggie Chapman; and to anyone peddling the (very Brexity) notion of a ‘metropolitan elite’. Paradoxically the SNP are in too deep to go back. Only a follow-though on a more radical agenda will take them forward, any attempt to triangulate, draw back or equivocate on socio-ecological challenges will fail.



Comments (30)

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  1. Robert Hill says:

    The Scottish government is limited by the fiscal and economic arrangements imposed by Westminster. I wish they would continually point this out as a reason for much of the austerity that damages us.
    It seems that politicians do not want to acknowledge their own very limited powers but pointing them out is a powerful argument for independence.

    1. Graeme McCormick says:

      the Scottish government isn’t limited in its funding powers insofar as the Devolution Taxes in the Scotland Act provide it with the opportunity to raise all Scotlands public spending both by the Scottish and local governments and the amount of U.K. allocate to it through GERS .

      All existing Scottish taxes could be abolished and income tax on earned income could be set at zero.

      If all public and private sector land was charged s model of annual ground rent all the required funding could be provided without borrowing powers.

      By doing this people will be better off and the self employed and business will enjoy a huge economic boost. It just needs political will.

  2. SAJackson says:

    Not sure about it being the right hating them for the GRR legislation, GRR is neo-liberal and as right wing as it gets, it’s based on the cult of the individual and the denial of the body, (the ideal consumer), which is exactly the same as denial of the natural environment. both forms of behavior are with in the realm of self harm. Maybe it is as much a delusion created by digitalisation and industrialisation as much as psychosis and body dysmorphia, your right there is a bazar reaction to some things like the bottle return scheme which I would say fit’s well with psychosis, but the wacky facilitation in neo-liberal society of trans issues, is just another ruse to enhance extreme consumerism, like the invention of the teenager and pop culture, and interlaces with digitalisation as a way of prolonging the life of macro economic capitalism and industrialisation. you should move to Canada mike; you could become a super star there.

    1. SAJackson says:

      You have a lot of assumptions about young people who vote SNP, you might find the majority don’t come from your southside / west end of Glasgow or bo bo Leith elite. Just saying. Most of the bo bo’s and third sector brigade would move to the greens anyway.
      And hearing you attitudes about Forbes cultural hinterland I can see why the greens have failed so badly there, and your keen on white settlers coming in, maybe when you get to retirement you can start a campaign to create some reservation’s for the intransigents.
      Do you think their support of independence is that flimsy that they would ditch it, or there only happy fulfilling some autocratic ascendancy over them dammed commoners?

      1. SAJackson says:

        Actually most of the white settlers are tory, so well err! um. shot from both sides as the song goes.

    2. Where exactly in Canada and how lucrative would this SuperStardom be?

      1. SAJackson says:

        medicine hat, it’s a challenge, no Strathcona district of Vancouver, I’ve lived there on and off for years, it great and awful, even awfully great. they might dedicate a Buddhist shine and a cycle path in you honor.

        1. SAJackson says:

          i like cycle paths and Buddhist temples so don’t take it the wrong way. ish

    3. Nick says:

      Jordan Peterson-esque, meaningless psychobabble.

      “GRR is neo-liberal and as right wing as it gets”.
      If only I’d stopped reading there as I suspected I should have.
      That is such a ridiculous statement that it justifies no further comment.

      1. SAJackson says:

        nick your Jordan Peterson love child, just social economic facts.

    4. SleepingDog says:

      @SAJackson, you mean The Sovereign Individual (the book) crew and their ilk? Perhaps the Editor will do us a favour and publish a link to Bella’s recommended trans rights manifesto.

      Oh, and while we’re on sayings, proverbs and old saws:

  3. Jacob72 says:

    “can Yousaf’s government move beyond what many saw as performative, tokenistic acts to a more dynamic and transformative politics within the real-world limits of devolution? To what extend can Yousaf step beyond the timidity and softly-softly approach nurtured by his predecessor?”

    This is undoubtedly correct. Since 2017 we’ve certainly had an SNP that was a thin veneer of soundbite rather than delivery.

    The substantial drop in support for the SNP in the last couple of weeks might as much be a reaction to the veil being lifted as much as Humza Yousaf’s own qualities.

    It’s my hunch that the fall in support for the party will be more pronounced than a fall in support for independence. For as long as this is the case there’s hope that the SNP can turn it around if they get the right argument to cut through to the public.

    There are two areas where the SNP are weak – (1) the economy & jobs and (2) a critique of the British State and its flaws.

    With (2) this means being radical and pulling apart Scotland’s role in the empire and how we came to have coalfields, shipyards and sugar refineries. The SNP needs to use Westminster and PMQ in particular to shame the British Establishment every opportunity. Having three senior leaders with Sout Asian heritage in Yousaf, Sarwar and Sunak actually creates a lot of space for that discussion, one that flag-wrapper “Sir” Keir Starmer would find difficult to counter as he chases the votes of Workington Man and Stevenage Woman. The Irish have always had a keen critique of the British because they had felt its brutish nature closely. It’s all about private property and profit.

    On (1) the SNP won’t make any headway until they realise that jobs and pay matter to people in the here and now. I am sick of the words “cost of living crisis” without hearing about an actual plan to do something within the next 12-18mo. I earn my living from renewables but even I realise that targets in 2030 are distant when food, heating and rent/mortgages are up by more than 10% in the last 12mo. The Scottish Greens have no short term answer to these problems and there’s no one in their ranks of MSP with the intellectual heft of say the German Greens.

    But the problem is that very few of the MSP have any experience in economics. I doubt any of the SPADS have any real experience of economics either.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Jacob72, I would amend SNP weakness number 2 to:
      “a critique of the British Empire and its flaws”
      Bella has not yet responded to the Guardian’s shift-to-Empire tack, and its lack of British Imperial analysis likewise remains one of its major weaknesses.

      1. I don’t know what you mean Sleeping Dog

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Editor, I mean the Guardian’s refocusing on the British Empire, in the way explained by David Olusoga, who talks about the tricks of history that mean too much discussion ignores the British Empire in favour of a narrow UK-focus:

          One of the ways that the Guardian has promised to address its deficiencies is to increase reporting from the Caribbean, Africa and South America.

          Bella has from time to time reflected on the British Empire, but habitually it is missing from its other narratives, especially from the central narrative of leaving the UK, when we should be talking about leaving the British Empire (which hasn’t magically gone away), where the British Imperialists are weakest. I could explain at length why that is, but I think it would be better for some voices from the periphery of Empire to tell their own stories, and for some investigative journalism to uncover the backwardness of British rule, influence and culture on these societies.

          My view is that an Independent Scotland must confront its complicity in British Imperial crimes, and embark on reparations; that may not be popular now, it may be expensive, but it is right. I hope that criticisms of the British Empire are not being muted because it means recognition of Scottish culpability and the accountability that will it will lead to post-Independence. Whether the Guardian initiative is a sea change or window-dressing is not the point; the point is about reaching a post-colonial consensus in Scotland. And being able to take part in a global post-colonial politics, and not be left behind other European nations with imperial pasts or presents.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    I only saw the highlights of the Scotland vs Spain game, but I was deeply concerned about the Sportscene panellists’ approval of the ‘dark arts’ they said Scotland (and Spain) employed. Let’s not follow that example. The more international football goes down the toilet, the more strained, contorted and hagiographical the commentary and punditry gets (to be fair, Channel 4’s coverage of England games is worse). Bring back Charlie Nicholas.

  5. Jaishou says:

    Re “It is a strange world we live in.”

    No it is not. The world we live in has always been in plain sight for everyone and is no mystery …

    The TRUE human condition, or world we live in, is the history of human madness mainly thanks to the 2 married pink elephants in the room and has never been on clearer display than with the deliberate global Covid Scam atrocity — see “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room –The Holocaustal Covid-19 Coronavirus Madness: A Sociological Perspective & Historical Assessment Of The Covid “Phenomenon”” …

    “2 weeks to flatten the curve has turned into…3 shots to feed your family!” — Unknown

    ““We’re all in this together” is a tribal maxim. Even there, it’s a con, because the tribal leaders use it to enforce loyalty and submission. … The unity of compliance.” — Jon Rappoport, Investigative Journalist

    1. Nick says:

      You folk still around eh? Of all the countless problems we have, of all the existential crises, Covid is still ravaging your sanity.

  6. Alan says:

    What did you find laughable about Ash, Mike?
    Constitutional convention?
    Scottish Currency?

    Kate and Humza failed to talk about these. They failed to even state what there approach to acheiving Independence would be other than campaigning (campaign how and on what????). Sad state of affairs that we are living through the weakest UK Government there has been, and our leading vehicle for Independence can’t even focus itself on acheiving its purpose.

    Ash had obvious weaknesses, but she was brave for standing and putting independence at the centre of her campaign, where all the candidates should have placed it. A Constitutional Convention needs to happen for Yes to move forward, and should not be laughed at or ignored.

    First step we need to take is for the Independence movement & parties to put their grievances aside and come together to start a fresh campaign, with fresh ideas. The Growth Commission needs wiped and a clear vision modern needs put forward.

    Without the above, we have nothing to campaign upon. Obviously different parties & different members of the grassroots can & will have different visions, but some aspects should be fixed – currency, borders, europe (EFTA immediqtely with a view to joining EU (ref on this after Indy? I dunno, but it needs discussed)….these being the most obvious 3 issues but plenty others…

    Without agreement on the above we have nothing to campaign on. We need to do this asap. Once we do, it is knocking on doors for 2 to 3 years, then once 55%+ we escalte to defacto referedums or Ash’s super catchy “Voter Empowerment Mechanism” etc etc…

    1. sajackson says:

      good question, what is laughable about those objectives, pre tell?????

  7. William Sullivan says:

    Very well put. Couldn’t agree more.

  8. John McLeod says:

    The Scottish parliamentary system is built on proportional representation. Coalition governments are normal in such systems. Any one party having an overall majority is unusual. One of the tragic aspects of Scottish politics at the moment is that, apart from the Greens, none of the other parties are willing to enter a coalition with the SNP. This means that they do not put forward constructive policies that might be implemented in government – they are mainly just sniping from the sidelines. Imagine if – somehow – Labour emerged as the biggest part at the next Holyrood election. Or even if SNP+Greens do not have enough seats for a workable majority. What happens then? Would Labour in Scotland refuse (following Labour in Westminster) to enter a coalition or agreement with the SNP? Or would it opt to govern with Tory support?

    1. Derek Thomson says:

      I’m sure you know the answer to the last question you posed John. They’re already doing it at council level.

      1. John McLeod says:

        Yes, already at council level in Scotland. But possibly able to make local arguments for doing this. And all of it somewhat under the radar given the pathetic state of the Scottish media. It seems to me that it would be a much bigger statement to enter a coalition with the Tories at national level.

  9. John McLeod says:

    Here’s my suggestion for a Steve Clarke-type moment for Humza Yousaf. Stand up in the Holyrood parliament and announce that, within 12 months, there will be a Scottish Broadcasting System dedicated to providing 12 hours a day of coverage of Scottish life and culture, and open dialogue around issues such as gender self-recognition, transition, etc. With an HQ in Dundee, but at least 75% of content to be produced by local communities around the country. All off it to be archived and searchable. No anonymous nasty stuff like we get on social media – people talking for themselves, having enough time to explain their position, and being required to respond to those who might question their position. I am sick to death of the rubbish that fills most of the Scottish media. I am also fed up that there is such a level of acceptance that we can’t do anything about it. We can do something about it.

  10. Philip Raiswell says:

    As an English person, I find Kate Forbes viewpoint as a bit worrying, not everyone is religious these days, so she needs to appeal to a wider demographic.

    1. SAJackson says:

      Why, as an English person?

  11. florian albert says:

    Kate Forbes . . . has ascended to the status of a minor deity.’

    No. She has spoken of the ‘mediocrity’ of the recent SNP government, of which, she was a senior member. This, rather than her pro-market views or her ‘Wee Free’ membership, was what made Kate Forbes’ 48% of the votes impressive. What she said chimed with the everyday experience of so many Scots – including, of course, nearly half of the membership of the SNP, who bothered to vote.

    The recent record of the SNP government has been utterly mediocre. The government assembled by Humza Yousef has been even less impressive than that. It includes individuals who have been got rid of, not once but twice, for failure. Inclusion in the government was entirely dependent on voting for Humza Yousef in the election. The parallel with the Labour Party before 2007 is clear.
    If the SNP goes down the road of ‘progressive reinvention’, it will go the same way as SLAB.

    1. John McLeod says:

      I agree that Kate Forbes was able to articulate the frustration of many SNP members about its track record when in government. For me, what was worrying was the way that she talked about this, and also about other important issues such as gender rights, in debates and TV interviews. Up to then, I had only heard Kate Forbes speak on set-piece occasions, such as conference speeches, and found her very persuasive and dynamic. However, in these more open situations during the campaign, she said a lot of things that have actually given opposition parties very useful attack lines. I suspect, also, that if she had been elected as First Minister, or even accepted the place in cabinet that was offered to her, a situation would have arisen where she would be under a lot of pressure regarding the inconsistency between her personal beliefs and the government policies that she was voting for. None of this would have been a problem if position statements had been worked out and rehearsed more carefully in advance – a key political skill. Probably the majority of the public are suspicious of that kind of political skill, and delighted to find a political who tries to speak in a more direct, honest and human way. But to lead a government, and a country, it is necessary to talk in a way that allows everyone to see that they are included and respected.

      1. florian albert says:

        You suggest that Kate Forbes would have been under ‘a lot of pressure regarding the inconsistency between her personal beliefs and the government policies’.

        Since this problem did not arise during the three years when she was Finance Minister, what reason is there to believe it would have been a problem in future ?

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