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.