A poisoned chalice

The SNP leadership election was a close-run thing. But what now for Humza Yousaf? Scott Evans looks at the diminishing options

In the Scottish National Party’s first leadership election since 2014, when Nicola Sturgeon was elected unopposed, the SNP membership elected Humza Yousaf as its 14th leader since its formation in 1934. The Scottish parliament subsequently elected him as the new first minister of Scotland.

The contest turned out to be strikingly close, as I suggested it might,1 with a 52-48 split resulting in victory for Yousaf - mimicking the fabled Brexit result in 2016. So what now? Is the SNP doomed to collapse? What will first minister Yousaf do with his new-found powers?

Of the 72,169 eligible ballot forms, only 50,494 were submitted to the vote - a 70% turnout, which is surprisingly low for such a milestone election. In the first round, Yousaf had secured 48.2%, Kate Forbes 40.7% and Ash Regan 11.1%. Only roughly a tenth of Regan’s voters were ‘Regan or bust’, leaving the remaining nine tenths to be divided up between Forbes and Yousaf. One-third of this nine-tenths opted for Yousaf, and the other two-thirds for Forbes, but that was not enough to put her ahead.


This is not the worst-case scenario for the SNP, which out of the more likely options would have been a Forbes win of a similar split. But it shows that the party is deeply divided, and perhaps even a touch apathetic, given the turnout and early polling suggesting many were initially undecided on who to pick.

During the leadership contest, Forbes “took a flamethrower” to the government’s record, as some have put it, which feels somewhat reminiscent of the recent Tory leadership election, and one of her supporters and ex-cabinet secretary Alex Neil even questioned the legitimacy of the election midway through, suggesting it may be “rigged”.2 She seemed to cast similar aspersions, when she said: “I think there will be a lot of questions raised if members don’t feel the outcome aligns with what they’re hearing on the ground.”3 Regan even demanded that members be allowed to change their vote after Murrell stepped down, which acting chief executive officer Mike Russell refused.4 The whole thing took place on an accelerated timetable and was, to put it lightly, something of a mess.

In a further twist to the story, Forbes has exited from the government for the back benches. Yousaf had promised to offer both Forbes and Regan positions in his administration, and it had been assumed by some that Forbes would have to be given a role similarly senior to finance secretary in order to secure her loyalty and help begin to heal divisions. But, when Yousaf offered her the post of rural affairs secretary, she promptly refused, and off she went. Hardly the picture of a happy family.

Unlike Westminster, the Scottish parliament votes on who it wants the next first minister to be.5 In this case it was something of a formality - especially as the Scottish Greens had already voted unanimously to uphold their commitment to the Bute House Agreement, whereby the Greens committed themselves to uphold a common programme with the SNP until at least 2026.6 Presumably this commitment followed some backroom discussions between the two parties, with Yousaf now committing to fight the Tories on their section 35 order on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (GRR)7 and to renew his support for the agreement.

Alex-Cole Hamilton (Liberal Democrats), Douglas Ross (Tory), Anas Sarwar (Labour) and Humza Yousaf each had five minutes in parliament to make their case for first minister before a vote. Being a formality, this was really just an opportunity for the opposition parties to criticise Yousaf and the SNP, and for the SNP to signal their acceptance of Yousaf as leader.

Besides trite pablum from all sides about change, determination, resilience, values, good jobs, growth and innovation, and so on, what also came up as key failings were the ongoing crisis over waiting times in the national health service, which is especially acute in Scotland,8 and the continuing drug death catastrophe. Scotland’s record on this is worse per capita by a country mile than all states in the European Union - a disgusting situation which it is difficult to comprehend without falling into despair.9

Yousaf’s speech emphasised continuity with Sturgeon’s leadership above all else. Besides praising Sturgeon’s record, he emphasised the fact that two women were candidates for SNP leader and now there were two Muslim party leaders in Holyrood (himself and Labour’s Anas Sarwar). He also claimed to be the first Muslim leader of the “democratic west” - certainly a significant symbolic achievement. He is also the youngest ever first minister, mirroring the youngest ever UK prime minister in Rishi Sunak. (All of this was perhaps somewhat undermined by the chaotic and very close campaign.) And, as Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross somewhat ironically pointed out, he has the ‘most working class credentials’ of the three: both Sarwar and Yousaf attended Hutchesons’ Grammar - a private school in Glasgow.


Yousaf has immediately noted his commitment to ask for section 30 powers from the UK government, giving Scotland the right to call a second referendum on independence - which Sunak has, predictably, refused. Yousaf has already distanced himself from the idea of using the next general election as a referendum. Understandable, given that the SNP would almost certainly not win a majority of the popular vote. So, it seems his plan is to win a definitive and lasting majority in Scotland for independence - a 60% figure has been bandied about. Then presumably he will put pressure on Westminster in collaboration with friendly states in the ‘international community’ to concede another referendum.10 Best of luck to him: he certainly will not be able to rely on his own ability to achieve this, judging by his personal political history and skills as an orator, so it will come down to whether he has a convincing plan for boosting support for independence rather than ‘more of the same’. He has emphasised “grassroots” campaigning in this, which Sturgeon always seemed to rather turn her nose up at. He will be appointing a ‘minister for independence’, though it is not yet known who will get the post or what their day-to-day activity will involve.

In order to secure a second referendum, a number of factors are not clear (or predictable): eg, how big would the majority in favour of it have to be, and what would be the political context for Westminster to cave in and allow it? Needless to say, it all seems rather remote.

Readers will likely be interested in the fact that Yousaf is a self-declared “republican”, in the ‘End the monarchy’ sense - one of the few ways in which he is not merely a continuation of Sturgeon, who did not want to ruffle any feathers on the question. But he has only committed to a debate on it in the SNP’s version of ‘Maybe after the revolution, comrade’:

I’ve been very clear: I’m a republican. That’s never been anything I’ve hidden. It’s not an immediate priority, I accept that. But let’s absolutely within the first five years [of independence] consider whether or not we should move away from having a monarchy into an elected head of state.11

Yousaf has suggested he will consider raising taxes on the wealthy, though talk of mere consideration and “round tables” on poverty implies a common ‘all talk, no action’ outcome.12 Meanwhile, the finances scandal is set to continue; the GRR row will be reignited, with his commitment to fight the Tories on it; the NHS waiting times crisis remains unresolved; and the ‘jobs for the boys’ ferries scandal is ticking along in the background;13 and so on.


With a major split in the SNP seemingly avoided, attention is now turning to what the opposition parties can make of the SNP’s ongoing crisis. It is hard to tell whether Scottish Labour will make any sort of significant comeback in the next Scottish parliament elections in 2026. While Sarwar has called for an early election, Yousaf has absolutely no reason to call one. Perhaps if the deal with the Greens had fallen through, Sarwar would have had better luck. I am reticent to make any predictions projecting as far forward as 2026, but the generally deeply uninspiring Sarwar, who has at times associated himself with Jeremy Corbyn despite being a self-described “Brownite” (!),14 does not strike me as a vote-winner.

But, of course, with Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party now regularly polling a 20-point lead over the Tories nationally, there could easily be a swing to Labour in Scotland. Independence and the SNP are no longer the only serious option for ending Tory rule. The only real question is how big a swing. Doubtless Yousaf will be hoping for a hung parliament or a very thin Labour majority in Westminster, leaving the SNP demanding a referendum in return for support (the beleaguered Socialist Campaign Group will entertain similar hopes - still a worry for the rightwing media and the business lobby). Desperate stuff, after all Labour could well secure a solid majority.

With all that said, it is simply a fact that the only inspirational movement for political change in recent memory in Scotland, especially for the younger generation, has been the independence campaign culminating in the 2014 referendum. It involved a large grassroots swell of political engagement with excited discussion around both the nitty-gritty details of government and political process - as well as big ideas like political and economic sovereignty and constitutionalism, proposed projects for cultural and linguistic rejuvenation, democratic experiment and renewal, and for a country which looks after everyone.

However real that vision, it will continue to echo throughout the political landscape of Scotland, until a new vision for moving beyond this rotten system gains mass support: let us make sure it is a principled working class, internationalist programme that wins the day.

  1. . ‘A fruitless crown’ Weekly Worker March 23: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1435/a-fruitless-crown.↩︎

  2. . twitter.com/AlexNeilSNP/status/1635095837255794688.↩︎

  3. . www.thenational.scot/news/23383397.kate-forbes-trusts-election-process-alex-neil-hints-rigged-vote.↩︎

  4. . See www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-65013144.↩︎

  5. . www.scottishparliament.tv/meeting/meeting-of-the-parliament-march-28-2023.↩︎

  6. . www.thenational.scot/news/23415667.scottish-greens-unanimously-vote-continue-bute-house-agreement.↩︎

  7. . inews.co.uk/news/scotland/humza-yousafs-victory-sets-up-court-battle-uk-government-over-gender-recognition-veto-2236995.↩︎

  8. . www.thetimes.co.uk/article/nearly-half-a-million-scots-are-stuck-on-waiting-lists-for-nhs-treatment-jkqbl6kgj.↩︎

  9. . See www.nrscotland.gov.uk/files//statistics/drug-related-deaths/21/drug-related-deaths-21-report.pdf; and www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-48853004 (but note that countries will differ on reporting and recording).↩︎

  10. . The first was held in 2014, when 55% of those voting were against independence from the UK.↩︎

  11. . www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/13/scotland-could-ditch-monarchy-within-five-years-leaving-uk-claims.↩︎

  12. . www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/humza-yousaf-back-wealth-tax-29553552.↩︎

  13. . See www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-65041183.↩︎

  14. . See labourlist.org/2021/02/sarwar-scottish-labours-tax-policies-will-be-more-radical-than-corbyns.↩︎