Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon: lucky, not brilliant

Foibles, fantasies and failure

For too long much of the left has tailed Scottish nationalism. Yet Humza Yousaf’s fall demonstrates that control is still exercised by Westminster. But it is not just about the legal limits of devolution: there is economic reality too, writes Mike Macnair

On Monday April 29 Humza Yousaf announced that he will step down as Scottish first minister and as leader of the Scottish National Party. (The relationship is not as simple as it is in the UK parliament, because the Scottish first minister is formally elected by the Scots parliament, while the UK prime minister is appointed by the monarch on the basis of ‘conventions’.)

The announcement has been predictable since, on Thursday April 25, Yousaf abruptly ended the SNP’s coalition deal with the Scottish Green Party. The Scottish Tories promptly put down a motion of no confidence in Yousaf. Labour, the Greens and Alba’s sole member announced that they would vote no confidence. Meanwhile, Labour also put down a motion of no confidence in the Scottish government as a whole. If passed, this would pretty much inevitably trigger an election to the Scottish parliament, since a Tory-Labour-LibDem-Green-Alba coalition, which would be needed for a majority (unless the SNP actually split) is seriously implausible. The Tories withdrew their motion in the light of Yousaf announcing his intended resignation, and the Greens announced that they would vote against Labour’s no-confidence motion. On May 1 this was duly defeated 70-58.1

This will, in effect, give the SNP time to elect a new leader. The front runners are said to be Kate Forbes, representing the Christian right wing of the SNP (opposed to gay marriage, children outside marriage, trans rights, and pro-business and anti-green) and Nicola Sturgeon’s former deputy, John Swinney (unsuccessful SNP leader in 2000-04), as the ‘continuity candidate’. The Times on Tuesday April 30 carried a double-page story in support of a potential Forbes victory (or an SNP electoral defeat) under the headline, ‘Scotland’s business leaders crying out for help’ (readers may imagine me demonstratively air-playing an imaginary micro-violin).

If we ask why Yousaf broke the coalition agreement, the answer seems to be that the Greens were likely to abandon it themselves after a consultation with their membership, in the light of the SNP’s abandonment on April 18 of its ‘net zero’ target of a 75% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. By taking the initiative, Yousaf at least may have expected to get control of the timing, and perhaps may also have hoped to ‘face down’ the Green MSPs and force them to accept a coalition deal without either the carbon emissions target or the bottle and can recycling scheme, already abandoned in the face of packaging companies’ lobbying at Westminster. Behind the decision to abandon the targets was the March 20 announcement by the all-UK Climate Change Committee that the targets were “no longer credible”.2

The media ‘narrative’ has largely been that Humza Yousaf is personally incompetent as a politician. This is typical media personality politics, for which politicians are either brilliant leaders, incompetents or sinister villains. This personality-cult politics reflects the general principle of ‘one-man-management’ in bourgeois politics - as well as in modern monarchies, presidencies and so on.3 Its purpose is to enforce corruption (easier in one-man-management regimes) and promote cronyism.


The reality is that Yousaf’s position was already impossible for reasons beyond his control. The Tory party and its press turned on the SNP with the witch-hunting culture war round the Gender Recognition Act in early 2023, and have kept on with it since (most recently with the ‘hate crime’ legislation coming into force4).

The allegations of misuse of funds against Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, which originated in an SNP internal party row, hit mainstream media around the same time and have continued to crop up episodically since, with Murrell being actually charged with embezzlement on April 18.5 What they are actually about is the financial manipulations involved in the SNP’s pursuit of a second independence referendum against the UK government’s veto, in face of the UK Supreme Court’s decision that Scotland does not have the right to self-determination (on impeccable far-left grounds, that only oppressed countries have the right to self-determination and Scotland is not one)6 and SNP unwillingness to actually go for illegality: resulting in murky finances.

More recently, the Tories have deployed the UK Single Market Act to insist on consistency across the UK of bottle and can deposit schemes, forcing delays in the interests of the manufacturers, with considerable cost implications for Scotland.7 It should be noted, in judging the bona fides of this decision, that bottle and can deposit schemes operate divergently across EU member-states and across US states. The allegation that variant schemes in different devolved administrations is an interference with a single market in the UK should thus be presumed to be made in bad faith.

The Tory turn to anti-Green politics as a form of ‘culture war’ began with their success in the July 2023 Uxbridge by-election over the London Ultra-Low Emissions Zone extension. It has continued since then, notably with the government’s adoption of the ‘15 minute cities’ conspiracy theory,8 and campaigning against ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’ and against the urban 20mph speed limit in Wales. This turn forms part of the context of the SNP’s backing away from green pledges.

In this case, however, the need for UK-wide action is not merely a matter of the Tories’ and their press’s dishonest manipulations. Converting high-emission activities involves very substantial costs, and the devolved administrations are all dependent for their budgets on transfers from Westminster.9 Indeed, in reality, some British carbon emissions reduction consists merely of offshoring the carbon emissions together with the actual production to other countries (like China) who can then be blamed for failing to reduce emissions.10 Common European action could make a real impact; merely Scottish (or English or Welsh) action is close to being mere gestures.

The Tory turn to culture wars and playing hardball with the UK government’s powers against Scotland inevitably meant the breakup of the SNP-Green coalition, which was based on pursuing independence - and pursuing the quasi-‘left’ agenda reflected in green politics, the ‘hate crime’ and ‘gender recognition’ legislation, and so on - unless the SNP was prepared to go for facing down the Tories and their press. They were not, and first Sturgeon and now Yousaf have had to go.

End of line

Back in the 1970s-80s we on the left used to refer to the SNP as ‘Tartan Tories’. Their base was mainly in rural and suburban constituencies, and their politics were fairly straightforwardly socially conservative. Forbes would represent a turn in this direction, and it is easy to imagine a Forbes-ised SNP in coalition with the Tories in Holyrood against a revived Scottish Labour.

Alex Salmond as SNP leader in 1990-2000 and 2004-14 steered the party towards a policy that presented it as a modernising European (or perhaps ‘Nordic’) social-democratic party, reflecting influence from the ideas of ‘old New Left’ writer, Tom Nairn. Independence was to be independence within the European Union.

This conception set the agenda for the devolved administration from the time that the SNP displaced Labour at Holyrood in 2007. It was to be regionalist (in the terms of the then current European Union ideas) and was to offer a left alternative to Labour. But not on the economic issues: on these, Salmond aimed rather for ‘Celtic Tiger’ status, alongside the Republic of Ireland. But on social issues the SNP was to march just a little ahead of Westminster down the common path to ‘European modernisation’ and rights that had been set by Blair and his co-thinkers already before 1997.

The 2008 crash put an end to the ‘Celtic Tiger’ idea. Cameron’s 2014 referendum fraud defeated the idea of immediate independence, but, because his English nationalist knife in Labour’s back on the day after the referendum smashed Scottish Labour, it gave the SNP the appearance of a large mass support that could allow pushing on with Salmond-esque politics and hoping for a second chance at an independence referendum.

In reality, however, Cameron’s plebiscitary demagogy in itself, and his English nationalist knife-artistry, reflected the beginnings of a turn away from the Tory adaptations to Blairism of Cameron’s early years. Instead, nationalist demagogy was to win the Brexit referendum against Cameron, and with it fell too the idea of ‘independence within Europe’ (unless the French and Germans had been prepared to make serious mischief for Britain by sponsoring Scottish unilateral independence). And with the Brexit referendum, the Tory drive towards imitating US Republican culture-wars frauds was on. The fall of Humza Yousaf is the latest stage in this Tory fraudulent operation to take down the Nats - and at the end of the day to get rid of devolution altogether, along with ‘human rights’ and the rest of Blair’s innovations.

Least resistance

The left has been characterised in the recent past by pursuing the “line of least resistance”, as István Mészáros put it in his 1995 book Beyond Capital. But this “line of least resistance” offers at most the creation of exposed salients, which our enemy (capital and its states) can attack from all sides. More commonly, pursuing the line of least resistance leads to defeat at a very early stage.

The reason for this is that the left, pursuing the line of least resistance, concedes the right of capital to rule, but hopes merely for partial concessions. The history of the workers’ movement shows very clearly that capital is led to make major concessions not by concessions to it, but by threats to its ‘right’ and ability to rule. And that requires the left to look beyond what seems to work right now and aim for what is needed.

Left support for Scots nationalism (and Welsh nationalism, and, and …) has been precisely such a policy of pursuing the line of least resistance. It was always delusive, for the reason given above: the devolved administrations are financially dependent on the Westminster government - partly straightforwardly because of population: 57.1 million in England, 5.4 million in Scotland, 3.1 million in Wales, 1.9 million in the Six Counties.11 But it is also because of the fact that London and the south-east (in other terms, the London travel-to-work area) generates 36% of UK tax income.12

This role of London and the south-east reflects, as I have argued before, the radical dependence of the UK in the recent past on financial services supplied to the rest of the world, and on simply borrowing on the strength of being a tax haven, in order to pay for the food that we eat and the rest of the stuff we use.13

Play games

The financial dependence of the devolved governments on Westminster allows the latter to play games with them: Cameron bigged up the SNP in 2014 in order to defeat Labour in 2015; more recently, Tory demagogy has been aimed against the SNP (and the Welsh devolved government) in order to return unaccountable power to Westminster and crush possible sources of ideological opposition. But let us suppose, for a moment, that Scotland and Wales had actually obtained independence. The reality is that the financial dependence on Westminster would still be there - unless some other country was prepared to subsidise ‘independent’ Scotland and Wales.

To deal with issues of inequality, to plan for health service provision, for housing, for measures to deal with human-induced climate change, and so on - all these need common action of the working class on a European scale to break out of the coercive power of global capital and the capitalist states. ‘Left’ versions of nationalism produce, by contrast, complete ineffectiveness.

  1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-scotland-68932152.↩︎

  2. www.theccc.org.uk/2024/03/20/scotlands-2030-climate-goals-are-no-longer-credible.↩︎

  3. See ‘Stuff “single person” leadership’ Weekly Worker May 4 2023: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1441/stuff-single-person-leadership.↩︎

  4. ‘Devolution non-recognition’ Weekly Worker February 2 2023 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1428/devolution-non-recognition); ‘Further criminalising speech’, April 18 2024 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1487/further-criminalising-speech).↩︎

  5. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Branchform.↩︎

  6. ‘Self-determination is a right’ Weekly Worker December 1 2022 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1421/self-determination-is-a-right).↩︎

  7. commonslibrary.parliament.uk/will-glass-shatter-plans-for-uk-deposit-return-schemes.↩︎

  8. www.wired.com/story/15-minute-city-conspiracy-uk-politics.↩︎

  9. lordslibrary.parliament.uk/the-barnett-formula-how-it-operates-and-proposals-for-change; and spice-spotlight.scot/2019/04/05/the-budgetary-times-they-are-a-changin-20-years-of-devolved-budgets.↩︎

  10. Eg, www.ox.ac.uk/news/2024-02-20-study-shows-uk-offshores-emissions-through-used-vehicle-exports.↩︎

  11. www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/bulletins/annualmidyearpopulationestimates/mid2022.↩︎

  12. www.ons.gov.uk/economy/governmentpublicsectorandtaxes/publicsectorfinance/articles/countryandregionalpublicsectorfinances/financialyearending2020.↩︎

  13. ‘Thinking through the options’ Weekly Worker April 25 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1488/thinking-through-the-options) among other places.↩︎