The SNP hierarchy is in meltdown over independence

Tom Harris

For a brief, optimistic moment, a sense of mature calm seemed to have descended on the SNP. The two front runners in a leadership election triggered by the unexpected resignation of Nicola Sturgeon appeared to have learned an important lesson from their predecessor: don’t promise something you can’t deliver.
Whatever the reasons behind Sturgeon’s departure, incessantly promising a rerun referendum on independence, even though it was out of the scope of the Scottish Parliament to decide, was a constant feature of much of her tenure. It’s hard to believe that Sturgeon herself was oblivious to the law as set out in the Scotland Act, but she behaved as if she had never read it. And most of her members were only too happy to follow her along that road to nowhere – or to the doors of the Supreme Court, where all her promises were exposed as empty.
Both Humza Yousaf and his rival Kate Forbes started off this contest by adopting a more realistic approach, by recognising that if independence were ever to happen, it would not be soon, and that the UK government cannot be pressured into authorising a new referendum until a significant and stable majority in favour of change has materialised. The challenge to the SNP post-Sturgeon, therefore, was to seek to build that majority, incrementally and with patience.
Yousaf, being the more mercurial of the two and the one viewed by some as having less intellectual ballast, was the first to blink and to seek to cater for those in the SNP membership who have no time for patience (as it were). Taking a mature, thoughtful approach was all very well: it might make for good governance and less division, but it would hardly appeal to that large and vocal section of the membership who believe that tomorrow is too long to wait for their “freedom”. Yousaf is clearly nervous that despite having the enthusiastic support of the SNP establishment – including that of Sturgeon herself and her deputy, John Swinney – he may yet be pipped at the post by Forbes’s unexpectedly robust recovery after her false start to the campaign.
And so he has gone – to coin a Scottish phrase – “full zoomer”, hoping to win the support of the party’s Braveheart tendency by promising to destroy the Union “by any means necessary”. This might mean the prospect of a snap Holyrood election which would be used to seek a mandate for independence. But “by any means necessary” must surely include all those scenarios that certain nationalists only dream of, like a unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) and stealing the Stone of Scone before it makes its way southwards for King Charles’s coronation. In other words, he’s playing to the mob, just as Jeremy Corbyn played to the worst instincts of his own party when he won Labour’s leadership contest in 2015. The main difference is that Corbyn meant it, whereas Yousaf has already demonstrated that he’s willing to champion whatever policy gets him the maximum number of votes.
He’s playing a dangerous game, for his country as well as his party. As Labour found to its cost, signing the party over to extremists makes you unelectable. Sturgeon herself paid the price for over-promising and under-delivering. Yet here is her putative successor, not only refusing to learn the lessons of her defeat, but eagerly duplicating them for his short-term success. If he makes it that far, Yousaf’s tenure in Bute House will be plagued by the same impatient activists who demanded that Sturgeon follow through on her repeated promises of a second referendum. Except now they will, understandably, be demanding even more from her successor – independence by “any means necessary”. He will become a victim of his own short-sighted opportunism, but it will be Scotland that suffers. In the last eight years Sturgeon was unable to present a convincing vision of a devolved Scotland, one that accepted the constitutional settlement (even as she yearned for change) while creating world class services using the substantial powers Holyrood already possesses.
She was, if nothing else, an effective communicator and her skills leave Yousaf’s own in their wake. If he beats Forbes he will become Scotland’s first minister burdened with the high expectations of his own activists coupled with low expectations of his ability to actually deliver real change in terms of policy. That is extremely bad news for everyone – nationalist moderates, the movement’s fundamentalists, the process of devolved government and, most of all, the people of Scotland.