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All the signs that Nicola Sturgeon was tiring of the job were already there. Rumours had been flying around for months that she was considering life after office. But when the announcement came it still took everybody by surprise. Even now, no one is quite sure what the straw was that broke the camel’s back. All we know is that after February 15, 2023, the SNP went into meltdown.
Three candidates quickly emerged. They were not the three that everyone predicted but the process was so rushed, the timetable imposed by SNP HQ so compressed, that before anyone could catch their breath, the deadline for nominations had closed and we knew whose names would be on the online ballot paper sent to SNP members, with the result being revealed less than six weeks after Ms Sturgeon’s departure announcement.
This is the first time that anyone other than MSPs have been able to choose a First Minister rather than just a party leader. The judgment of SNP members will have ramifications for everyone in Scotland. The eventual winner will be the most powerful politician in Scotland, with the final say over how the country is run. The result to be revealed on Monday matters.
The problem for the SNP – and more importantly, for Scotland – is that none of the three candidates is at all impressive. Some are less impressive than others. Each has a chance of reaching the highest political office in Scotland, but do any of them seriously have the abilities or the qualifications to do the job?
All the signs that Nicola Sturgeon was tiring of the job were already there. Rumours had been flying around for months that she was considering life after office, writes Tom Harris
Let’s take them in turn, starting with the only man in the contest, someone who’s seen as the activists’ favourite and who has the overwhelming backing of the SNP establishment including, it is thought, Ms Sturgeon herself.
Humza Yousaf has a long track record in government. That is a decided disadvantage because his ministerial record is there for everyone to see. To be frank, it’s not great.
In every post he’s held Mr Yousaf has simply not been up to the task. He is the antidote to competence, wreaking havoc in every portfolio he’s been given. Yet despite the evidence that he can’t handle a ministerial brief, he’s always fallen on his feet and received yet another promotion.
As transport minister he presided over the calamitous state of the railways, and it didn’t help his reputation when he was charged by police for driving without insurance. For any minister at a UK department – especially the transport department – that would have been a resigning issue. But this is Scotland and we do things differently here. Mr Yousaf survived, thanks to backing from his boss, the First Minister.
Then, as justice secretary, he piloted the most draconian piece of legislation ever seen in the British Isles, a law that criminalised private conversations over the dining room table if they contained ‘hate’ speech. The legislation made it onto the statute books but still hasn’t been enforced because Police Scotland seems unsure about how it can be enforced, or even whether it can be.
Humza Yousaf (pictured) has a long track record in government. That is a decided disadvantage because his ministerial record is there for everyone to see. To be frank, it’s not great
And then Mr Yousaf was moved to health, where he worked more of his ministerial magic and saw waiting lists grow to record levels. A popular GIF on the internet, showing Mr Yousaf falling off a knee scooter as he rides it along a Holyrood corridor, has confirmed the Glasgow MSP as the Mr Bean of the SNP.
On the campaign trail in the past month his reputation for gaffes has been thoroughly burnished. Meeting a group of Ukrainian women who had sought refuge in Edinburgh, he thoughtlessly asked them: ‘Where are all the men?’ A slightly awkward pause later, Mr Yousaf was reminded of Putin’s invasion of the women’s homeland – something that had perhaps slipped his mind – and the need for Ukraine’s men to stay there to fight to protect it.
But it was Mr Yousaf’s attempts to capitalise on his rival Kate Forbes’s troubles at the start of the campaign that risked revealing him as a hypocrite. After the finance secretary admitted she wouldn’t have voted for same-sex marriages had she been an MSP at the time, Mr Yousaf saw his opportunity and boasted about his own record in promoting minority rights. He told a radio interviewer: ‘It’s for her to defend her views, I’ve made my views very clear. I think my track record on equality issues speaks loud and clear.
‘I’m a minority in this country, I have been my entire life and my rights don’t exist in some kind of vacuum. My rights are interdependent on other people’s rights and therefore I believe very firmly, in fact with every fibre in my being, that your equality is my equality.’
Stirring stuff. Except there was one problem: it quickly emerged that, according to senior party sources, Mr Yousaf had pleaded ‘pressure from the mosque’ and asked permission to contrive an excuse not to be in the Holyrood chamber when the same-sex marriage Bill was to receive its final vote.
Finance secretary Kate Forbes (pictured) admitted she wouldn’t have voted for same-sex marriages had she been an MSP
It was a stunning revelation and risked derailing Mr Yousaf’s campaign exactly when he needed to build momentum among members.
If Mr Humza falls at the last hurdle and fails to be elected, the crown will most likely go to Ms Forbes, who has served as finance secretary since February 2020. But the circumstances of a promotion to the all-powerful post in the Scottish Government risk labelling her the ‘accidental candidate’ with no experience in a department that delivers actual services.
It was Ms Forbes whom the First Minister called upon when it was revealed, on the morning of the Scottish Budget, that the then finance secretary, Derek Mackay, had sent inappropriate texts to a schoolboy. He duly resigned in disgrace. Ironically, had this scandal not been revealed, Mr Mackay would most likely be the front-runner to succeed Ms Sturgeon today.
The sordid circumstances in which Ms Forbes gained an unexpected promotion have shadowed her career ever since. Would she have climbed the greasy SNP pole so quickly were it not for the misjudgments of her predecessor?
Many senior ranking members of the Cabinet seemed to harbour little doubt about Ms Forbes’s suitability for the highest office and rushed to the nearest TV studio to endorse her as soon as Ms Sturgeon had dropped her resignation bombshell.
But many of those same supporters quickly slunk back into the shadows and renounced their support when, in the first few days of this campaign, Ms Forbes admitted her opposition to same-sex marriage.
Ash Regan, the third candidate, is the one who has made this contest so entertaining for many observers. Thrown into the media spotlight by her unexpected resignation last year, Ms Regan wasn’t exactly a household name before she made her principled stand
It was a naïve comment to make by someone who claims to be ready to lead a nation. True, she is a committed Christian and a member of the Free Church of Scotland, and her views are no different from those of her co-religionists. But she should have known that to state her position so baldly and without a hint of compromise would have scared off some of her backers.
Is Ms Forbes even aware of the angry divisions her party has already opened up in Scotland because of its incessant demands to rerun a referendum that it has already lost?
It looked, in the early days of the campaign, as if she was relaxed about opening up a brand new front in the culture wars in Scotland. But a good leader, whatever their faith, should seek to heal divisions and build bridges, not take Scotland back to an era when the local presbytery decreed who was and was not ‘sinful’.
Since that initial faux pas, however, Ms Forbes has emphasised her willingness to fight for minority rights. She has no ambition, after all, to turn back the clock on same-sex marriage, whatever her faith teaches her.
Did Ms Sturgeon deliberately rush through the Gender Recognition Reform Bill before Ms Forbes returned from maternity leave? The First Minister had already lost one minister who resigned in order to oppose the Bill; she knew of Ms Forbes’s reservations about the legislation and the last thing she needed was to lose her finance secretary too.
And Ms Forbes is indeed, like her rival candidate Ash Regan (the minister who resigned), a sceptic when it comes to gender identity reform. A large swathe of the SNP membership are enthusiastic about trans rights and will want a First Minister committed to going to court to overturn the UK Government’s veto of the legislation. Ms Forbes is not that candidate.
In fact her election would almost certainly mean the end of the parliamentary agreement with the Scottish Greens who, despite the party’s name, consider trans rights as their most important campaigning issue. While few in Scotland would lose sleep over the departure from ministerial office of Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, this is an alliance deeply valued by many SNP activists. The end of the partnership agreement would mean the SNP having to govern, once more, as a minority administration.
Ash Regan, the third candidate, is the one who has made this contest so entertaining for many observers. Thrown into the media spotlight by her unexpected resignation last year, Ms Regan wasn’t exactly a household name before she made her principled stand. But she has embraced her newfound notoriety, not only doubling down on her gender-critical outlook but flying the standard of her party’s fundamentalist wing.
While the other two candidates are sceptical about Ms Sturgeon’s plan to treat the next UK general election as a ‘de facto’ referendum on independence, Ms Regan is all for it. In fact, she wants every election in Scotland to be a ‘de facto’ referendum until the UK Government finally surrenders and accepts Scotland’s new independent status. It’s a recipe for chaos, guaranteeing that any new independent state would lack international recognition.
Few of the SNP’s parliamentarians, particularly its MPs at Westminster, are happy about her stance. None other than Alex Salmond himself, former First Minister and Ms Sturgeon’s former close friend – now her nemesis – is supporting Ms Regan’s campaign from the sidelines.
Mr Salmond is now leader of the rival Alba Party, and a former Alba candidate for Holyrood, Kirk Torrance, is running her campaign. Ms Regan has said publicly that under her leadership, Mr Salmond would be welcomed back if he wished.
This is all music to the ears of the Braveheart tendency in the SNP, the kind of people who stand on the border with England and shout at cars. But even they must have done a double-take when their preferred candidate started talking about placing a giant ‘independence thermometer’ in Glasgow or Edinburgh, in order for the country’s readiness for independence to be displayed. This really is Monty Python politics.
That sort of initiative revealed Ms Regan as the least serious of the three candidates, but on the assumption that she comes third in the first ballot, her second preference votes could prove crucial to the eventual winner.
Given the tall tales, the religious intolerance and the fanciful nationalist rhetoric to which we’ve all been subjected in the past few weeks, there seems little prospect of getting the kind of thoughtful, courageous and pragmatic leader we need.
Instead of three substantial figures, we have Ms Sturgeon’s three stooges involved in a slapstick black comedy to see who gets to make a mess of the country next.
Nearly nine years of Ms Sturgeon’s leadership has left the country worse off, and the nationalist cause itself no further forward. Given some of the hagiographic tributes penned about Ms Sturgeon in recent days, whatever’s next will be even worse than her.
After 15 years in government, we might have expected the SNP to have produced a wider, better field of candidates than what we’re having to settle for. Are these three really the best the party has to offer? If the answer is yes, that says a lot about the state of the SNP. And it bodes ill for Scotland.
None of the candidates has offered their own supporters a convincing way forward to independence. None of them has explained how local services can be improved (although there’s been plenty of criticism of the Scottish Government’s record). None of them has shown any sign of leadership ability.
As things stand, we look set to embark on yet another round of angry rhetoric, stand-offs with UK ministers and endless navel-gazing about constitutional change that makes not a fraction of a difference to the lives of ordinary Scots. But this time it will all be done with a different figurehead.
If Scots wanted to get impatient with the SNP and their failure to improve the Scotland they claim to love, now would be the time.
Because whoever wins next week, the big loser will be Scotland itself.