The SNP has dominated Scottish politics for well over a decade, but Nicola Sturgeon left her successor, Humza Yousaf, with a dubious legacy. The party now risks being overtaken by Labour, even though support for Scottish independence remains solid.

Humza Yousaf, first minister of Scotland, speaks at the University of Glasgow on January 8, 2024, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Peter Summers / Getty Images)

Is the Scottish National Party (SNP) built to govern during periods of prolonged economic stagnation? At its electoral peak between 2011 and 2021, everything about Scottish nationalism, from its obsession with green industrialization to its relentless European para-diplomacy, screamed “progress.” During the 2014 independence referendum, the central slogan of the Yes campaign was “Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.”

However, the optimism of those years has been lost beneath a blanket of British depression. The UK is drifting in and out of recession. After a decade-and-a-half of Conservative retrenchment, Britain’s infrastructure has buckled. Housing costs in major British cities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, remain prohibitively high. No country in Western Europe registers lower levels of public trust in political elites than the UK.

Against this backdrop, the SNP has played at best a mitigating role, sometimes using the limited powers of the Scottish Parliament to pursue progressive reform but just as often railing against the shortfalls, real and imagined, of the Westminster system. Over time, Scottish voters have grown tired of the constitutional buck-passing. Seventeen years after the first SNP government was inaugurated at Holyrood in 2007, incumbency, as much as corruption or incompetence, has snared the separatist agenda.

Sturgeon’s Legacy

One consequence of this shift has been the accelerated revival of Anas Sarwar’s semiautonomous, Starmerite Scottish Labour Party. A British general election is due later this year. According to some polls, for the first time since 2010, Labour could win a plurality of Scottish seats. Defeat for the SNP would signal the end of the independence project in its current form and a return, for Scotland, to unionist orthodoxy.

Defeat for the SNP would signal the end of the independence project in its current form and a return, for Scotland, to unionist orthodoxy.

Of course, voter fatigue isn’t the only factor at work here: much of the blame for nationalism’s deteriorating electoral prospects also lies with Nicola Sturgeon. Shortly after she resigned as SNP leader and Scottish first minister last March, a long-running police investigation into the party’s internal finances burst into life. On April 5, Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s former chief executive, was arrested. Two weeks later, party treasurer Colin Beattie was taken into custody. On June 11, Sturgeon herself was questioned by the police.

Neither Murrell nor Beattie nor Sturgeon has yet been charged by the authorities, and they may never be. In July, Police Scotland said that the investigation, centered around suspicions of “fraud and potential embezzlement,” was “complex” and would “take time.” But the episode irreparably damaged public trust in the SNP and cast a pall of scandal over the party that shows no sign of dissipating.

Operation Branchform could have severe consequences for the SNP’s capacity to fight an election campaign, too. Unlike Labour, which draws money from the trade union movement, and the Conservatives, who depend on elite business donations, the Scottish nationalists rely mostly on membership fees to finance their political activity. Yet figures published by the UK Electoral Commission last August showed that the party was running a shortfall of £800,000 — a deficit caused, in part, by the loss of thirty thousand members in the months leading up to and just after Sturgeon’s resignation.

By that point, the political rot had already set in. In October 2022, Sturgeon dispatched the Scottish government’s top lawyer, Dorothy Bain, to argue in front of the UK Supreme Court that Edinburgh had the power to stage a second referendum on independence without Westminster’s consent.

In November 2022, the court delivered its unanimous, and inevitable, response: any future vote on Scottish secession would need the backing of British MPs in the House of Commons. Or, at least, an official green light from London. The decision shuttered Scotland’s last legal exit route out of the UK and prompted months of grassroots wrangling over the next stages of nationalist strategy.

Paralysis

Humza Yousaf, Sturgeon’s thirty-eight-year-old successor, has been stunned by the legacy left by his mentor. He can’t alter the political narrative until the police investigation into Sturgeon has concluded and he can’t launch a fresh bid for independence until Westminster abandons its court-affirmed veto, which it won’t do anytime soon. As a result, domestically, paralysis reigns.

Yousaf has already lost one MSP to Alex Salmond’s absurd anti-woke breakaway party, Alba, and may lose more to ill-discipline or defection. He has been forced to apologize to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry for deleting his pandemic-era WhatsApp messages, having served as Sturgeon’s health secretary between 2021 and 2023.

The SNP leader has also seen a senior member of his cabinet, Michael Matheson, quit over a bizarre controversy involving iPad roaming charges: Matheson’s sons allegedly spent £11,000 streaming soccer games on a government-issued tablet during a family holiday in Morocco; Matheson then tried to claim the money back as a legitimate ministerial expense.

Humza Yousaf has been stunned by the legacy left by his mentor Nicola Sturgeon.

As if to underscore the scale of the SNP’s inertia, at the party’s annual conference in Aberdeen in October, Yousaf announced plans to reintroduce the Council Tax freeze, a flagship nationalist initiative first enacted by Salmond when he was first minister sixteen years ago. Scotland’s local authorities were furious and warned that the resumption of the freeze, which was lifted in 2014, would mean huge cuts to municipal services.

Yousaf, however, has refused to ditch the policy, insisting that it will ease the strain on Scottish families struggling against the effects of inflation. In fact, low-income Scots are disproportionately dependent on the public sector — and Argyll and Bute Council has rejected the Scottish government’s compensatory funding offer in favor of a double-digit tax hike.

Labour Pains

The decomposition of Scottish nationalism has opened an unlikely path to Labour’s return. The party was all but obliterated in Scotland by the SNP at the UK general election nine years ago. Today, it is on the brink of recovery across much of the Central Belt, including the SNP’s urban “Yes City” stronghold of Glasgow.

Under Sarwar, Scottish Labour has largely embraced Keir Starmer’s centrist revamp. He has promoted key figures from Labour’s old Blairite right and jettisoned the radical rhetoric of the Jeremy Corbyn era, winning plaudits from Scotland’s conservative press and eating further into the SNP’s managerial credibility.

The irony is that Sarwar himself is a deeply unimpressive UK career politician whose trajectory up to this point has been marked by a series of striking electoral failures. In early 2007, he helped write Scottish Labour’s Holyrood manifesto; within weeks, the SNP had won its first national election.

In 2010, he inherited a gold-plated Westminster seat from his father, Mohammad, the outgoing Labour MP, only to be ousted by the SNP’s Alison Thewliss in 2015. The following year, Anas migrated into the Scottish Parliament. In 2017, he stood for the leadership of Scottish Labour — and lost to the leftist Richard Leonard.

Under Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour has largely embraced Keir Starmer’s centrist revamp.

In February 2021, following the collapse of the Corbyn experiment in England, Leonard resigned and Sarwar assumed control of the party. In May 2021, Sarwar led Labour to its worst ever result at a Holyrood election, coming in third behind Douglas Ross’s neolithic Scottish Conservatives. Sarwar’s chief political asset is his bulletproof self-belief. Far from outmaneuvering the nationalists, he has simply stuck around long enough to watch the independence movement implode of its own volition.

Yousaf has reacted to the accidental rebirth of Scottish Labour with a panicked lurch into climate denial. In February, he accused Starmer and Sarwar of plotting to throw one hundred thousand Scottish workers onto the employment “scrap heap” as part of a “Thatcherite” raid on the Aberdeen oil industry. Their offense: calling for a modest tax increase on the multibillion-dollar profits of energy companies operating in the North Sea.

Yousaf’s attack was symptomatic of Scottish nationalism’s broader confusion over climate issues. Under Sturgeon, the SNP sought to position itself at the forefront of Europe’s fight against global warming by championing a “just transition” away from fossil fuels and passing “world-leading” carbon reduction targets through the Scottish Parliament. But Sturgeon’s climate commitments were illusory. Scotland’s much-hyped green industrial jobs boom never fully materialized. Meanwhile, Holyrood has missed its legally binding emissions targets eight times over the past twelve years.

Yousaf similarly finds himself caught between the environmental expectations of the SNP’s left-leaning base and the party’s historic attachment to carbon as a core political commodity. Twelve months into his first ministerial tenure, he appears to have sided with the latter. Whether this pivot yields the desired political results, in the form of strengthening support for the SNP in the oil-soaked constituencies of the North East, remains to be seen.

Silver Lining

There is one silver lining to the disastrous situation Sturgeon has bequeathed to Yousaf: despite the turbulence associated with the Scottish government over the past year, backing for independence has remained remarkably stable at around 50 percent. In other words, although the nationalist movement has lost much of its electoral currency, opposition to the British state is now a settled feature of the Scottish political landscape.

There may, therefore, be an upper limit to Scottish Labour’s ascendancy. Sarwar’s mangled handling of Israel’s assault on Gaza — he eventually backed a full cease-fire in late October after the Palestinian death toll had hit more than seven thousand — will only heighten the hostility of left-wing Scots to the prospect of a Starmer-led executive at Westminster.

Opposition to the British state is now a settled feature of the Scottish political landscape.

Yousaf, by contrast, has been steadfast in his criticism of Israel. His wife, Nadia El-Nakla, is part-Palestinian; her parents were trapped in Gaza at the start of the war but have since escaped. The bizarre sequence of events that took place in the House of Commons on February 21, during which House Speaker Lindsay Hoyle intervened on Labour’s behalf to dilute an SNP-led debate aimed at ending the Israeli onslaught, could bolster Scottish anger at the Westminster war machine.

Still, Palestine aside, reversing the long-term erosion of the SNP’s popularity won’t be easy for Yousaf, an awkward, inexperienced leader at the helm of a fractious, enervated party. To have any hope of survival, he will have to find a way of bringing two formally united political blocs — SNP voters and independence voters — back into alignment.

His main advantage in this respect is the wafer-thin enthusiasm for Labour that exists among the solidly anti-Union half of Scottish society. His main disadvantage is an escalating mood in Scotland of national apathy. Unfortunately for Yousaf, much of that apathy is SNP-induced.

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