Why Yousaf's win is a victory for Unionists

Humza Yousaf, centre, narrowly beat Kate Forbes, right, to the SNP leadership, with Ash Regan in third place - Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images
Humza Yousaf, centre, narrowly beat Kate Forbes, right, to the SNP leadership, with Ash Regan in third place - Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images
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Supporters of the Union can breathe a sigh of relief. Humza Yousaf’s election as Nicola Sturgeon’s successor means Scottish independence is even less likely than it was a matter of weeks ago.

Mr Yousaf may have been Ms Sturgeon’s preferred choice, but he is a flawed politician who lacks her leadership and communication skills and inherits a party that is, by its own admission, in a “mess”.

Mr Yousaf, 37, has boldly pronounced that he expects to achieve independence within five years, but he has been vague about how he will go about it.

Polls show that support for independence has not increased significantly since the 2014 referendum. Pete Wishart, the SNP’s longest-serving Westminster MP, has said it is time to be “honest” and admit that “independence is more or less off the table in the short-term future”.

The Conservatives and, in particular, Labour, had been hoping for a Yousaf victory, as his record in office is so poor that both believe they can take seats off the SNP with him at the helm.

Critics say he is the worst transport secretary, justice secretary and health secretary the Scottish Parliament has seen since it was established in 1999.

In his most recent role, he has presided over hugely increased waiting times for elective procedures - an issue that stung him during the leadership campaign. One voter challenged him during a televised debate on why her husband had been told he would have to wait between three and six years for knee surgery.

His strongly republican views are also likely to alienate many Scottish voters, who still prefer a monarchy to a presidency by a significant margin.

There has already been speculation that if the SNP loses seats at the next general election there could be a fresh leadership challenge, which would further fracture an already weakened party.

The departure of Ms Sturgeon as leader, and then her husband Peter Murrell as chief executive earlier this month after the media was given inaccurate information about the size of the party membership, has left the SNP in turmoil.

Mike Russell, the SNP’s president, has said the party is in a “tremendous mess”. The fact that the leadership contest was such a close-run thing exposes the divisions within the party that Mr Yousaf must now try to heal.

Those who voted for Kate Forbes wanted a change within the party. She was seen as being more competent on the economy, a stronger leader and, at the age of 32, a fresh face.

But her social conservatism, including her opposition to gay marriage, proved too much of a barrier, and the party has been left with a continuity candidate who has done little to convince voters that he can improve on what has gone before.

As Ms Forbes said during the leadership campaign: “More of the same is not a manifesto, it’s an acceptance of mediocrity.”

Mr Yousaf initially said he would try to overturn the UK Government’s block on Scotland’s proposed gender recognition reforms, even though the policy of self-identification has tied the SNP in knots - most notably over the issue of trans rapist Isla Bryson.

He then changed his mind, much to the annoyance of the SNP’s Green Party coalition partners.

He has said he will “overhaul” the care system to free up beds in NHS hospitals, but has not given any detail of what that means.

On education, he wants to expand the provision of free school meals, breakfast clubs and after-school clubs and to improve the early diagnosis of learning difficulties, all of which will cost money that is in short supply.

To pay for it, he favours a high taxation economic regime, and wants to create a “well-being economy” in which trade unions have more input into government policy.

Polling showed that Ms Forbes, the anti-woke candidate, was more popular with voters than Mr Yousaf, though neither of them garnered more support than “none of the above” in the question of who would make the best first minister.

Labour believes that disaffected voters will desert the SNP now that Ms Sturgeon has gone. If it is right, SNP voters are more likely to defect to Labour than the Conservatives - and Sir Keir Starmer could be the biggest beneficiary of Mr Yousaf’s victory.