A key feature of Scottish nationalist success has been an unusual resilience to global crises. Some might call it a lucky streak, and, for all the SNP’s failings on domestic policy and incommensurable promises on independence, world events do have a funny habit of breaking to their advantage. Brexit served to rescue the SNP from an impending crash after the sugar rush of 2014-15. Covid-19 served to reinforce Nicola Sturgeon’s authority when it seemed destined to collapse amid internal challenges. The Ukraine War served to shore up the party’s hawkish wing and paper over divisions on nuclear weapons and NATO.
Until now, 2023 was emerging as the year that luck ran out. Criminal investigations into party finances; chaos on policy fronts ranging from bottle deposit schemes to drug deaths; an increasingly frank admission that the independence strategy, if it ever existed, has run aground; sweeping revisionism about the party’s “good governance” on covid-19, the last remaining positive claim about the Sturgeon years. Humza Yousaf inherited a party beset by problems. His hapless reputation on the policy front, and his lacklustre leadership campaign against Kate Forbes, suggested impending collapse.
However, Yousaf’s handling of the recent Gaza crisis has lent him unexpected gravitas. He was far ahead of other European leaders in calling for a ceasefire, the necessity of which is now accepted by everyone from the United Nations to the Financial Times. Yousaf’s personal link to the Gaza crisis – his mother and father-in-law were themselves trapped by the Israeli assault – has been handled with dignity and authority. The ensuing volley of racist invective from pitiable Twitter trolls has only reinforced this aura of grace.
It remains unclear whether the affairs of distant Palestine have any impact on wider public perceptions of the SNP. And none of the deeper problems have disappeared. Even if Operation Branchform ends inconclusively, the Sturgeon era – of which Yousaf is the self-proclaimed “continuity candidate” – awaits a biting reassessment.
Scotland’s professional establishment wilfully bought into the myth of Sturgeon’s competent governance when it meant glowing write-ups in Le Monde, the New York Times and the London Review of Books. Would-be cosmopolitans became overnight patriots. That professional layer now makes an elaborate performance of feeling cheated, as Sturgeon’s legacy is being rewritten as an Ally MacLeod-style triumph of bluster over substance. Yousaf will struggle to control the resulting release of furious energies.
Still, something has shifted. Yousaf now possesses a clear moral dividing line against Starmer’s Labour and the Westminster establishment. On Gaza, much of Labour’s front bench has been dragged, despondently, to a position Yousaf staked out weeks ago. As has the Labour London mayor; the mayor of Manchester; and the Scottish Labour leader. They have bowed, above all, to public opinion, with 76 percent backing a ceasefire. In his simpering show of loyalty to Washington orthodoxy, Starmer has cut a marooned figure, defending the indefensible without the fire-breathing vigour of a Blair or Thatcher.
Thus, once again, the SNP stands to gain, at least, a temporary respite thanks to the London establishment’s bungling efforts to maintain the British state’s role in the imperial chain of command. At this stage, whether voters much notice is a secondary consideration. What was negativley impacting the SNP, more than polling numbers or police investigations, was a yawning void of disenchantment when its primary purposes were revealed as daydreams. What the party needed, after a year of abject de-moralisation, was any source of re-moralisation: to achieve some semblance of purpose beyond a baseline of brute loyalty, factionalism and careerism.
Nonetheless, re-enchantment is no longer possible, and Scottish nationalism must proceed with fewer illusions. The Sturgeon years stand revealed for a succession of false promises and wasted opportunities. Their apparent biggest asset has been exposed – regardless of ongoing criminal investigations – as a dissembling liability.
Independence is conclusively off the agenda, perhaps for a generation; and that realisation could be liberating. Driven by a wave of unprincipled anti-Brexit fervour, the putative prospect of the breakup of Britain disciplined Scottish radicals to the reproduction of an otherwise charmless governing class. In turn, that governing class was preening itself about Scotland’s positive reputation among the global liberal jet set. The harsh comedown, the broken fever, could – should – be the occasion for a declaration of independence, of leftism from the cadres of nationalist careerism and the ideology of liberal self-regard.
Yet dangers remain. With Labour’s rightward moves, the centrist SNP has often entered an unholy alliance with the London activist-commentariat scene. The myth of progressive Scotland, increasingly treated with disdain north of the border, may survive as a lazy point of reference for Starmer’s English critics. Many Scottish leftists feel compelled, as if in a nationalist reimagining of Goodbye Lenin, to maintain a fantasy of Scottish good governance to appease disconsolate English leftists. Ultimately, these delusions are helping nobody. Ending this mismatched marriage would be a positive step for all concerned.
Yousaf should be honoured for breaking from a nihilistic Westminster establishment on an ethical issue that demands backbone. But that assessment should not mean a return to uncritical cheerleading. Too often, the SNP has gained undeserved moral insulation from “progressive” civic Scotland; for all Yousaf’s commendable leadership on this single issue, the post-2014 Scottish governing class is badly due a scouring reappraisal. And if independence is to be anything but a chimera, its party-political representatives need a humbling spell in opposition to rediscover their substantive purpose.