Worse than ridiculous, it’s dangerous for Scotland to remain shackled to a farcical administration obsessed with its own survival at a time of great public need, argues David Jamieson.
As the shambling SNP leadership moves into increasingly farcical territory, and lurid speculation follows upon shocking revelation, there’s a danger of depoliticization. Events already have the air of a low-budget soap opera. Opportunities for comedy attend every utterance from Humza Yousaf, who appears completely out his depth in what is, to be fair, a sea of troubles.
If Yousaf is being honest and he really knew nothing about the loss of membership, extent of the SNP’s financial problems, and the exit of the auditors last year then he has been landed in a terrible predicament by a former leadership devoid of concern for the future of her party and colleagues. Since his election to the top job, the new first minister has done little but appear and make embarrassed apologies and promises of reform – most of which he has bungled. The announcement of his new government policy platform was ruined by the arrest of party treasurer Colin Beattie, and he was left again mumbling his way through apologies, and saying things he really shouldn’t about needing to speak to the arrested man (subsequently released pending further investigation).
That he and Ian Blackford (though notably not the latter’s usurpers for the role of Westminster leadership) have continued to defend Sturgeon and separate her from her husband, Peter Murrell, implies a simple PR strategy. They want to cut off the gangrenous Murrell hand and save the Sturgeon arm, hoping that the rot of bad press stops with minimal damage. This is what can be gleaned from The National’s headline quote: “You can’t Judge Nicola on what happens to her husband”. It’s a piece of elitist faux-feminism, deflecting scrutiny from a political personality, that could have come directly from Sturgeon herself. And who knows – perhaps it did.
It’s a desperate manoeuvre, but Yousaf is so very short on options. It’s not just that Sturgeon remains the figure most associated with the party, and that what happens to her has very real implications for Yousaf and the rest of the mess she left behind. Yousaf will struggle to orientate himself in a badly divided organisation.
This was clearly demonstrated by Ash Reagan, when she demanded the ouster of Sturgeon from the party leadership. It’s testament to the drama of recent weeks that this story barely registered. It’s little matter in the scheme of things, and yet Regan was a minister in Sturgeon’s government until months ago. Now she is calling for her old boss to be kicked out the party.
The schisms in the SNP, which also saw Kate Forbes publish her own parallel policy document alongside Yousaf, mean he cannot turn to his own benches and claim them as his own. Yousaf defeated Forbes by the slimmest of margins, and he made himself entirely dependent on what we now know was the mirage of Sturgeon’s invincibility. The ‘continuity candidate’ tried to make a show of moving on from some of his predecessors’ faltering policies – the bottle and can deposit scheme and the National Care Service that is really just another bonanza for private capital. But the signalling is weak when the news cycle is completely dominated by the jet of sewage roaring from the broken pipe just over Yousaf’s shoulder.
In a strange way, the regular jolts of fresh scandal pulsing through the SNP are keeping the show going. If the spectacle stops (and there seems little chance of that for now), people might suddenly ask if we shouldn’t have a real government at a time when prices continue to soar, forcing hundreds of thousands to the brink. Indeed, past the brink, as a new study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation confirms. It has found that 460,000 Scots from a population of 5 and half million now live in the worst kind of poverty (a 50% increase on 1997), despite decades of promises from consecutive Scottish governments. These figures were compiled to 2020 – even before the historic attacks on workers wages of the past year.
Addressing this stark reality in parliament, Yousaf, announced…a summit. This really is continuity, even down to the blizzard of buzz phrases and NGO nomenclature used to describe it:
“I am pleased to announce that, in just over a fortnight, I will convene an anti-poverty summit to develop further policy proposals and listen to ideas and contributions from as wide as possible a stakeholder group, including key expert poverty and inequality stakeholders, local government, trade unions, equalities stakeholders, businesses, and energy companies.”
The idea that yet another summit is what is required – even if it does include both inequality and equalities stakeholders – is nothing less than an insult. Scotland presently has a zombie government – a parody of what we had and was failing under Sturgeon.
A Deeper Crisis
It must be kept in mind that the SNP finances mess did not appear out of paradise. This is true in the sense that operation Branchform is the best part of 2 years old, though you’d never know that from the lightness of its boot print in political life before now.
More importantly, the finances story should not be artificially separated from the collapse of the independence strategy pretence. The crisis of the SNP has moved in two broad phases. The first began in November 2022, when the UK Supreme Court (rather predictably) blocked the Scottish Government’s bid for a self-organised referendum, causing Sturgeon to fall back on her ludicrous ‘de facto referendum’ idea. It was this that first split the SNP’s ranks of elected representatives, leading to the coup against Blackford in London.
Sturgeon left office under darkening clouds, not least the police investigation – on which she pointedly refused to answer questions at her resignation speech. But we must always bear in mind that SNP party finances are intimately linked with the strategy of using a phony independence drive to propel a party 16 years in office, with little record to reflect that longevity, and failing on every major policy front.
Beneath Yousaf is a chasm. There are no alternative leaders, little talent or even experience for hight office, no financial resources – barely enough to fight a by-election. The policy language is more tired than Rip Van Winkle. And the whole sagging show is tied inexorably to a former leadership mired in controversy.
Much of Scottish public life still thinks it’s in a dream with this sleeping administration. That they might suddenly wake to find all their cosy certainties in place. We should be asking some urgent questions – like what happens to a country and devolved system with a government this dysfunctional and untrustworthy? For years I’ve been saying that Scotland is not immune from the kind of right-wing backlash against failed centrism we’ve seen across Europe. Now we have the perfect ingredients for such a development. A complacent government, servile to elite interests and ignorant of the wider public, in a morass of police investigations. Scotland may be going continental, just not in the way SNP leaders hoped. Scotland must not remain shackled to the zombie SNP much longer.