His win represents the fourth election in recent political history which saw victory secured on 52 per cent. To succeed in the future, our First Minister should be ready to dust off the abacus just yet, Humza Yousaf needs only to look at the results of the 1979 vote on Scottish devolution, the 2011 Scottish Parliament election and the 2016 EU referendum for lessons and warnings from history.
For those who were not around for the 1979 referendum (including myself and a refreshingly large proportion of the new Scottish Government), the vote ended with 52 per cent in favour of devolution, 48 per cent against. The vote was disregarded because of the infamous 40 per cent turnout rule.
The UK Government, viewing the 1979 referendum through the warped lens of a first-past-the-post election, considered their electoral victory to be the end of the matter. Sixteen years of an SNP Scottish Government and the recent election of another pro-independence First Minister by most members of Scotland’s largest political party shows just how deluded that belief was.
Reflecting on the 1979 referendum, Humza Yousaf will be conscious that no constituency vanishes overnight, especially not one representing almost half of the electorate. Democratic politics is not a football match with winners and losers who all go home after the final whistle, but a kind of national conversation that never really ends. People do not simply forget the reasons why they voted after polling day.
In our recent leadership election, 48 per cent of SNP members voted for Kate Forbes not, I suspect, because they agreed with her views on social issues but rather because of their unhappiness with the status quo ante. These concerns, shared by almost half of our fellow members, cannot be ignored – the 1979 referendum teaches us that any attempt to dismiss these dissenting voices will only see them return with renewed fervour.
The second lesson comes from the 2011 Scottish Parliament election – that extraordinary election where the SNP won just over 52 per cent of the seats in Holyrood despite an electoral system designed to prevent just that. But how did we do it? The 2011 Scottish Election Study summed it up best. After months of interviews and meticulous data gathering, they found the explanation for the SNP’s victory in “the most mundane of electoral reasons: most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals”.
It is easy to forget this simple truth against a backdrop of increasingly granular polling, focus groups and the distorting social media feedback loop. Instead, politicians find themselves ascribing their successes and failures to individual performances, policy issues or personalities. To do so is to miss the forest for the trees.
Humza won his election because members of the SNP thought he would do a better job in office than his rivals – no more, no less. His mission now is to give a plurality of Scots a reason to believe that too. I almost hesitate to turn to the final lesson. There is a scene in Robert Zemekis’ 1992 cult classic Death Becomes Her where the protagonist sits in group therapy, her fellow patients wailing in agony as she discusses the same topic for seven years. It is the same reaction I have now flinchingly come to expect when I mention Brexit.
But, if the new First Minister is to govern successfully, he must learn the lessons of the Conservative party’s catastrophic mishandling of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. Theresa May interpreted the 52:48 split as a mandate to try to hammer through the most extreme form of Brexit imaginable.
And, while these have perhaps been some of the most eschatological weeks in Scottish politics since Patrick Hamilton was burnt at the stake in 1528, I will beg the indulgence of this paper’s weary audience to quote the Gospel once more. Matthew 12:25 – famously invoked by Abraham Lincoln – recognised that “every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every house divided against itself shall not stand”.
Theresa May forgot this ancient truth. She forgot that she governed for the country, not for her party or even a faction of it. She failed to seek consensus and unity and, in doing so, she failed to deliver her Brexit deal and resigned. After winning an election split down the same lines, the new First Minister cannot make the same mistake.
But whilst Humza Yousaf must lead from the front, those who did not vote for him must now have his back. The leader sets the scene for party unity, but every member of the Scottish National Party must put their shoulder to the wheel too. There is now no Team Humza or Team Kate, only Team SNP.
My party’s undivided focus must now be on crafting a credible effort to reach across the political, economic and social divides that increasingly define life in our country and deliver the good governance, better living standards and public services that Scots need. That is the road to a better Scotland where poverty is eradicated, prosperity flourishes and the case for independence gets a fair hearing. We must show the public that, even after 16 years in government, we are worthy recipients of their confidence and trust. Bluntly, if we do not do this, we will fail.
So, armed with all those lessons from history, I’m heading back to the place I was born. I’ll see you in Rutherglen.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South