Humza Yousaf resigns: Next SNP leader must tell followers that Scottish independence is dead for a generation – Euan McColm

The SNP’s obsession with independence saw ministers shy away from taking potentially controversial steps to deal with public services in disarray

If whoever succeeds Humza Yousaf as leader of the SNP hopes to have even the slightest chance of stumbling all the way through to the 2026 Holyrood election as First Minister, they’ll have to start by doing something that hasn’t come easy to their predecessors. They’ll have to be honest with their supporters – and the rest of the country – about the likelihood of another independence referendum.

In his or her first speech to the nation, Scotland’s seventh First Minister must admit that the prospect of independence truly is dead for a generation. This is something both Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf knew but were too cowardly to admit. Instead, Sturgeon repeatedly promised referendums she had no power to deliver while Yousaf declared, entirely erroneously, that victory in the next general election for the SNP would give him a mandate to begin referendum discussions with the UK Government.

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Even as he announced his departure from office, yesterday, Yousaf was still at it. Independence, he said, was frustratingly close. It is not at all close and lying about that will do the fortunes of the SNP no good at all.

Tall tale about a dream

For the past decade, various iterations of the indyref2 lie have got in the way of the work of the government. Even as polls showed a second referendum wasn’t even a priority for many SNP voters, Sturgeon and Yousaf kept the flicker of a tall tale about a dream alive.

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The next SNP leader needs to come clean about the chances of achieving independence in the foreseeable future (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)The next SNP leader needs to come clean about the chances of achieving independence in the foreseeable future (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
The next SNP leader needs to come clean about the chances of achieving independence in the foreseeable future (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

The consequence of this obsession with the constitution is that public services in Scotland have declined. With the possibility of a referendum at the front of their minds, SNP ministers have shied away from taking on potentially controversial projects. Anything which might, in however small a way, harm the cause has been avoided.

Thus, there has been no serious discussion of reform of the NHS for more than 15 years. Meaningless and entirely undeliverable promises over waiting times and the extension of the free prescription benefit to include the wealthy are hardly the acts of a great radical government. Rather, they show how the obsession with independence frightened the SNP from attempting difficult, but necessary, work in key policy areas.

Along with neglecting the NHS, the nationalists have taken their eyes off the education system. Standards in literacy and numeracy may have fallen throughout the SNP’s time in office but no Education Secretary has ever dared take on the vested interests in the teaching unions in the name of improving delivery.

Gender reform

For a long time – far too damned long, but that’s people for you – a sufficient number of SNP supporters were happy to lap up empty promises of a referendum and to ask no difficult questions. But, over time, some began to doubt their leader’s word. This new wave of scepticism sent Sturgeon into a panic and she made her bizarre – and completely undeliverable – declaration that the next general election should be seen as a “de facto” referendum on independence.

A backlash against that plan from within party ranks, along with growing public anger over the Scottish Government’s obsession with pursuing reform of the Gender Recognition Act even after it had been blocked by Scottish Secretary Alister Jack on the grounds that it would negatively impact on the UK-wide Equality Act, were among the factors said to have led to Sturgeon’s decision to resign (though concern about the Police Scotland investigation that recently led to her husband Peter Murrell being charged with embezzlement may also have played a part).

Why, then, did Yousaf think he could do the same things and get a different result? Things could have been so different if only Sturgeon had levelled with Yes voters after defeat in 2014. Of course, she wished to keep up the spirits of a great many Scots who were bitterly disappointed by the result but the answer wasn’t to treat them like idiots, feeding them an endless stream of empty promises.

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Focus on the day job

When Sturgeon took to stages during her bizarre rock-star style tour of the country on becoming First Minister, she should have been brutally honest with her supporters. They had participated in a most remarkable campaign and helped take support for Scottish independence to new heights but the reality was that it would not be easy to agree terms with Westminster for a new referendum.

Voters have made it clear in poll after poll that the SNP’s failure to provide reassuring answers on questions about issues such as currency, borders, and pension has harmed their referendum chances. Sturgeon should have told the SNP’s many thousands of new members that there was real hard work ahead and then she should have focussed – truly focussed – on the day job.

Sturgeon’s failure to level with supporters was a mistake repeated by Yousaf shortly after he was sworn in. Just like Sturgeon did, he told his members that the result of the next general election would have constitutional consequences. It won’t and there are no circumstances under which it would have.

SNP’s crumbling reputation

The majority of Scots are quite clear that their current priorities are the NHS, education, and the cost-of-living crisis. This has been made plain often enough that if the next SNP leader opens with talk of another referendum, they should not be surprised if voters choose not to give them a chance.

The SNP’s disdain for the wishes of the majority of Scots and willingness to mislead its most loyal supporters are among the factors which have brought the party to its lowest point in living memory. Whoever succeeds Humza Yousaf must show genuine humility and admit to Scots that, for now, there is absolutely no prospect of another referendum.

Alternatively, they could maintain the lie that “freedom” is just a heave away and – in the process – further damage the SNP’s crumbling reputation.



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