Humza Yousaf's 'Scotland first' rhetoric suggests he's copying Donald Trump's populist tactics – Alistair Carmichael

Populism not only tries to delegitimise opposing views, but it leaves us fixated on grievance, rather than how to make things better

“Our values are the people of America’s values... When the Republican party wins, America wins. We are the only party that will unashamedly, and unapologetically put America first… The Washington Establishment will throw everything at the Republican party... We have the opportunity to ensure that America is Democrat-free... If we are to truly make America Democrat-free, we need to reject not just Democrat politicians, but Democrat policies, Democrat ideas and Democrat values.

“Who do you trust to stand up for America, to put America first? The only party that will do that is the Republican party.”

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This sort of “America first”, nationalistic, populist rhetoric has been heard from a certain yellow-coiffed figure in recent years. When you see it put as starkly as this, it is easy to recognise the danger inherent in any politician who others their opponents, and identifies their party as the sole “true” voice of the country.

Donald Trump's populist 'America First' rhetoric has become a familiar part of US politics (Picture: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Donald Trump's populist 'America First' rhetoric has become a familiar part of US politics (Picture: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Donald Trump's populist 'America First' rhetoric has become a familiar part of US politics (Picture: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Yousaf is not Trump

Except these are not the words of Donald Trump. Instead this is a collection of quotes from First Minister Humza Yousaf last weekend, with the country and parties’ names swapped. How unfortunate. Mr Yousaf is not Mr Trump. The SNP are not the Republicans – and yet we should always be concerned about the way that platinum-blonde populism can poison our politics, here in Scotland just as much as anywhere else.

Populism pits the “good people” against corrupt establishment elites. It reframes our politics into “us” and “them” categories. It de-legitimises political opposition in sly ways which can be hard to pick out. Above all, populist politics seeks to divide and polarise.

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

When the First Minister says “it is only the SNP that will put Scotland first”, it is an implicit argument that there is a choice to be made between Scotland and somewhere else, and that the “Westminster parties” are not “standing up” for Scotland. If you do not back the SNP, your loyalty and your legitimacy are traduced.

As a liberal, I reject this false choice. I am comfortable being both “Team Scotland” – to use Alex Salmond’s unfortunate term in 2014 – and “Team UK”. You can stand up for Scotland and support our remaining part of the United Kingdom. Indeed given the economic and social harm inherent in breaking up the UK, I would argue that preventing such harm is a pretty good way to stand up for Scottish interests.

Pluralism is a good thing

Back in 2014, I upset some people by saying that, if Scotland were to vote to leave, then I would of course work to get the best possible deal for Scotland. Those that I upset were largely over-thinking the position, and believed I was giving credibility to the idea of independence actually happening. I saw things differently then and still do today. Being in favour of retaining the UK does not mean I am any less of a Scot. Nor do I want anything less than the best possible for my country. Ironically, that is the SNP narrative.

This is not really about any one party. It is about a basic liberal principle in our country – that pluralism is a good thing, rather than a marker of disloyalty. You can disagree with another party’s values and still believe that those values should be represented.

After all, the SNP is supposed to be in favour of a more proportional voting system in UK elections. It is a cause for which my party has fought for decades. At the heart of that campaign is the idea that voters should have a more equal and representative parliament. If Mr Yousaf holds true to that position then he should be comfortable with other parties having full and legitimate representation.

Populism’s simplistic solutions

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There is a difference between trying to beat the other team – and believing that they should not even be allowed on the scoreboard. The danger of populism is not merely that it delegitimises opposing views, but that it leaves us fixated on grievance, rather than how we can make things better. Populism exploits complicated problems and offers simplistic solutions, and then finds someone else to blame when those solutions fail to deliver.

The SNP would rather create another binary tug-of-war over the constitution than focus on the policies that they are responsible for, like healthcare or transport or education. It is hard to deliver meaningful change when your political narrative relies on meaningful change being impossible. The SNP have a vested interest in painting all alternatives to independence – such as a change of government – as being pointless.

Of course, the SNP’s nationalist-populist framing is not the only way to deliver change, for Scotland and the UK as a whole. Mr Yousaf even made an oblique reference in his speech when he spoke about the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as “a moment where we took some control away from Westminster”. It was a telling attempt by the SNP to rewrite history – while using the conspiratorial “take back control” language beloved of the populist right.

Values we should all share

The truth is that the Scottish Parliament was born out of a cross-party consensus. That process was driven by Labour, Liberal Democrat and non-partisan civil society figures, with belated SNP support. It was delivered by a UK-wide Labour majority government and followed by two successful Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions in Holyrood. It allowed successive SNP governments to make their mark – and we can, of course, judge how happy we are with their efforts.

We all came together to deliver change. Not the narrow nationalist “we”, but people of many parties and of the entire United Kingdom. Those values of political pluralism, diversity and progress are values we all should share. It is time to stand up for them, and deliver change once again.

Alistair Carmichael is Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland



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