As Humza Yousaf marks his first year, he should heed the words of Kate Forbes

The First Minister has endured a tough 12 months in charge

There was laughter in the audience as Kate Forbes, who came close to winning the SNP leadership election last year, began her careful, "diplomatic" answer.

The former finance secretary had been talking about the importance of having a "big vision" in politics. People need to be enthused and inspired, she said.

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Then came the obvious question. Does Humza Yousaf, the current First Minister, have a big vision, and does she subscribe to it?

Humza Yousaf after being elected new Scottish National Party leader last MarchHumza Yousaf after being elected new Scottish National Party leader last March
Humza Yousaf after being elected new Scottish National Party leader last March

None of the more than 400 people gathered in Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms that evening were left in any doubt about where she stood.

"Well, I think we are going through a challenging time, and if I can answer that in a diplomatic fashion..." Ms Forbes began.

She later denied her remarks, made during a special live recording of the Holyrood Sources podcast last week, were a criticism of Mr Yousaf. But they weren't exactly a glowing tribute, either. You don't usually have to be "diplomatic" about praise.

This week marks one year since Mr Yousaf was elected SNP leader and subsequently sworn in as the sixth First Minister of Scotland. And it's been quite some 12 months.

First Minister Humza Yousaf. Picture: John DevlinFirst Minister Humza Yousaf. Picture: John Devlin
First Minister Humza Yousaf. Picture: John Devlin

His party’s trials and tribulations have been widely covered, written about and analysed. Within days of his election, police swooped on the home of his predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon, and her husband Peter Murrell. Operation Branchform – the name given to the police probe into the SNP’s funding and finances – remains ongoing.

Elsewhere, the rise of Labour across the UK has become the dominant story of the upcoming general election.

Last year's Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election saw a 20.4 per cent swing from the SNP to Labour, and polls show the two parties roughly neck-and-neck in Scotland. Once a narrative takes hold in politics, it can be hard to shift.

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The last week alone – during which the SNP has been celebrating Mr Yousaf’s first year in charge – has seen difficult headlines around housing, hate crime legislation and the return of Michael Matheson to Holyrood after he resigned as a minister over an £11,000 data roaming bill on his parliamentary iPad.

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, said Mr Yousaf “inherited a veritable mess” when he took charge.

"Nonetheless, he must have been aware of the major public policy challenges, not least given his previous roles in government – whether it was the ferries, the NHS or the very challenging state of Scottish public finances and economic performance,” the academic, who is a leading authority on the SNP, told The Scotsman.

"It is clear he had given little thought to how he would handle these challenges and hence we have continued to drift over the last year. He has offered no more than Nicola Sturgeon substantively as First Minster but lacks her communication and campaigning skills.

"During the leadership contest he had presented himself as the ‘continuity candidate’, talked about a wealth tax and being progressive. He has indeed been a continuity candidate in failing to match words with deeds.”

Supporters say Mr Yousaf is his own man. Once in power, he quickly dumped chunks of Ms Sturgeon’s policy agenda, including proposals for highly protected marine areas. He also moved away from her plan to fight the next general election as a de-facto referendum, although his alternative strategy remains somewhat unconvincing.

Elsewhere, Mr Yousaf has sought to rebuild relationships with business leaders. Insiders talk of a "renewed focus" on the importance of fundraising and donations. Even the First Minister’s detractors accept he is personally likeable. In the words of one, he has “a certain charm”.

Mr Yousaf has coped well with moments of great personal pressure. There was sympathy from across the political spectrum when his in-laws were trapped in Gaza last year.

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But the approaching general election may come to be seen as a significant moment. Fergus Ewing, the rebel SNP backbencher and former minister, told The Scotsman a bad result will spark a "widespread rethink". A really bad result would lead to inevitable questions about Mr Yousaf’s position.

Mr Ewing is clear about what he thinks should be done. He believes the SNP will be writing “the biggest suicide note” in election history unless it ditches its co-operation agreement with the Greens ahead of the 2026 Holyrood vote.

Ms Forbes, he said, "has shown she has got the guts, she's got the character" to lead the party. The failure to elect her last year was "the biggest mistake in the party's history". The former finance secretary has supporters elsewhere, too – although there are plenty who believe she would split the SNP.

“The danger for Humza Yousaf is that he will become the fall guy for failures that have been evident for some years,” Prof Mitchell said. “Political parties can be unforgiving to leaders even when circumstances beyond the control of the leader conspire to undermine performance. He has not helped himself, but the fact that there has been so much speculation on his likely demise as leader is as much a function of context as poor leadership.”

Mr Yousaf has endured a tough 12 months. Some of his biggest challenges – such as the police investigation into the SNP – have been entirely outwith his control. But if he wants to emulate the longevity of his immediate predecessors, he will need to take the reins and turn things around.

Perhaps, as Ms Forbes suggested, he should work on that “big vision”. His party could do with some inspiration.



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