Humza Yousaf's premiership in charge of SNP and Scotland failed to chart its own course, amid political storms

First minister’s legacy will be defined by inertia, miscalculations, and lack of ideas

He was a leader who never managed to get on the front foot, spending his short time in Scotland’s highest public office fending off storms instead of making the political weather.

By setting out his stall as the continuity candidate in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s abrupt resignation, Humza Yousaf secured victory over Kate Forbes in a fractious leadership contest. But the margin of that win – 52 per cent to 48 per cent – only amplified existing concerns that Scotland’s sixth – and youngest – first minister was fighting a losing battle from the get go.

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Indeed, even when he was the frontrunner in the leadership race, senior party figures, including some of his own supporters, privately conceded he was “lightweight”, “over-promoted”, and “not going to be able to deliver”.

No succession is straightforward, and Mr Yousaf’s proved particularly testing. The circumstances which elevated him to the top job never faded from view, and his truncated term as leader was hamstrung by factors outwith his control. Chief among them was Operation Branchform, the ongoing Police Scotland investigation into the SNP’s finances, which cast a pall over the SNP, and Mr Yousaf’s attempts to assert control over its future.

Less than a week into his tenure, police arrested Peter Murrell, the former SNP chief executive, who has since been charged in connection with the alleged embezzlement of funds from the party. On the very day he was due to give his first major speech as leader and set out his Government’s priorities, Mr Yousaf’s attempts to build momentum – arguably the most crucial political currency of all – were impaired by the arrest of Colin Beattie, the SNP MSP and then party treasurer. He was later released without charge, pending further enquiries.

There was an inescapable sense that Mr Yousaf’s future was being held back by his party’s past. But in that respect, he is not blameless. Having championed the Bute House Agreement up until the moment his own leadership became jeopardised by it, Mr Yousaf struggled to advance policies that were key not just to his party’s concord with the Scottish Greens, but the SNP’s most recent manifesto. He was thwarted over gender reform and Scotland’s deposit return scheme, with Westminster taking the rap for both failures, despite clear flaws in their legislative implementation.

With other big ticket pledges, such as highly protected marine areas, also biting the dust, there were prolonged spells where Mr Yousaf’s administration resembled a double-decker bus attempting a three point-turn in a crowded cul-de-sac. But it is not fatalistic to suggest the end of Mr Yousaf’s reign was perceptible at its beginning. When he announced his candidacy for the top job just three days after Ms Sturgeon’s resignation, no one really knew what kind of first minister Mr Yousaf aspired to be. He spoke of his experience as a perennial frontbencher, and his character was never in doubt. But whenever any substantive issue was raised, his vow was simply to do more of the same.

First Minister and SNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks to the media after delivering a speech on the future of Scotland's Energy Sector and the UK general election in Aberdeen. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA WireFirst Minister and SNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks to the media after delivering a speech on the future of Scotland's Energy Sector and the UK general election in Aberdeen. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
First Minister and SNP leader Humza Yousaf speaks to the media after delivering a speech on the future of Scotland's Energy Sector and the UK general election in Aberdeen. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Thirteen months on, we are none the wiser about what Mr Yousaf hoped to achieve. It is difficult to reconcile the progressive image he worked so hard to project with the state of the nation. A school system that was once the jewel in the British educational crown remains in steep decline, nearly a quarter of a million children are living in relative poverty, and his administration’s abandonment of key climate emissions reduction targets drew international condemnation.

On other bread-and-butter domestic issues, the record is little better. The ongoing crisis surrounding the over budget and overdue Calmac ferries trundles on, Mr Yousaf’s government has made little progress on A9 dualling, and it has struggled to tackle crippling waiting times in the NHS in Scotland. For any first minister, such failures would have been damaging; for one who held office as transport minister and health secretary, they raised troubling questions.

Even on the issue of independence, an ideological priority for swathes of his party’s supporters, there was a sense that Mr Yousaf was unwilling, or unable, to move the needle. That was evident during his first hours in power, when he announced he would ask the UK government for powers to hold another referendum under section 30 of the Scotland Act. Unsurprisingly, his demands went unheeded.

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Almost exactly a year on, he announced he would ask the same of Sir Keir Starmer in the event that Labour form the next Westminster administration. It felt like a performative exercise the first time round. That Mr Yousaf deigned to repeat it betrayed his paucity of ideas.

This, really, is the thread that, if pulled, will reveal his legacy. His has been a premiership that failed to chart a coherent course of his own design. Mr Yousaf helmed a leaden ship that was allowed to drift until the rocks came into view. By the time he attempted to turn things around – in doing so spectacularly miscalculating how the Greens would respond – it was too late.

Ironically, Mr Yousaf’s decision to terminate the Bute House Agreement was one of the few times he demonstrated the political nerve to go his own way. His downfall is that he left it too late, and his hand was forced. There is an argument that had he attempted to renegotiate the policy agreements when he entered office, it would have quelled the vocal rebel caucus on his own backbenches, and asserted a degree of authority he was never quite able to muster.

Was it loyalty to Ms Sturgeon and a fear of ostracising those who voted him leader in the first place that prevented him from changing tack sooner? Or was it simply an absence of ideas and dynamism? In due course, we may understand why. But one thing is clear: continuity didn’t cut it.



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