Herald View: Yousaf deserves the chance to show what he can do. But the task is huge

·6-min read
New First Minister Humza Yousaf. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
New First Minister Humza Yousaf. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

WAS it the briefest political honeymoon on record? It might well be. After emerging victorious in a carnaptious leadership campaign, Humza Yousaf took office this week, intent on making a fresh start with a new Cabinet. He knows better than anyone the scale of the task facing him.

While his Cabinet was never going to win the approval of every SNP activist and every opposition leader, there is a sense of disappointment over his choices.

On the positive side, it is encouraging that the list includes five MSPs under 40 and, for the first time, a majority of women.

On the other hand, the Cabinet does not seem to have an abundance of depth or talent, though perhaps this is a mere reflection of the dearth of ability or expertise on the backbenches.

Like other newly-minted leaders, Mr Yousaf felt obliged to reward his campaign supporters, though the fact that eight of the nine roles went to MSPs who endorsed him means that he has blown a chance to re-unite his party.

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None of the 11 MSPs who endorsed Kate Forbes is in the Cabinet. It is no wonder that some party members are already said to be despondent. A ‘crony Cabinet’ sends out the wrong message, not just to an unsettled SNP but also to the country at large.

It is hard to overlook the Scottish Tories’ caustic observation that Shona Robison (Deputy FM and Finance Secretary), Michael Matheson (Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care), Angela Constance (Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs) and Jenny Gilruth (Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills) had all been found wanting in previous ministerial roles, yet have been rewarded with new roles.

Ms Robison, for one, needs to show a lot more skill that she has previously.

Kate Forbes, for her part, will be sorely missed. She performed well during her time as Finance Secretary: she had a nuanced grasp of the issues, and sparkled at the despatch box. Her opponents respected her, too.

While her social conservatism made her unsuitable for some Cabinet positions, and while Mr Yousaf felt unable to restore her as Finance Secretary, it is a pity that no other position could have been found for her.

Her presence in the Cabinet would have been a meaningful olive-branch from the new FM, especially in light of his narrow, 2,000-vote win over her, and it would surely have gone some way to bringing the feuding wings of the SNP back together again.

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As it is, her departure, and that of her first campaign manager, Ivan McKee, former minister for business, trade, tourism and enterprise, have done little to reassure a business community already nervous about its fractured relationship with the Scottish government.

Mr McKee could not resist a parting shot to the effect that the relationship needs to be reset.

Mr Yousaf has had precious little time to savour his triumph. Never has an incoming First Minister faced an agenda so full of urgent issues demanding attention.

Some – the consequences of the Brexit vote, the pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis – are not of the Scottish Government’s making, but have to be dealt with regardless. Others – the alarming number of drug deaths, the education attainment gap, the crises confronting the NHS – are also among his priorities. The ferries and their cost over-runs is an issue that been allowed to fester for too long, becoming a national embarrassment. It has badly undermined the SNP’s reputation as a managerially competent administration

Scotland’s stubbornly flat-lining economy remains, of course, a real concern.

It is all very well to tout the real or imagined benefits of a wellbeing economy – Ms Sturgeon declared in 2019 that the goal of Scotland’s economic policy “should be ... how happy and healthy our population is, not just how wealthy it is” – but in such uncertain times, surely wealth-creation remains vital to the country’s prosperity?

Being seen to prioritise a revitalised economy – unlocking growth and investment – would help Mr Yousaf win over sceptical voters and a business community whose attitude to the SNP Government is largely jaundiced.

But for all the disappointment created by his Cabinet choices, Mr Yousaf deserves space and time in order to begin work.

Scotland has arrived at a serious moment in its affairs and we need stable governance, free from distractions.

In his first speech as SNP leader Mr Yousaf made an timely reference to the late John Smith, quoting his dictum that “the opportunity to serve our country is all we ask”.

He pledged to work in the interests of all Scots, irrespective of their political allegiance, and said he would earn their respect and trust. There would be no easy sound-bites, no empty promises. The issues were too complex for that. Government was not easy, he added, and he would not pretend that it was.

Some in the media and opposition who demand simple answers to complex problems would do well to remember that.

Even Mr Yousaf’s comments came across as so much boilerplate, he has fought vigorously for the chance to show what he can do.

Amidst so much rancour (Ruth Davidson’s word), it would be good to see the political bickering easing off for a while – as naive a hope as that might sound.

It has to be acknowledged that Mr Yousaf’s accession is a key moment for Scotland and its ethnic communities. And for Britain, too, which now has, for the first time, a Hindu prime minister at Westminster and a Muslim first minister in Scotland.

To quote Baroness Davidson again: “Irrespective of party, it is quite the moment in Scotland & the UK’s history to have both PM and FM from minority ethnic backgrounds”.

And of course Scottish Labour is led by Anas Sawar, who is also of Pakistani Muslim heritage.

The cultural importance of such achievements cannot be understated, and is to be welcomed.

Is Mr Yousaf the serious politician that these serious times call for? We shall find out in due course.

It is our hope that Scotland’s new first minister will quickly devote his energies to issues that have a real bearing on the everyday lives of Scots: the economy, health and education. Too many people are feeling short-changed in these areas and want practical solutions as a matter of urgency.

When it comes to his own party, he has to help repair the startling damage arising from the fall-out of the last few weeks.

Following the departures of Peter Murrell and Murray Foote, a new chief executive has to be found, as does a head of communications at Holyrood.

The party’s finances need to be focused upon, too, especially as it won’t be too long before the SNP is gearing itself for a general election battle against a newly-confident Labour Party that has, in part, been encouraged by the SNP’s travails.

Like some of his Cabinet choices Mr Yousaf may not have distinguished himself in his previous ministerial posts. He has shown himself, like many politicians, to be fallible.

His decision to appoint the controversially outspoken MSP Gillian Martin as energy minister has called his judgement into question, yet again.

But the hard work of governing begins now. Let us see how he gets on with it.