Why a true baptism of fire awaits Scotland's new First Minister tomorrow

·5-min read
(left to right) SNP leadership candidates, Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes, ahead of a SNP leadership hustings hosted by LBC at their studios in Glasgow. Picture date: Monday March 20, 2023. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS SNP. Photo credit
(left to right) SNP leadership candidates, Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes, ahead of a SNP leadership hustings hosted by LBC at their studios in Glasgow. Picture date: Monday March 20, 2023. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS SNP. Photo credit

TOMORROW afternoon a new political chapter begins for Scotland as its governing party unveils a new and untested leader while the old, familiar one departs the stage accompanied by cheers and jeers from an anxious audience.

A daunting prospect faces the new Nationalist chief, who will also become Scotland’s sixth First Minister: how to unite a divided party, which its top grandee only a few days ago admitted was in a “tremendous mess” and with the possibility the SNP’s partnership with the Greens could implode almost immediately, depending on the result.

And, of course, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s string of election victories, the summit that is Scottish independence seems no nearer now than it was in 2014. Both frontrunners have signalled a slower, more considered route to Indyref2.

Healing the divisions from social to economic policy exposed in the five-weeklong campaign won’t be easy, particularly if the result is a close one, and even more so if, say, Kate Forbes wins in a photo-finish thanks to the second preference votes of Ash Regan’s supporters.

Plus, things have been said during the heat of the hustings, which can’t be unsaid; Ms Forbes’s trashing of Humza Yousaf’s ministerial record, for instance.

Yesterday, Scottish Greens gathered in Clydebank to mull over what would happen to their government partnership with the SNP post the leadership election result.

The signs were not good as the party sent its clearest signal yet that it wouldn’t work with Ms Forbes, the socially and economically conservative candidate, if she became the next FM.

Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Greens co-leader, didn’t mince his words, telling conference a “sincere commitment to progressive values cannot be an optional extra in a choice of first minister”, saying, rather, it was a “necessity”.

His co-leader, Lorna Slater, confirmed the party would meet tomorrow to “choose whether we want to continue in government”.

Harvie and Slater
Harvie and Slater

Harvie and Slater

Responding swiftly, Mr Yousaf, a self-declared progressive, warned that ending the SNP-Green partnership would be a “tremendously foolish thing to do” because it would “destabilise” the Scottish Government. “You[would] end up not just in a minority government but[with]…one of the most toxic parliaments I’ve ever been in,” he added.

Noon deadline

It looked like a last-minute pitch to any of the 72,186 SNP members who hadn’t yet voted; the ballot remains open until noon tomorrow.

Last month, Mr Harvie responded negatively to the declaration by Ms Forbes, a member of the Free Church of Scotland, that she wouldn’t have voted for equal marriage, branding her comments “very shocking” and “outwith the realms of what's acceptable in modern politics”.

The 32-year-old Scottish Finance Secretary has made clear, if she won, there would need to be a “conversation…early doors” with the Greens about whether they could also back her “non-negotiable” economic plans, which would put boosting prosperity “front and centre”. Senior Greens want the emphasis to be on achieving a better quality of life rather than on “prioritising growth at all costs”.

If that were not enough, there is the highly contentious issue of the Scottish Parliament’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which the UK Government has controversially blocked.

The Greens have stressed the legislation is “baked in” to the Bute House partnership agreement and have called on all the SNP candidates to “robustly challenge” London’s block.

Mr Harvie, the Active Travel Minister, has said he couldn’t understand “how any candidate who even believes in devolution, let alone independence” would be willing to “roll over” in the face of the UK Government’s Section 35 order.

Yet Ms Forbes has made clear she wouldn’t have voted for the gender bill and suggested she might not go to court to defend it.

Mr Yousaf was initially bullish about fighting the Whitehall ban, stressing the “first principle” of the FM “should be to challenge a Westminster veto on our legislation”. But then he qualified his position, explaining: “But if the legal advice is: there is simply no state-able case whatsoever, then, of course, that would have to be taken into consideration.”

Meaning a break with the Greens could loom whoever wins.

Not enamoured

As the moment of truth nears, an opinion poll has once again suggested the Scottish public are not enamoured by any of the contestants in the SNP beauty contest.

Mr Yousaf, 37, widely regarded as the Establishment candidate favoured by the FM, scored an unimpressive -20 with Ms Forbes on -8. Meantime, Ms Regan, 49, the ex-Community Safety Minister, scored -24.

However, when it came to SNP members, Mr Yousaf, the bookies’ favourite, was the most popular candidate with a net favourability of +11. Ms Forbes received a rating of +6 while Ms Regan was well behind on -7.

Labour senses a new dawn might be approaching for the comrades. Up in the polls, some analysts suggest it could pick up 11 Scottish seats or more in the 2024 UK poll. It was perhaps no coincidence on Friday that Sir Keir Starmer made his third visit to Scotland in just three weeks. No one is enjoying the SNP contest more than him.

Maintaining the political pressure, Jackie Baillie urged Ms Sturgeon’s replacement to lead with “transparency and openness” given the SNP’s membership numbers row. No doubt affectionately, the Dumbarton MSP urged the new Nationalist leader to “clear out the rot” within the party.

Today, Alister Jack donned his own tam-o’shanter of optimism and urged Scotland’s new FM not to pick fights with Whitehall but, rather, “turn from confrontation to collaboration”. Given there is a general election campaign on the horizon and a new SNP leader seeking to gain traction, one can only wish the Scottish Secretary good luck with that one.

As Ms Sturgeon now looks forward to a cosy “lie-in” on Wednesday with the aim of having “some more fun” away from the political limelight, her successor might be hoping to enjoy a honeymoon period; as new leaders often do.

Yet it’s more likely that, whoever wears the SNP crown tomorrow, they will have to endure a political baptism of fire. It could go on for some time.