Why by-election defeat really matters for the SNP
Humza Yousaf has left it too late to forge his own leadership
On the afternoon of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, Time Magazine released its latest edition. To my astonishment, Humza Yousaf adorned the front page, presented as a “trailblazing” young leader. It may be the highlight of his political career as far as personal profile-raising is concerned. Forget “representing Scotland on the global stage”. This is, rather, the type of thing that stands out when it comes to landing big jobs in the transnational NGO sector, where the hunt is always on for some new found “bright spark” who can churn out platitudes in a presentable manner. The SNP have excelled at that in recent years. But platitudes are perishable. They have a shelf life.
When it comes to psephology, it is perhaps a leap to generalise too much from last night’s result. Should such a swing be replicated across Scotland at the next general election, the SNP would be reduced to a handful of MPs. That remains somewhat fanciful – and Labour still has much to do. On the other hand, the scale of the defeat ferociously exacerbates tensions and strategic dilemmas for a party already riven with internal rifts. To put it mildly.
The SNP won 8,399 votes, a drop of over 15,000, as part of a 20-point swing to Labour. In other words, the party’s vote collapsed. There are numerous reasons for this. Some of them are local and connected to the nature of the by-election which was triggered by the erstwhile SNP MP, Margaret Ferrier, breaking Covid rules during the pandemic. But there can be no doubt that the SNP were punished by large parts of their electoral base.
There was a sense of this in the campaign itself. Whereas before a combination of spirited grassroots activism and the rigorous computation of data combined to outmanoeuvre rivals, in this election the SNP had to pay for leaflet distribution through a zero hours contracts based firm. It is difficult to maintain a party machine if it lacks purpose and meaning, and when factionalism has entered the bloodstream.
Humza Yousaf’s first mistake was to paper over the obvious failings of the previous leadership who, don’t forget, are under a live police investigation following high-profile arrests some months ago. There is no prospectus that adds up, nor has the case that has been consistently made. There is no conceivable strategy that can bring about a referendum in the foreseeable future following the Supreme Court misadventure. There is no semblance of a transformative domestic agenda or strategy beyond word salad. There is no shifting of the dial when it comes to support for independence. The party’s internal democracy and policy development has been suffocated and usurped by corporate interests.
All of these problems were stored up over a period of years during which Nicola Sturgeon successfully managed the expectations of the independence movement and mobilised support by making the false promise of a referendum after one last heave. Perhaps this deliberate sleight of hand is the most insidious feature of Scottish politics in the post-referendum era.
The crystallised expression of this approach came in the form of the claim that a referendum would be held on October 19th 2023. At no point, despite this being printed on leaflets and dutifully repeated by witting or unwitting pro-independence commentators, did the SNP leadership ever expect this to come to pass. The increasingly hollow hype around the next big push was always going to be subject to diminishing returns. Now, no one with any critical faculties believes independence is on the horizon, or that the SNP have some cunning plan to obtain a referendum.
Hidden plans being made in secret formed a necessary part of the folklore around Sturgeon’s leadership. These were, though, largely cultivated by, and quite organic to, large parts of the independence movement. Often to the detriment of those who raised criticisms and concerns. Now the curtain has fallen and the path forward is a matter for open discussion and debate, revealing a real divergence of views within the SNP.
There will be a 1hr 40mins “debate” about independence strategy at the party conference this month. But there is no viable plan nor sustainable majority for independence – despite the crisis engulfing the British state in recent years. A majority of seats cannot amount to a powerful mandate for independence. Why should it, if the vote share and the number of SNP MPs are reduced from the last one? On the other hand, proposing a “de facto” referendum based on a majority of the popular vote, in these circumstances especially, is the road to ruin. In reality, both relate not to the realisation of independence, but to the dimensions of the SNP’s electoral calculus. It is, to be frank, checkmate. And one caused, at least in part, by a series of unforced errors.
That is why some within the party are also pitching the idea that the SNP should now soft-peddle independence in general and focus on economic concerns and the cost-of-living, or on winning more devolved powers. That, it is claimed, would be preferable to a hard turn towards an independence that no one seriously believes is going to happen any time soon.
The inescapable problem with this, however, is such a position cannot hope to galvanise the party or movement, and further denudes the SNP and its membership of political identity. Such an outcome would only result in yet more fragmentation, coalescing and calcifying around the underlying factional dynamics which exist around all manner of issues and through multiple personalities. Some of these are already vying for post-Yousaf leadership contention. And any one of them may be connected to the “senior source” who was quick out of the traps to lay the by-election defeat at Yousaf’s door: “If Humza stays as leader we face annihilation in 2026”.
The independence movement of 2014 was powerful – engendering a sense of democratic uprising. It found confidence in challenging the status quo. But since the defeat of the Yes campaign, solace has been found in pinning unfounded hopes onto leaders who enjoyed misplaced loyalty. The major tactical and strategic questions facing the independence movement were reduced to weighing up the, often personal, outcomes for the SNP leadership.
Humza Yousaf may be cast as a trailblazer by Time. But he - on the available evidence - is far from it. Having failed to forge his own distinctive leadership, independent of his predecessors, he must carry all of their baggage. That only weighs him down into the morass as his authority rapidly disappears. It may only be one by-election. But the impact on the SNP and Scottish politics is substantial.
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