September 5, 2023 - 5:30pm

As Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf presented his first programme of government this afternoon, he had a difficult task. He had to mollify the disaffected, while putting his own stamp on SNP policy — and then bring all the battling factions onside while, belatedly, asserting his own identity. 

Yousaf stood on a similar social justice platform to his predecessor, pledging to tackle inequality through more progressive taxation. But with Nicola Sturgeon’s stock plummeting — and Scottish Labour taking advantage of the SNP’s disarray — he has started to emphasise that “continuity won’t cut it.” In the last few weeks, he has begun to acknowledge the need to “win back the trust of businesses” — and to present himself as pro-growth, a position not a million miles from that adopted by leadership rival and former finance secretary Kate Forbes.

This shift shaped this afternoon’s programme for government. Yousaf kept the eradication of poverty at its centre — promising to invest more than £400m in the Scottish Child Payment, accelerate the expansion of free childcare to two-year-olds and recruit 1,000 more childminders. But, even here, his emphasis was on getting more women back into work (thus increasing productivity and tax revenues) and these policies were balanced with sweeteners for companies: a pledge to implement the recommendations of the New Deal for Business and set out a £15m plan to support innovation and entrepreneurship. 

That Yousaf chose to write to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the possibility of cutting corporation tax to support development in key sectors such as AI and renewables was notable. This may signal a backtracking on proposals to hike the taxes of the country‘s highest earners (something Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has called for). 

Yousaf also performed a tightrope walk on environmental policies. It was important to him to maintain his climate change credentials, while reassuring those who believe the party is in thrall to the “woke” policies of the Green party. He focused on the economic as well as moral benefits of investment in green industries, while emphasising the importance of “a just transition”. He also balanced rail-related initiatives — including the trial scrapping of ScotRail’s peak fares — with a recommitment to the dualing of the A9 from Perth to Inverness (a previous target of 2025 had been scrapped as “unachievable”).  

There were a handful of policies aimed at forging his own identity. A consultation on a ban on the sale of single-use vapes was a double positive — targeted at both public health and the environment, but felt like a side issue when alcohol and drug-related deaths remain stubbornly high. The pledge of a £12-an-hour minimum wage for social and child care workers and long-term rent controls for tenants will be broadly welcomed. But despite Yousaf’s unveiling it as a hot new dish, the rolling out of free school dinners to P6 and P7 pupils was the serving up of leftovers from 2021’s programme.

The question of independence was always going to be tricky. It was mentioned high enough up to allow Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross to suggest it continued to be the SNP’s top priority. But in reality, Yousaf’s appearance at Saturday’s Edinburgh Yes rally — where he celebrated a “rededication” to the cause — was a preemptive sop to his failure to chart a way out of the current constitutional impasse.

Having witnessed some of the damage wreaked by Sturgeon’s controlling tendencies, Yousaf has promised to embrace a more collegiate style of leadership. He has already either rowed back on or agreed to delay several key policies, including the National Care Service and the Deposit Return Scheme, so he needed to demonstrate his ability to stand firm on his convictions. He chose to restate his commitment to the introduction of a stand-alone offence of misogyny — a policy which will inevitably attract a backlash.  

In wooing poverty campaigners and business leaders, climate change activists and industrialists, Yousaf performed that age-old SNP trick of being all things to all people. And yet Ross is right that many of his policies are repackaged versions of what has already gone before. Anyone looking for evidence of boldness, ambition or a radical new vision is likely to have been disappointed.

Dani Garavelli is a Scotland-based freelance journalist and columnist for The Herald.