March 8, 2023 - 10:07am

It’s likely that many of the people who tuned in to watch last night’s STV debate, the first of this SNP leadership contest, had never seen Humza Yousaf, Ash Regan and Kate Forbes in action before. They are not exactly household names. But as they watched the three candidates to become Scotland’s First Minister — wondering what had happened to that lady Nicola — the TV audience would have taken away two big impressions. Firstly, just how utterly detached the trio were from their immediate priorities; and secondly, how the SNP has descended, in a matter of days, into an increasingly embarrassing rabble.

Two of the candidates who took part in last night’s debate are currently members of the Scottish Cabinet: Yousaf is the Health Secretary while Forbes looks after finance. Between them they run a large part of the Scottish public sector. Nonetheless, prompted by the format used by broadcaster STV under which contestants were asked to cross-examine one another, the pair decided to use their first major outing on prime television to tear lumps out of each other’s record.

Forbes started it. “You have had three major jobs in cabinet,” she said to Yousaf, looking every inch the disapproving deputy headteacher. “When you were at transport, the trains never ran on time. When you were at justice, the police were straining to breaking point. Now as health minister, we have record high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as First Minister?” Ouch. 

Not to be outdone, Yousaf noted how Forbes’s well-publicised opposition to gender reform had lost her support among SNP members.  “Forget about converting No voters,” he snapped. “You can’t even keep Yes voters onside.” The temperature then dropped below freezing on what was already a cold Glasgow night. The three were asked whether they’d select one another in a new Cabinet. “Not in health,” Forbes chortled at Yousaf. Oh how they laughed in the overcrowded A+E units, the hospital mortuaries and the under-staffed surgeries across the country.

The third candidate, Ash Regan — who is currently a backbencher — had helpfully got the ball rolling before this by declaring that the SNP “had lost its way”. She also believed her opponents’ plans for independence were “wishy-washy”. 

But if it was the brutal exchanges that grabbed the headlines, the wider impression was not just how divided the SNP is, but just how detached this campaign feels from the public’s priorities in Scotland. Those priorities are the same as everywhere else in the UK: the cost of living, the state of the NHS, our national economic drift. Yet while Forbes at least tried to raise the question of growth now and then, the trio were happy mostly to engage one another on the subject of nationalist monomania: on “Section 35”, on a Westminster “power grab”, and an “independence convention”.

Once Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond were able to make the SNP sound like the political wing of the Scottish people. They hugged the centre-ground. Last night Regan, Yousaf and Forbes came across as representatives of a strange and eccentric sect, a group riven by a series of impenetrable disputes that only it really understands or cares about. At least when Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss crossed swords in last summer’s Tory leadership contest it was over issues people cared about.

For what it’s worth, Yousaf was the clear winner. SNP members will hate the fact that Forbes provided the despised media with acres of Nat-bashing copy. Her misguided attack on Yousaf was further evidence that, for all her obvious smarts, she is under-cooked politically. And while Regan may appeal to some hardliners, her inadequacies surely rule her out of the running. I’d say Yousaf’s odds on becoming leader have shortened considerably as a result.

Eddie Barnes is campaign director for the think-tank Our Scottish Future and a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail

Eddie Barnes is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail and director of the Our Scottish Future think tank.