The SNP has become a strange and eccentric sect
Last night's leadership debate revealed how detached the party has become
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.
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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
This is the dysfunction that arises when a country obsesses on nationalism and independence for decades.
“This is the dysfunction that arises when a country obsesses on nationalism and independence for decades” without real leaders to see it through.
My real worry for Scotland is the potential resurrection of Sturgeon after they go through a succession of even more pitiful leaders.
BTW, I would cross out ‘decades’ and say ‘centuries’.
Devolution has got to be the biggest mistake made by Tony Blair… and that’s saying something because he made a lot.
When Boris Johnson resigned, the SNP’s then leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, insisted that a General Election was a democratic imperative. Strangely, no-one in the SNP is calling for a Scottish Parliament election now, though the same arguments apply.
Why was Forbes’s attack on Yousaf ‘misguided’? Because it was accurate and relevant?
Yes, she accurately and relevantly itemised the colossal mistakes made by the SNP in governing Scotland. Obviously a misguided approach if one wishes to ignore and cover up all the failings so that people will continue to vote for the SNP.
Imploding they may be, but I fear that a great many will still give them their vote.
There’s a very weak opposition up here in the Scottish parliament so in all probability they’ll get in again no matter how bad they are!
What do you mean “has become”?
“You can fool all of the people some of time; you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. Not unless you are the SNP in Scotland. In which case, you can” – Abe Lincoln, The New York Times, August 27, 1887.
If the New York Slimes printed it, it’s obviously not true.
Thats a somewhat bizarre take. Forbes was clearly the winner…Humza came across as lightweight and out of his depth. Her attack on him was truthful and warranted. And what she did was politically savvy – the SNP Establishment have been campaigning against her with the members. Her only option was to tell the truth about Yousaf. She did and it was devastating. If Yousaf is elected it will be to cheers from the Tories, Labour and Our Scottish Future. The only chance for Indy is if Forbes wins…and even then it will be pretty slim…
Presumably Barnes is campaiging for Yousaf precisely because the SNP would perform so poorly under his leadership.
“She also believed her opponents’ plans for independence were “wishy-washy”.”
What’s your point, woman? All the independence plans the SNP have ever produced have been wishy-washy. At least they are consistent!
The politicians are not good enough to formulate plans and follow them through. Probably they never will be good enough. But they need to get away from London.
The problem, also with Wales, is that the politicians seem to think that independence is just being part of a cosy, exclusive club where you just say, “I’m proud to be Scottish/Welsh” and then you live happily ever after.
Running a country is about the economy. It is about making plans to attract foreign investments. It is about making a disparate group of people feel like they’re home. Even English people need to be welcomed with open arms. This is the real world, not the make-believe, fairy-tale world of Nicola Sturgeon. Scotland/Wales could be independent with the right people. But where are they?
I seem to remember that at the last referendum they had no plan on currency. Nada.
What it certainly showed is a lack of judgment and emotional intelligence on the part of all 3 candidates that they agreed to this, and then compounded by chucking missiles at each other. And this after having witnessed how Truss and Sunak undermined the Tories as much as each other with similar last summer.
All political parties have these undercurrents and tough internal discourse. It can be a brutal environment. The ‘blunter’ stuff they usually keep behind closed doors (or, as we are finding – on What’s App!) because it doesn’t do their party any favours and also because they do then have to work with each other. A public savaging of one another makes that more difficult.
The winner? Starmer.
But it does raise a wider point I think. Having national leaders chosen by a party selectorate doesn’t really have a great track record. Truss, IDS, Hague, Corbyn, Ed Milliband, Swinson all went down a bomb with the party memberships, but that didn’t get any of them anywhere. It’s not just SNP politicians that have found themselves in this bind.
Having parties select national leaders is great if those parties are sensitive enough filters – clearly they aren’t. Now, of course it is true that these leadership contests are a test. Whatever one might think of Truss v Sunak it is hard to say that the issues of the day didn’t get aired. Similarly in all fairness to the Conservative Party the 1922 Committee does watch the national picture in a way that Conservative members may not like much.
Political parties should be a central component of a functioning civil society. A civil society should have its divides – it would be a boring world if not. By definition a political party in office has to choose its leader with the interests of society at large in mind. It’s not really clear to me that these contests have really grappled with that idea.
Political parties as mass movements are great, but they simply aren’t mass enough any more.
Agree SH that selection involving a broader party membership not always had a great track record. Party members usually unreflective of public at large. But even then one suspects party members do learn hard lessons when it’s clear they’ve made a hash of selection.
Agree too that political parties are one vital part of a pluralist culture and civic society.
My point more about the recent SNP process is the wisdom of knifing each other in public. You can conduct a debate in public in a different way, but if one candidate goes ‘low’ it can quickly degenerate.
The more politicians expose themselves to the public the lower the opinion the rest of us have for them. You need to be pretty delusional to think that scrapping in public is going to enhance your reputation.
As a great fan of Welsh independence, I have to watch Scotland to see which way the wind is blowing. All I know is that it is a cold, cold wind.
I’d go further.
I’d say the wind is blowing out of their backsides.
An appropriate nickname for the SNP might be The Cairngormless.
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