Is the SNP imploding – and can Humza Yousaf find a solution?

The unabashed assumption was that nothing significant could possibly happen during MEPs’ well-deserved summer break.
At the moment, Humza Yousaf would be forgiven if he used a different adjective.

Perhaps bizarre if he shows a practiced calm. After all, this is the political leader who downplayed the first arrest amid the SNP financial investigation as “a difficult day.”

Annoying maybe. Almost certainly annoying. But silly? No, this season has now become far more than silly for the SNP.

And for Humza Yousaf. Election guru Professor Sir John Curtice has attributed the SNP’s demise to leadership competition – and the rise of Mr Yousaf.

Read more from Brian Taylor: Will the Scottish Government be prevented from working towards independence?

To top it all off, we now have Angus MacNeil expelled from the SNP. The veteran MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar was initially suspended from the SNP’s Westminster faction last month after an apparent clash with party leader Brendan O’Hara.

In all political parties, politicians like to ensure order and control. Otherwise they are of no use to the leadership.

Usually such arguments end in feigned camaraderie or grudging connivance. Not this time.

Apparently Mr MacNeil refused to rejoin the Westminster Group. Violation of the rules will result in exclusion from the party.

His answer? “I didn’t leave the SNP – the SNP left me. I wish independence was as important to them as it is to me.”

These are most significant comments. They point to a more fundamental rupture in party relations, not just a temporary strife.

In the past, Mr. MacNeil has made explicit comments on party strategy, particularly in relation to the pursuit of independence.

In fact, I remember interviewing Nicola Sturgeon, then Chair, before an SNP conference. Mr MacNeil had just delivered one of his criticisms, expressing concern at the path taken by the party.

As I recall, Mrs. Sturgeon smiled slightly scathingly and dryly remarked that she was the leader of the party and not its Hebridean critic.

Herald Scotland: Angus MacNeilAngus MacNeil (image: free)

So this has come. If it was an isolated incident, the party leadership might shrug it off.

“You know Angus Brendan, he’s a character, isn’t he?” That kind of thing. But it is anything but an isolated case.

There is now significant, albeit diverse, dissatisfaction with Ms Sturgeon’s successor. In fact, I had already planned to write about the SNP riots this week. The exclusion confirmed my intention.

First, of course, there is the ongoing police investigation into SNP funds. There is nothing Mr Yousaf can do but wait and see the outcome, worrying as that may be.

There are many competing theories. Just this week, a senior nationalist told me he was expecting the worst. Another man, also older, took the view that nothing would come of it, that it was an expensive waste of time.

In truth nobody knows. But even before the result, this was a somber experience for the party. These police searches, the tents – it doesn’t look good.

Then there are the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-elections. The election campaign is in full swing, with voters facing claims and counterclaims and sheltering from the crossfire between the various parties, particularly the SNP and Labor.

Read more from Brian Taylor: Why Humza Yousaf shouldn’t despair of the Rutherglen vote

If that were all, then Humza Yousaf could afford a brave smile. Okay, his party could lose Rutherglen, especially as the contest’s origins lie in a Covid violation by an MP elected in SNP colors.

But parties have lost by-elections before and were then able to assert themselves in larger election campaigns.

However, there is more. Within the party, there are fundamental differences of opinion about policy and strategy. These disputes were significantly exacerbated by the bitter leadership dispute that followed Ms Sturgeon’s resignation.

There is still some concern about gender recognition reform – and how the UK government’s veto will be dealt with.

For a significant minority, this is a crucial issue. I’m in no way disrespectful when I add that it may not be particularly relevant to the majority of voters.

This majority’s attitude towards the SNP is unlikely to change. Still, it’s a contentious issue.

Then there’s the economy. Across Scotland there is a healthy but complex discourse about how best to create wealth – and whether it’s actually worth it.

Should we aim for higher public spending? Or tax cut incentives? Kate Forbes lost the leadership contest – but fought a substantive argument about the need to support and boost businesses.

Which brings us to the pact with the Greens. There is continued unrest within the SNP ranks, again in part caused by those who support Ms Forbes’ views on the economy.
I don’t think Humza Yousaf will agree to the request for a re-vote on the pact within the SNP at this time. But he will make much clearer where he deviates from the green perspective.

Finally, there is the independence strategy. Mr MacNeil’s main concern.

It is a discourse on tactics: whether, for example, the next election should be a de facto referendum.

In truth, the anxiety comes from sheer frustration. The more ardent nationalists fail to understand why independence is not universally regarded as an obvious win for Scotland.

I thought of all of that while attending an Edinburgh Fringe production called Help I think I’m a Nationalist at the Lyceum this week.

Not the Scottish variant. No, Cornish. The performance explores the linguistic and cultural roots of Cornish identity while satirizing behaviors that, in the actor’s words, can “take it too far”.

Backstage, author and performer Seamas Carey told me that the debate in Cornwall was heavily focused on Scotland. He said Cornwall was perhaps “twenty years behind Wales and forty years behind Scotland.”

It reminded me that the foundations of the SNP – and indeed the broader self-government debate – lie not in partisan politics but in a sense of Scottish identity. With a contemporary, integrative approach.

That is the real challenge for Humza Yousaf’s leadership in these difficult times. Can he convince the people of Scotland that independence is their destiny – and that the SNP is leading the way?

Grace Reader

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