The unravelling of the Scottish National party

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All political lives, remarked the UK politician Enoch Powell, end in failure. For Scotland’s pro-independence first minister, Humza Yousaf, the end has come far sooner than expected when he took office barely a year ago. His resignation, triggered by a miscalculation that laid bare his unfortunate lack of political acumen, is a severe setback for a Scottish National party whose fortunes were already on the slide — and for its cherished cause of an independent Scotland.

Yousaf’s fatal error was to dump the Scottish Greens from a power-sharing deal, rather than see if they would dump him, after the two fell out over the dropping of high-profile climate targets. He intended the move as a power play and a reset for the SNP. Instead, it led to a no-confidence motion in him — and one in his government — that he concluded he did not have the numbers to survive.

His departure accelerates an unravelling of the SNP’s project that was already under way before last year’s surprise resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as first minister. The party that has bestrode Scottish politics since 2007 is suffering from problems that often beset those in power for too long: hubris, exhaustion, a loss of political touch and a whiff of sleaze.

The SNP’s governing record on key voter concerns such as education, health and housing has been lacklustre. Though Covid intervened, Sturgeon failed to translate the enormous capital she possessed into many lasting political achievements. The coalition with the callow Scottish Greens had to ditch controversial and poorly thought through policies on bottle recycling and gender recognition. By failing to produce clearly better results for Scots than the Westminster government south of the border, the SNP has squandered the chance to win over many waverers to its independence cause.

As long as it could maintain a sense of momentum towards that goal, the SNP’s core voters were prepared to overlook its broader failings. As it has become clear, however, that there is no easy path to a second independence referendum — which needs UK government permission — the party has begun fighting among itself over the way forward. And, beyond its key goal, the party looks increasingly split on other issues.

Its image has been tarnished, meanwhile, by the police inquiry into SNP finances. Though they have denied wrongdoing, senior figures, including Sturgeon, have been taken in for questioning, and Sturgeon’s husband and former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell was charged in connection with alleged embezzlement of funds.

The lesson for the SNP is that passion for its central cause has to be accompanied by competent and successful government. It must find a leader who can both unite the party and lead what, assuming it survives, will once again be a minority government. Facing a resurgent Labour party, it must persuade voters before this year’s UK election, and the Scottish election in 2026, that further SNP rule would truly benefit Scotland.

That means setting clear priorities that have a broad, not narrow, constituency in the Scottish parliament, then implementing them effectively. The challenge may not be surmountable for either of the initial frontrunners to replace Yousaf — the young but socially conservative Kate Forbes or the veteran John Swinney.

The waning of the SNP is not, however, reason for complacency in Westminster. Support for Scottish independence, if not the SNP, still hovers a little below 50 per cent. Supporters of the UK union now have some breathing space to find ways to make it feel more relevant and indispensable to Scots. If it is to counter the forces of independence in the long term, the next UK government should use this opportunity.

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