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by James Mitchell
14 April 2023
After the promises of the SNP leadership campaign, now it's time for delivery

After the promises of the SNP leadership campaign, now it's time for delivery

What might we expect from a Humza Yousaf government? Analysis of his campaign statements – he put out more news releases in the first week of the campaign than Kate Forbes did in the entire race – gives an indication.

‘Progressive’ was used over one hundred times – intended, no doubt, to distinguish himself from Kate Forbes rather than clarify how he will govern. The SNP has moved from calling itself a ‘moderate left of centre’ party – introduced back in the early 1980s by Gordon Wilson to try to heal divisions in the SNP – to ‘progressive’, which ironically was used in the leadership campaign to emphasise divisions.

But in an interview with the Daily Record, Yousaf described himself as a “socialist” and said that a wealth tax would be discussed at an anti-poverty summit. He was “sympathetic” to raising taxes on income and wealth, targeting high earners and companies raking in profits, which might sound left wing, but all of this comes without any firm commitments and raises more questions than answers.

During the campaign he praised his party’s Social Justice and Fairness Commission and appointed its convener and depute – Shona Robison and Neil Gray – to his Cabinet, but there was no mention of the Sustainable Growth Commission, chaired by Andrew Wilson, on which Forbes served in his news releases. These two reports commissioned by Yousaf’s predecessor as first minister are incompatible, a matter never addressed by Nicola Sturgeon. And does this mean the Wilson report has now been ditched?

This leads to a key question. Yousaf refers to the wellbeing economy, an admirable objective but one that requires far more attention than a soundbite. While he suggested that independence would be necessary to build a wellbeing economy and society, he needs to explain how he will advance a wellbeing economy under the current fiscal arrangements. Perhaps the Green Innovation Masterplan, his “top priority as first minister”, will address this. Again, we watch this space with interest.

The devolution of more fiscal powers has come with more fiscal responsibility. In essence, to fund our public services at current levels, leaving aside growth in demand, under current arrangements and certainly after independence, Scotland needs a stronger and growing tax base. It is fantasy politics to imagine that we can continue as we are given the gap between demand for services and tax income. Challenges laid out in the recent Fiscal Commission’s Sustainability Report ought to have been central to the leadership debate.

Campaigns always witness pronouncements designed more to attract votes than tackling problems. Some might be harmless, others helpful, but how many have been announced after careful consideration of the opportunity? Sprinkling small sums of money around Scotland has limited effect, though welcomed by recipients. What makes for good campaigning does not always make good public policy. 

The £25m devoted to the Rural Housing Plan will not go far. So too the £25m-a-year fund to help costs of early years childcare. A £1m fund will be “focused on small, community-based voluntary organisations providing cost-of-living support, income maximisation services and community support”. There is no evidence of a coherent strategy, little awareness of trade-offs, unintended consequences, opportunity costs so central to serious policy making.

It is, of course, easy to commit resources in circumstances that may never arise. The £20bn investment fund for large-scale affordable housing, renewable energy and higher-speed internet in remote and rural areas after independence is pretty meaningless but will have gone down well with SNP members.

Where he may be on more solid ground is with commitments to “protect and advance” rights. However, he shows little awareness of the need to recognise that women’s rights are being undermined in the Scottish Government’s current gender recognition policy. Governing requires negotiation, respect for other views, taking account of unintended consequences.

If he acts on the promises he has made to local government, then we will see a start to the reversal of centralisation. Perhaps his socialism will finally lead to changes in the regressive council tax. There are hints that the Christie Commission principles will inform decision-making, but we have heard this so many times before that we must withhold judgment.

His style of government would be “less inner circle and more big tent.” In his acceptance speech, he said “we are no longer team Humza, Ash or Kate, we are one team, and we will be the team, we will be the generation that delivers independence for Scotland”.

New leaders are entitled to construct a government as they wish but the appointment of a Team Humza government suggests he has little interest in hearing objections, alternatives, and debate so vital to avoid mistakes. A confident, secure first minister would welcome challenges.

He also promised in that acceptance that there will be “no empty promises, no easy soundbites when the issues in front of us are difficult and complex, because government is not easy, and I won’t pretend it is”. We shall see.

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