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by Robin McAlpine
16 October 2023
Finding the Words: What Humza Yousaf has to acknowledge

Humza Yousaf speaking in Caird Hall, Dundee. Pic: Euan Cherry/Alamy Live News

Finding the Words: What Humza Yousaf has to acknowledge

It’s a long time since I was writing speeches for politicians. Thinking about Humza Yousaf’s conference speech is not enticing me back into the trade. It is a horribly difficult speech for him to judge, yet it is one he has to get right. So, what can he do with it?

There is a fundamental problem underlying this speech; irrespective of his qualities and even though he is freshly elected as leader, Yousaf is not the leader his party really wants. And there is significant doubt about whether Yousaf is capable of taking the party where the party wants to go.

That’s a nightmare for a speech writer. You hope the person delivering the speech can spark off some of the energy in the hall, and if that energy is missing it can be painfully obvious. It isn’t going to be easy to turn this into a rally.

Nor would that be wise; this is clearly not the time for triumphalism. Catching the mood will be as important as the specific content of the speech. The party has just faced a serious electoral setback so there needs to be a degree of soberness about the tone – but self-flagellation won’t help either.

Which is the next difficult decision – how much is this a speech for the party and how much is this a speech for the country? The leader’s speech at a party conference is always a bit of both, but what should the balance be? 

Here I think Yousaf’s problems are more urgent on the internal front than the external one. Elections are far enough away and while his public support certainly needs work, he will find that much harder to achieve if he doesn’t have a secure footing inside the party.

Which means that Yousaf must think really clearly about the message he wants his activists to take away from Aberdeen. There will be fractiousness and unease in the aftermath of Rutherglen and, to make things worse, there isn’t yet anything like a settled view on exactly what is causing all the SNP’s problems or how to deal with them. 

If Yousaf could do one thing in this speech, a good bet would be to lead the party towards a better understanding of its current struggles and the route out of them. (This of course assumes that he’s reached that understanding himself.)

This isn’t easy. He probably needs to be able to say that the party has become a bit too complacent and that it has perhaps taken people a little too for granted, both in the party and among the electorate. The problem is that simply going on about ‘focusing on the issues’ just makes him sound Starmer-lite. That’s what they all say.

Nevertheless, he needs to acknowledge that they have promised more in government than they have delivered. The go-to solution is to pull out another big eye-catching initiative and hope it grabs the headlines. But if your problem is too many announcements, another announcement isn’t a very convincing way out.

A more effective solution might be just to be a little reflective and demonstrate an understanding of why things have been going wrong in government and what sorts of things could be done to change course. Whether Yousaf actually has this knowledge or not will be crucial. 

Put brutally, if he really doesn’t know why the party is toiling or where government is going wrong, a speech isn’t going to help him. But if he does, a thoughtful, reflective speech might be as effective as anything else he can do. The impression that a leader has answers settles nerves.

And yet there remains one more giant hurdle for him to get over – his set-up-to-fail independence strategy. He has put forward a resolution which has little support in the party, is likely to be overturned or heavily amended and which really feels like it is the wrong initiative at the wrong time anyway. 

This may, in the end, be too much for him to overcome. He could be on his feet looking out over a party which has imposed on him an independence strategy which isn’t his. He has no option but to throw his weight behind whatever the party decides, but it just makes him look weak. 

Given a free hand I’d be writing a speech about how the SNP had done so much to change Scottish politics but had become a bit complacent and just wasn’t delivering. I’d spend a little time reflecting on why this had happened and how to change course. I’d explain that I understood why government policy wasn’t working and what I was going to do differently. 
I’d address the independence issue by talking about his personal vision for an independent Scotland rather than just process. And I’d then be looking for some clear, empathetic messages for the Scottish public about the many stresses they find themselves under.

But then I wouldn’t have cornered myself with a dodgy resolution that risks overshadowing the rest of the speech, pulling the bottom out of it. So, they might just go for another pep rally and try, one more time, to convince themselves that independence has never been closer...

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