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by Mandy Rhodes
23 April 2023
Who would have believed how toxic Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy could become?

Who would have believed how toxic Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy could become?

Resetting government and drawing a line under a recently troubled past, in terms of public service delivery of which you were a part, while at the same time having to deny that your party is engaged in criminality, is a hard circle to square.

But with Humza Yousaf having to comment daily on the travails of his party, with key moments of his incipient refresh of government hijacked by an ongoing police investigation into his party’s finances, the arrests of his party’s chief executive and then its treasurer – both released without charge pending further investigations – and speculation mounting about when, not if, his predecessor, former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, will also be taken in for questioning, this is surely Yousaf’s mensis horribilis?

But this is the die that Humza Yousaf has been thrown. It’s the role he wanted, that he said made him the “luckiest man in the world”. But in a matter of weeks, Yousaf has gone from all but calling himself a cut-price Nicola Sturgeon to realising if he has any chance of survival, he has to cut all ties.

Who would have believed how toxic Sturgeon’s legacy could become? But life comes at you fast in politics and for Yousaf, it means having to twist credulity as he distances himself from a first minister who he loyally served for eight years in various roles and who he has held up as a mentor, an idol, and an example of how it should be done.

Yousaf is desperate to get cut through with his ‘refresh’ of the government he now leads. And with a reshuffle and a refocus built around three main missions centered on the principles of equality, opportunity and community, he hopes, with the recent past starting to look decidedly shady, to cast off the cloak of continuity and be seen as that fresh, new start. 

With a few minor changes, his ministerial team looks remarkably like the one Sturgeon left behind and his big policy agenda, set out to parliament on the same day that Colin Beattie was arrested, was more a quick reverse ferret of anything Sturgeon than an acceleration towards real change.

With delays or a halt to the ill-fated Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), the National Care Service, and the ban on alcohol advertising, Yousaf’s announcements garnered a more enthusiastic support from the Tories than perhaps his own benches. Which isn’t exactly where he might have wanted to be.

However, where he has got off to a good start – although that too is double-edged – is in beginning to put a very clear divide between Sturgeon’s infamously tight-lipped, and at times one-woman cabal, by being a much more inclusive and obviously more transparent first minister. 

He is not shying away from the daily media calls and, yes, that may cause headaches for his closest advisers, with a sometimes less than helpful running commentary and the unwitting supply of headline-splashing one-liners that only feed into the daily diet of SNP scandal, but it shows a willingness [naive or otherwise] to be up-front, accessible and a more open first minister. 

And despite the less than favourable circumstances, Yousaf has reportedly been surprisingly upbeat in the regular MSPs’ group meetings. MSPs who were not fully behind his bid to be their new leader are getting behind him.

Ministers are finding their advice being sought in a way they have never previously experienced and being encouraged to have more autonomy. He has talked about regular performance reviews for his ministerial team, which is to be welcomed, and he is encouraging special advisers to give advice that might actually be special, and to be much more visible in the media tower.

The big tent is being slowly erected, it’s just the image of the police tent pitched on Sturgeon’s lawn that remains a hard image to erase. And while the police investigation continues, it will still be the backdrop to whatever this first minister hopes will become the ‘Yousaf years’.

And while the SNP financial scandals continue, to which he can credibly argue he is not linked, the other more real and present threat that Yousaf has to overcome is that he has helped create a back bench of all the talents.

And if the consequences of that weren’t already clear enough, then the day that the new first minister was setting out his policy vision for Scotland – with a wellbeing economy at its core – the much more financially literate Kate Forbes, who he only narrowly beat in the leadership contest and who turned down his offer of a role in government, was publishing a paper called Giving substance to the wellbeing economy, which was basically an explainer to Yousaf’s plan, only underlining the fact that, ‘wellbeing economy’, like ‘progressive’, and ‘refresh’, are often meaningless terms without clear thinking behind them. Expect more of that to come.

But one key area where there has been no attempt to diverge from the Sturgeon era is in the legal challenge Yousaf’s government has mounted against the UK Government preventing the divisive Gender Recognition Reform Bill proceeding to royal assent.

Where he has got off to a good start is in beginning to put a very clear divide between Sturgeon’s infamously tight-lipped, and at times one-woman cabal, by being a much more inclusive and obviously more transparent first minister

This is a no-win situation for Yousaf. There is little public support for going ahead with a legal action that the government is almost certain to lose, pursued on a manufactured point of principle that this is an attack on democracy and devolution – that no one really believes – over a bill that is massively unpopular with the public and, frankly, had it been voted on after the Isla Bryson case came to light, would likely have failed to even pass in the parliament.

So, why do it? It comes back to one thing: the Greens. I speak to hardly any SNP MSPs who fully understand why the relationship goes on. It’s toxic. It smacks of weakness. It’s the tail wagging the dog. And on DRS, if Lorna Slater had any backbone at all, she would be so horrified by the humiliation she has wreaked on government, she would have resigned.

On this, Yousaf has an opportunity to demonstrate he is his own man, by flexing his leadership muscles, putting away his people-pleasing tendencies, and making sure Slater is recycled.

More than anything, Yousaf needs to get the SNP back to a place of competence in government and mounting an expensive and lengthy legal challenge that puts it only on course to a lose-lose scenario, and only adds to the idea that this is a party not fit to run its own finances, never mind a country.

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Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - The SNP doesn't need another 'reset', it needs a complete rework.

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