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by Chris Marshall
18 June 2023
In power but not in control: The bad news keeps coming for Humza Yousaf

The bad news keeps coming for the first minister | Illustration: FitbaTweets

In power but not in control: The bad news keeps coming for Humza Yousaf

At roughly the same time First Minister Humza Yousaf was being interviewed on the BBC’s flagship Sunday morning politics show last week, his predecessor was being taken into police custody for questioning. Appearing on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Yousaf said Nicola Sturgeon, the woman he once described as the “smartest person I know”, was in a “good place”. In actual fact, the former SNP leader was on her way to a police station to answer questions over the course of seven hours as part of a long-running investigation into her party’s finances. 

The timing was unfortunate for Yousaf who has, at times, looked like a rabbit in headlights in the weeks since he won the top job. It helped cement an image of a leader with only a dim understanding of what’s going on around him and who has an unerring ability to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.

His comments suggested that he had no idea Sturgeon was about to be arrested. While there are good reasons why the former first minister would’ve kept details of her apparently pre-arranged visit to the cop shop close to her chest, it does suggest she has attempted to put some space between herself and her former health secretary. It’s a strategy that Yousaf himself might have been wise to follow. 

After confidently setting out his stall as the continuity candidate and Sturgeon’s heir apparent during the SNP leadership race, the new first minister had initially appeared to have taken the first tentative baby steps in distancing himself from his predecessor. He refused to be drawn on the police investigation, while in an interview with this magazine, he said, “I am my own man”.

But despite calls from members of his own party to suspend Sturgeon following her arrest, he has so far refused to do so. During a press huddle in Holyrood in the days after Sturgeon was questioned by detectives, Yousaf doubled down, calling her the “most impressive politician in Europe”. The SNP’s depute leader, Keith Brown, meanwhile confirmed the party had arranged for a bouquet of flowers to be sent to its former leader. 

The truth is that while Yousaf may not have known the exact timing of his predecessor’s arrest, he likely knew it was coming. Rumours have been rife across Scottish politics for weeks that Sturgeon would be taken in for questioning following the arrest and release without charge of both her husband, Peter Murrell, and former SNP treasurer Colin Beattie. We’ve come a long way since her resignation speech in February which allowed her to demit office amid a flurry of panegyrics and without a police car in sight. 

Yet despite the feeling of inevitability about the arrest, it was still shocking when it came. Announced by Police Scotland on Twitter on a sunny Sunday afternoon, it was a story picked up by the world’s media, not just the Scottish press. Sturgeon, a leader who strode the world stage at events such as COP26 in Glasgow, was once talked of as a future candidate for a job with the United Nations or a global charity. For now, she is reduced to hosting book events with comedian Janey Godley and posting details of her driving theory test on Twitter.

“Innocence is not just a presumption I am entitled to in law,” she tweeted in a lengthy written statement following her release from police custody. “I know beyond doubt that I am in fact innocent of any wrongdoing.” That may yet turn out to be the case, but for the time being her arrest and the wider investigation into the SNP’s finances hangs over Yousaf like a dark cloud. 

But if Sturgeon’s presence looms large over the body politic, so too does that of her former opposite number, Boris Johnson. Earlier the same weekend that Sturgeon was questioned by the police, Johnson had dramatically resigned as an MP after he was shown the findings of an investigation by the privileges committee which concluded that he had misled parliament over partygate and recommended a lengthy ban from the Commons. 

It’s tempting to see this as some sort of great reset where a weary nation wakes from a fever dream, finally coming to our senses after dabbling in the nationalism of Scottish independence and the populism of Brexit. But there’s little indication that on this side of a general election politics is about to change.

In the three months he has been both leader of his party and of the country, Yousaf has been unable to step out of the long shadow cast by his former mentor. Aside from the ongoing embarrassment of Operation Branchform, the first minister has had to contend with a series of policy failures bequeathed to him by Sturgeon. But while his leadership rivals Kate Forbes and Ash Regan both said they would jettison key priorities of the government in which they had both once served, Yousaf made it clear from the outset that would not be his way.

From the first hustings of the leadership campaign, the then health secretary spoke of the need to protect devolution from a UK Government keen to reset the post-Brexit power balance. Both Forbes and Regan made it clear they would not go to court in a bid to overturn the UK Government’s decision to block the Gender Recognition Reform Bill from receiving royal assent. And yet in one of the first big decisions he made after taking up residence in Bute House, Yousaf opted to do just that, lodging a petition for judicial review at the Court of Session. 

There have been some breaks with what went before. Yousaf’s government has chosen to pause a ban on alcohol advertising amid concerns from within the industry, while measures to limit the promotion of unhealthy food have been junked. But on the deposit return scheme (DRS), a long-standing plan to reduce litter and improve recycling rates, the Scottish Government opted for confrontation over cooperation with its Westminster counterpart, attempting to stoke grievance in the process. 

When Scottish Secretary Alister Jack offered an 11th-hour exemption from the UK Internal Market Act with the important caveat that glass bottles had to be excluded from the scheme, the government in Edinburgh went straight into constitutional crisis mode. In pre-prepared language bordering on the hysterical, circular economy minister Lorna Slater accused the Tories of attempting to “sabotage” the DRS while following a “scorched earth” policy towards devolution. 

In Slater, someone who appears to have been promoted well beyond her capabilities, Yousaf had a ready-made fall guy for why the scheme was floundering. He could’ve sacked the minister and re-grouped, but instead he opted to stand four-square behind her as she mounted an attack on the UK Government. Not only is it thoroughly dispiriting to see the two governments slinging insults at one another, it’s also not a particularly effective way of getting things done. Scotland’s deposit return scheme will now not be operational until the end of 2025 at the earliest.

If Yousaf truly wants to be his own man and signal a break with what has come before, then he should move away from constitutional grievance and towards substantive matters of policy. There at least appeared a willingness on his part to attempt that during his early days in office when he convened a cross-party summit for tackling poverty. A report published last week estimated that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty this year because of Scottish Government policies. If that analysis is correct, then it shows the government at Holyrood has the power to change lives now, within the existing constitutional framework.

While it must surely be a forlorn hope to expect the two government to work together for the benefit of those they serve, more focus on tackling the issues that really matter – at least at Holyrood – is surely to be welcomed. 

Sadly, it seems we may already be beyond the point of no return. Since the vote to leave the European Union in 2016, the Scottish Government has been expressing concerns about its UK counterpart’s attempts to redefine the boundaries of power. That rhetoric appears to have ramped up since Yousaf became first minister. Last week, the government published a paper detailing how it believes the government at Westminster is attempting to “impose its authority” over Holyrood.

The paper argues that the post-Brexit settlement has seen the UK Government pass legislation that allows ministers to act unilaterally in areas of devolved competence. It also argues that the Sewel Convention – the idea that Westminster should not normally legislate in devolved areas – is being undermined. 

“Under the cover of Brexit, they are imposing direct Westminster rule by stealth and curtailing the ability of the parliament to take decisions for the benefit of people in Scotland,” constitution secretary Angus Robertson said. 

“The evidence the Scottish Government is presenting sets out the range of underhand mechanisms UK Government ministers are using to undermine the democratically elected Scottish Parliament and exert tightening Westminster control on Scottish life.”

Amid the interminable whataboutery that goes on between the two governments, it has become increasingly difficult to determine when one of the two parties is attempting to act in good faith. But on the part of the UK Government, it does seem there were genuine concerns both with the Scottish Government’s gender reforms and the deposit return scheme and how each would impact on UK-wide legislation. 

In an interview elsewhere in this magazine, Alister Jack styles himself as a defender of devolution. And on the SNP’s criticism of the UK Internal Market Act being a power grab, he says: “When the EU was dealing with the Highlands and Islands Enterprise board and giving the money directly to them, I didn’t hear the Scottish Government being hostile to that. So yes, I think any criticism of that nature is entirely political but it’s also a ridiculous argument. We’re only doing what the EU did, we’re doing it directly with responsible delivery partners and getting the money to them directly.”

It’s easy to forget, but devolution hasn’t always been like this. There was a time when the UK Government maintained a respectable distance and when the government in Edinburgh got on with the business of governing instead of constantly attempting to foment division. Those days, however, appear to be over.

For the time being, the SNP government appears to be on a war footing, constantly seeking conflict and resorting to the language of battle when it comes to something as prosaic as a recycling scheme. That appears to extend to civil servants under the guidance of Permanent Secretary John-Paul Marks, who last month told MSPs his staff would help “impartially” prepare the Scottish Government’s case for independence.

An indication of that impartiality was in evidence earlier this month when Marine Scotland, a Scottish Government directorate responsible for managing Scotland’s seas, tweeted an article from cabinet secretary Mairi Gougeon from The National which argued that only with independence and rejoining the EU could Scotland properly look after its marine environment. 

All that is despite a first minister who still appears confused about the route to a referendum. Despite telling SNP members during the leadership race that Scotland could achieve independence within five years, he has since sought to strike a more pragmatic tone, talking about the need for separation to be the “consistent settled will” of the Scottish people before a vote can take place. However, he also sought a Section 30 order from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – which was again denied – and has spoken of his government’s “mandate” to hold such a vote. 

The more immediate problem for Yousaf is how he moves on with the business of government with the police investigation into the SNP’s finances still hanging over everything. So far, he was declared himself part of Team Sturgeon, even reportedly telling MSPs they should leave the party if they cannot support the former leader.

That position could yet be completely vindicated but it could also become more problematic, especially if charges are brought against the former first minister or her husband. Outside of the police, no one really knows how long the investigation has to run or where it could end up. The hope for Humza Yousaf must be that it is resolved quickly and a line drawn under the matter one way or another. 

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