Humza Yousaf’s election as leader of the Scottish National party is a turning point for his nation – but it remains to be seen whether his nation will turn for him. Mr Yousaf has devoted his working life to the goal of Scottish independence, but he takes power just as the cause’s standing has dipped in the opinion polls. That probably explained why, in his acceptance speech, Mr Yousaf emphasised what he would do to help Scots with the cost of living crisis and how the SNP would support public services. In backing him, party members decided to stick with the progressive agenda of his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon.
The Scottish independence movement can be seen as a reaction to the dysfunctional and unresponsive nature of British politics. It was the SNP’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq that drew Mr Yousaf into its orbit. Scottish politics has been reshaped in the wake of the financial crash of 2008 and the decade of austerity that followed it. The pro-union parties – Labour, Liberal, Conservative – had two-thirds of all seats in the first two parliaments at Holyrood; since 2011, they have been in a minority. At the last general election, the SNP won 48 seats, reducing the once dominant Labour party to just one Scottish MP. Mr Yousaf will be the first Muslim to head a country in western Europe. Steered by a person of colour, the SNP can make the case that it champions a pro-immigrant civic nationalism more eloquently than the Tories, who, despite being led by Rishi Sunak, stir ethnic nativism when it electorally suits them.
Mr Yousaf’s political aim is not to lead a devolved administration as part of the United Kingdom, but to head an independent nation in the European Union. This makes electoral sense. Support for independence in Scotland is three times higher among those people who want to be inside the EU, who represent two-thirds of Scottish voters, than it is among those who want to be outside the EU. Mr Yousaf’s bet is that many Scots can be persuaded that a political and economic union with London frustrates Scotland’s hopes, but one with Brussels would energise them. It is a smart strategy that embraces the idea of post-sovereign realities of interdependent nation-states.
Mr Sunak’s attempt to mend ties with the EU is also an acknowledgment that this SNP message is cutting through. While the case for Scottish independence has some gaps, it is far more comprehensively thought through than Brexit. For the SNP leadership, the question is not whether to adopt a Nordic model or become a Celtic Tiger like Ireland, but how to get independence back on the ballot. This is a legitimate political cause, though not one that this newspaper gravitates towards.
To succeed, Mr Yousaf will have to win over those opposed to independence – a strategy espoused by his socially conservative, pro-business opponent, Kate Forbes. Her attacks on Ms Sturgeon’s record rocked a party that is used to keeping disagreements behind closed doors. But Mr Yousaf wisely reached out to Ms Forbes in his victory speech, displaying in public an understanding that the SNP’s success rests on being a broad church that can straddle Scotland’s divides. It is sobering to note that the pollster Sir John Curtice thinks that the SNP will eventually get a referendum: “If you want to save the union, you have to change public opinion, but making the case means explaining why Brexit is to Scotland’s advantage.” Good luck with that.