Humza Yousaf inherits a party that has forgotten how to lose

Even after years of success at the ballot box, the SNP still hasn’t outgrown the image of itself as a small, underdog movement

March 28, 2023
An uphill struggle: Humza Yousaf addresses SNP members on his election as leader of the party. Image: SST / Alamy Stock Photo
An uphill struggle: Humza Yousaf addresses SNP members on his election as leader of the party. Image: SST / Alamy Stock Photo

In November 2014, Nicola Sturgeon stepped out onto the stage of Glasgow’s Hydro arena in front of 12,000 party members. She was the party’s newly appointed leader, and her stadium gig served to broadcast the SNP’s success in absorbing the vast grassroots, nonpartisan Yes Movement formed during the 2014 independence referendum. By then party membership had already increased five-fold when compared to 2013; within a year it would climb further, to a total of 120,000.

Sturgeon’s reputation as a mature leader, waiting in the wings, had been seeded throughout the final months of the Yes campaign, and was then cemented in the smoothest of handovers from her predecessor, Alex Salmond. Yet, despite appearances, Sturgeon was not going to end up as quite the “continuity candidate” she was initially made out to be.

During Salmond’s years as first minister, from 2007 until 2014, the SNP had maintained a de-facto division of power between party HQ (run since 1999 by Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell) and the first minister’s centre of operations in Bute House. With Sturgeon’s succession, these two sources of legitimacy were slowly fused together.

In the beginning, this fusion looked like it could be a winning strategy. Sturgeon’s firm hand at the wheel of a party-and-government juggernaut exceeded all expectations: the SNP’s general election landslide in 2015 saw 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies return SNP candidates.

But for SNP veterans, the party was now facing the strangest of contradictions. A significant pillar of the SNP’s success in post-devolution Scotland was its adoption of a policy which explicitly held that only a referendum could secure Scottish independence, thus—and somewhat ironically—making the party a safe vote for the constitutionally cautious. In 2003, this policy was controversial enough to provoke a leadership challenge from Bill Wilson, an activist, against John Swinney.

Today, the emotional intensity of the 2014 referendum and its long aftermath has obscured the most obvious flaw in this policy, namely that the British government will only allow a referendum in circumstances clearly favourable to its own objectives. Back in the 2010s, David Cameron knew that a majority for independence was virtually impossible to deliver from a base of support of only around 25 per cent.

The failure to navigate this impasse has led to a further contradiction within the post-2014 SNP. On the one hand, the independence referendum was freighted with a politics of hope that promised liberation from a state engaged in the wanton vandalism of austerity. On the other, the referendum was also an explicit failure, bringing with it a deep sense of loss that has never been truly confronted by the cause’s most committed supporters.

To suggest that the 2014 referendum was poorly handled, or that it may even have been a profound strategic error borne of SNP electoral hubris, is, even now, to cast aspersions upon a dearly departed loved one. Almost a decade later, the emotions are still too raw. Humza Yousaf therefore inherits a party that has forgotten how to comprehend loss and defeat.

For Sturgeon’s generation, nationalist politics was defined by decades of disappointment at the ballot box. Even after 16 years of SNP hegemony, the marks left by the party’s time in the wilderness are still visible—the most obvious being the lack of coherent factions within its ranks. Critics tend to leave, or are expelled, and the few backbenchers who develop their own voices tend not to do so on matters of ideological commitment or policy. This unnerving, cadre-level discipline began before Sturgeon’s highly centralised leadership, but continued throughout it. Now, it has stymied the cultivation of a clear successor.

The two serious contenders in the leadership race this time—Humza Yousef and Kate Forbes—were in their thirties, and so the age gap between them and Sturgeon was roughly the same as the gap was between Sturgeon and Salmond. This clearly remains a party which prefers generational transfers of power to the tolerance of rivalry among equals.

Of the many challenges that Yousaf will face, following a narrower leadership victory than many at the top of the party had hoped, the work of revitalising the SNP may be the most significant.

But perhaps Yousaf’s true task will be to reposition the SNP’s wider role in the country’s political landscape. Scotland’s only mass membership party still thinks and acts like a much smaller organisation, lacking the kind of policy networks, intellectual outriders and civic society allies that operate in the slipstream of most UK parties.

Unlike his predecessor, Yousaf will not be undertaking a rockstar-like tour to cement his position. But perhaps Sturgeon’s Hydro gig was a moment of ending rather than beginning: a chance for the grassroots Yes Movement of 2014 to say farewell to the Scotland that it didn’t quite bring into being.

After 16 years of sometimes hollow victories, the next phase of Scotland’s constitutional journey may well be determined by the SNP’s capacity to come to terms with how to lose again—and to lose well.