48 Hours later and…

by | 29 Mar 2023

The early hours of the Yousaf era are failing to escape the low expectations people had for them. The picture is grim for independence. The only hope lies in change.

I wanted to give it 48 hours or so to see how things settled down, to talk to quite a few people to gather the mood and to see the shape of what was to come next. I think we need to work out where we are before we have any chance of working out where we go next.

I’ve tried a bit to get beyond my own bubble best anyone can these days and look at this in the round. This is clearly impressionistic and I’m clearly not neutral. But I don’t think I’m wrong. So let me step through the mess as I see it. If you don’t want a grim read, best to skip to the end where I will somehow try and finish with an uplift.

So let’s do this in bits. First the bit that is most emotional for me – the state of mind of the movement. The last 48 hours have not been easy for me. I am feeling the last of my hope draining away. Not quite all, not quite yet. But draining away nonetheless. And I had time to prepare for this. Others didn’t.

Let me give you a taste of what I’m finding. One person told me on the phone “I’m flat as a pancake, I just can’t be arsed, I don’t know if I’m going to keep going now”. Another emailed me to say that she simply broke down in tears at the news. Someone else texted me a simple “it’s not looking very promising, is it?”. Another told me his brother has just shifted from supporting the SNP to supporting Labour.

And to help you orientate yourself, all four of them are either former extreme loyalists, people think they are loyalists or they are close to the centre of things or are widely respected. And all four are senior figures you would recognise.

From the rank and file it is worse. One person described to me how her mother had, right to the last moment, retained total faith that Sturgeon was operating on a different level from us all and was working to a master plan. Her mother is broken by what has happened. Another emailed me to say “I think all the hard work of the last 40 years has been completely wiped off the slate – the party is floundering now and I don’t know if it will recover”.

Both are party members, both of long standing. Both think it is over. For those of us who have been ‘over the fence’ for a while in our assessment of where things are it is even starker. People I know are seriously talking about walking away and these are not people any independence supporter should want to be walking away.

Or, let me concur with an opinion I’ve been offered a number of times now; this is worse than 19 September 2014 because back then they were disappointed but we still had hope. The hope is draining for others as fast as it is for me.

Humza Yousaf’s behaviour has been utterly remarkable – he is behaving as if he won by miles, has enthusiastic backing and is spending his political capital like its never going to run out

Just to check that I’m not lost in a bubble I’ve also been asking everyone about what they see as the position of those who are not yet totally disillusioned. I can summarise the replies simply as ‘if they’re pretending to smile with their mouth, their eyes aren’t playing along’.

I have never, ever in my adult life seen a movement so totally demoralised. Those with longer memories than me are comparing this to Scotland after the twin blow of ‘losing’ the 1979 devolution referendum and then watching as Thatcher took power.

So let me turn to the second domain, not the movement but the political domain. Are there signs that anyone in government or senior people in the SNP understand that any of this is happening, that things are hanging by a thread?

The blunt answer is no. Humza Yousaf’s behaviour has been utterly remarkable. He is behaving as if he won by miles, has enthusiastic backing and is spending his political capital like its never going to run out. The reality is he only won by a whisker because the election process was a farce designed to deliver him victory, he has a sum total of zero enthusiastic support and he has next to no political capital at all.

If he really thinks he’s in a position to humiliate those who didn’t bow before him and then still demand unity he is living on a different planet. He really does seem to think he is the new Sturgeon, that any opposition in front of him will part like the Red Sea at the sound of his voice.

And if that delusion doesn’t get him the other one will, the one where he thinks that independence is still something you only talk to the troops about during campaigns until you get through them and can get right back to treating those troops with contempt.

Meanwhile I won’t comment on the quality of his cabinet other than to ask you to see if you can find a single credible voice willing to argue that this isn’t the weakest, least impressive cabinet of the devolution era. If you had any hope that a team would be assembled which was capable of turning government around, you shouldn’t retain it.

This is very, very worrying. A really genuinely talented cabinet would be very sorely tested by what is ahead. The crises are mounting even as the money is drying up. The kinds of headlines that drove Sturgeon from power are about to increase in number.

Meanwhile the SNP as a political party is not in a healthy state. People are walking away. Some are running away. The whole purpose of the Yousaf campaign was to deny there were any problems or that anything needed to change.

I’ve seen people arguing that the disillusioned need to stay and wait it out for the next chance to change leader. The problem is that being a member of the SNP has enabled someone to change anything precisely never in a decade or two, and meanwhile all you are doing is handing more money to the machine that put Yousaf in power.

I don’t really have an answer for that, because it is very much a rock and a hard place thing. That is the nature of the modern SNP – stay and you empower them, leave and you disempower yourself. Those are your two options. What you don’t get to do is stay and have any power for yourself.

That is the nature of the modern SNP – stay and you empower them, leave and you disempower yourself

The last issue is independence itself. Here’s the reality – it has never been a credible near-term reality since the autumn of 2014 but Sturgeon’s skill at saying things which weren’t true managed to provide a sheen of credibility to the idea that this might be something that is close at hand.

Unless my eyes deceive me, no-one sees that as a credible reality now. This is an absolute disaster. When it comes to making change the first thing you need people to believe is that it is credible, something it is worth them considering seriously. Again, I know people (not strong supporters) who are concluding that they don’t really need to think about this any more.

So no, grim only scratches the surface in trying to describe the early hours of the Yousaf era. John Major’s accession filled his party with more hope and possibility than where the SNP is now. Unless something changes neither good government nor Scottish independence are prospects.

OK, if you really did skip to the end, here is all I can offer you. First, even with all of this, even given the reality of all of this, I can still see a path which takes us to independence in the near future. I am debating whether to describe this out loud or not. I will get back to you on my dilemma soon.

Second, change is going to come. Yousaf can act like he is a dominant leader of his party but he isn’t. People can act like this is a strong cabinet but it isn’t. The payroll can act like there is a plan for Scottish independence but there isn’t. These three realities cannot coexist inside the SNP if it is to continue as a major political force in Scotland.

So whatever happens, it is not going to be the continuation of ‘this’. Either we go into serious decline and then can regroup when the final shoe drops or we will see a rapid implosion which will lead to reform, or we will see the Yousaf party dragged around by its ears by everyone but its leader until it is fit for purpose or dead.

Just know this; as a PR guy I can tell you that if you can’t sustain a suspension of disbelief even in your first 48 hours such that commentators will lend credibility to the possibility that you are better than you appear to be, you’re not going to be doing so in the second 48 hours or any to come after that.

Yousaf is not a popular choice in his party, it is not going to accept stasis and so this is not a stable picture. That doesn’t mean that what comes next is necessarily going to be better because it could certainly get worse. But it won’t be this. And I doubt we will have to wait long to find out what it is.

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