SNP leadership: 'Continuity' candidate wins leadership, but he's still planning change – Ian Swanson
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Humza Yousaf was seen as the choice of the SNP establishment, the “continuity” candidate who would carry on where Nicola Sturgeon left off. And his victory over Kate Forbes and Ash Regan can be seen as giving him that mandate. But despite the “continuity” label, there is going to be change – and not just in personnel.
Departing from the front line along with Ms Sturgeon is the long-serving Deputy First Minister John Swinney and potentially other current Cabinet ministers. We should find out soon whether there will be a place still for Kate Forbes around the Cabinet table and whether Ms Regan is offered a job.
Will their campaign clashes be put to one side as the inevitable cut and thrust of the contest now replaced by a desire to heal wounds? Or are their differences so great that they cannot credibly come together as a united team? There are also key posts in the party to fill following the resignations of chief executive Peter Murrell and communications director Murray Foote.
Policies too will change. All three leadership candidates said they were ready to look again at some aspects of the National Care Service, particularly the centralising model and the transfer of council staff to a national body. They also all spoke of making changes to the deposit return scheme. And perhaps most significantly for the SNP, they all made clear they would not be embracing Ms Sturgeon’s plan to make the next general election into “de facto referendum”.
And Mr Yousaf also signalled a move away from Ms Sturgeon’s reliance on a small group of trusted advisers, saying his style of government would be less “inner circle” and more “big tent”. The partnership with the Greens which Ms Sturgeon forged in the Bute House Agreement looks safe, at least for now. Patrick Harvie’s party had made clear they would have difficulty working with Ms Forbes because of her conservative religious views and her reluctance to go to court over the UK Government’s Section 35 veto of the gender reform legislation. Mr Yousaf’s religious views don’t present a problem, but despite his originally bullish commitment to a legal challenge over Section 35, in the last days of the campaign he conceded he would have to take legal advice. Who knows where that will lead?
Party unity will be a key theme as Mr Yousaf settles in. His election can be seen as a victory for the party establishment, but the campaign also damaged the establishment – SNP president and acting chief executive Michael Russell admitted there was “a tremendous mess”. And divisions previously concealed are now out in the open. It is perhaps surprising, given the furore over Ms Forbes’ views on gender reform and same-sex marriage, that she ran Mr Yousaf so close. Mr Yousaf repeatedly emphasised the need to maintain the SNP’s “progressive values”, but one poll found only five per cent of SNP voters thought a candidate’s faith or personal beliefs were important.
Scotland now has its first Muslim First Minister and first First Minister of colour – something to be welcomed and celebrated. But Mr Yousaf faces major challenges both as First Minister and SNP leader. And in these days of turmoil, he probably can’t count on a honeymoon to adjust to his new role.