Euan McColm: Humza Yousaf up to Nicola Sturgeon's old trick of offering what he can't deliver

First Minister’s backing for ‘de facto referendum’ motion at conference is about protecting his own position

By the time Nicola Sturgeon stepped down as SNP leader in March, even the most loyal members of her party were starting to wonder whether she’d been entirely honest with them over the preceding nine years.

Sturgeon, after all, had repeatedly promised that a second referendum was within reach, even as polling continued to show support for independence was the minority position. Against all the evidence to the contrary, the former First Minister stuck to the line that the break-up of the United Kingdom was not only inevitable, it was also imminent.

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But for all Sturgeon’s repeated insistence that she would deliver Indyref 2 – and lead the Yes movement to victory – reality kept rearing its ugly and inconvenient head. Not only did opinion polls continually show the majority of Scots remained in favour of maintaining the Union, she had no authority to deliver the referendum SNP members so desperately wanted.

By the time Sturgeon announced in February that she’d decided it was time for her to go, her “de facto” referendum plan – the idea that, if the SNP victory won the majority of Scottish seats at the next General Election, she’d be entitled to begin secession talks with the UK Government – had been rubbished by opponents and supporters alike. It appeared the former SNP leader had run out of garden path up which she could lead her followers.

And so it’s quite extraordinary that Sturgeon’s successor, Humza Yousaf, appears to have decided to revive this unpopular, unworkable plan.

The First Minister has put his name to a motion – to be debated at SNP conference next month – which states that, if the party wins most Scottish seats at the next election, the Government he leads will be "empowered to begin immediate negotiations with the UK government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. The Nats’ Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, has also backed the motion.

The fact remains – and there’s a court judgement to confirm as much – that the power to establish another referendum on the constitutional question lies with the UK Government. No amount of rhetoric from Scottish nationalists can change that. The SNP might claim a mandate for action, but it is simply not possible for any government to be mandated to do something the law prevents.

The truth is that Yousaf knows this, fine and well. The carefully phrased motion he supports is not quite what it appears. In, fact, drill down into its meaning and you’ll find none exists.

Should the SNP win the majority of Scottish seats at the next General Election – an outcome polls suggest is more than likely – Yousaf may declare himself “empowered” to begin independence talks with the Prime Minister but the law won’t recognise that power. And then there’s that odd phrase “give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. That is so widely open to interpretation as to be worthless. Some nationalists will, undoubtedly, hear the FM promising secession talks, others – the more sensible ones – will hear a vague pledge that he will use the election result as a trigger for discussions about how a second referendum might be established.

But those nationalists willing to accept that no election may be treated as a referendum are kidding themselves if they think the result can compel the UK Government to enter into any sort of discussion about independence.

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I’m afraid, it sounds very much like Yousaf is continuing with the flawed Sturgeon strategy of allowing his followers to believe that he can deliver that which he cannot.

So, why is Humza Yousaf determined to see this motion passed at conference? The answer, I’m afraid, is not about the achievement of independence but about the protection of his own position.

Yousaf’s victory in the SNP leadership contest was narrow. Indeed, a majority of members voted for other candidates. Since then, the First Minister has seen support for his party – if not independence – falter.

Members of his party – including some parliamentarians – have been critical of the leader in a way that they never would have been during the Sturgeon era. A common refrain has been that he hasn’t a clue about how he might lead the SNP and the wider nationalist movement to the promised land of independence.

This new motion suggests that Yousaf has some kind of plan. And, I’m sure, the more gullible members of his party will buy what he’s selling.

Speculation about Yousaf’s political shelf-life began almost as soon as he took the oath of First Ministerial allegiance to the King. Not only had he failed to convince more than half of SNP members that he was there right candidate for the job, many of his supporters among parliamentary ranks were happy, privately, to concede he was less than the perfect choice. When a First Minister is seen as best of a bad lot by backers, he doesn’t have a great deal of authority, does he?

So, Yousaf’s focus is on persuading nationalists that he's a serious and credible leader. He wants them to read that motion and conclude he knows what he’s doing.

Perhaps it will work. During the Sturgeon years, it became abundantly clear that a great many SNP members were inclined to hear what they wanted rather than what she said when it came to independence. Generally, until last year when she declared there would be a second referendum in October 2023, Sturgeon stopped short of talking in specifics. Instead, she encouraged party members to think she had a viable plan for achieving independence.

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This is what Humza Yousaf is doing now. He wants SNP members to believe they’re on course to win their objective, even when he cannot give them what they want.

Nicola Sturgeon treated her supporters like fools for years. Humza Yousaf is now doing the same.



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