Exclusive:Humza Yousaf: John Curtice on Scotland’s new First Minister, the future of the SNP and Scottish independence

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Can Scotland’s new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, succeed where Nicola Sturgeon failed and secure a second vote on Scottish independence? We spoke with Professor John Curtice to find out.

Humza Yousaf has officially been elected as First Minister of Scotland, after winning the SNP leadership contest. But he has big shoes to fill following his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon’s departure from frontline politics, and he will need to put up a battle to stop Labour stealing seats at the next general election, according to one of the country’s leading political scientists.

On Monday (27 March) a new era for Scottish politics began when the former health secretary narrowly defeated opponent Kate Forbes to replace Sturgeon with 52% of the vote to Forbes’ 48%, after second-preference votes were counted. The contest was as divisive as it was closely fought: occasional mudslinging has revealed cracks in the once famously united SNP, with opposition parties eyeing potential opportunities to win back seats at the next general election.

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We spoke to political scientist Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and senior research fellow at the Scottish Centre for Social Research, to find out whether Yousaf can unite his party, how much of a threat Labour remains and whether he can succeed where his predecessor failed, in securing a second vote on Scottish independence.

Can Humza Yousaf unite the SNP?

“Leaders will unite their parties if they bring about electoral success – they begin to struggle to unite their parties if they fail to do so,” the election guru told NationalWorld.

Kate Forbes was widely criticised by MSP and MP colleagues for her hard-line views on equal marriage and abortion, so Prof Curtice thinks Yousaf will have an easier ride within his own party at least. “He did have far more support amongst his elected colleagues in London and in Edinburgh than Forbes. I think Forbes would have had difficulty getting her parliamentary troops back together - some were deeply uncomfortable about her becoming leader, so Yousaf should find that relatively straightforward.”

Despite coming out on top, Yousaf didn’t win by a large margin and Prof Curtice said the new leader wasn’t “that successful in enthusing the wider SNP membership”. The SNP leadership ballot had a relatively low 70% turnout rate.

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“I think probably what is going to be true with the relative narrow victory and the polling is that even those of his colleagues who backed him will be looking by the end of the summer for some evidence that Yousaf is/has been able to deliver a slight incline for the SNP and independence and does have the ability to campaign effectively and persuade the wider Scottish public.”

Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes after it was announced Humza Yousaf is the new Scottish National Party leaderAsh Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes after it was announced Humza Yousaf is the new Scottish National Party leader
Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes after it was announced Humza Yousaf is the new Scottish National Party leader

Can Labour reclaim SNP territory?

No date is set for the next UK general election but it will happen no later than 28 January 2025. Last year Sturgeon controversially vowed to use the election as a de facto referendum, meaning if the SNP wins 50% or more of the votes, it would be interpreted the same as a referendum result. It is highly unlikely Yousaf will follow Sturgeon’s plan after reportedly saying back in February that he was “not wedded to the de facto referendum idea”.

Pursuing the quasi-referendum would be extremely risky for the newly elected First Minister and could open the door for Labour to take seats from the SNP if he was to take a radical approach to the vote. Labour has seen Sturgeon’s departure from office as an opportunity to reclaim seats in Scotland and they are now “breathing down the SNP’s neck”, according to Prof Curtice.

“Much of the increase in the support for the Labour party has come from those opposed to independence and those who were supporting the Conservative party,” the polling expert added. “Even if the SNP were at the level they were at in 2019, Labour going up at the expense of the Conservatives represents a threat to the SNP in seats they hold marginally over Labour.

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“Of the English parties the Labour Party is the one party that has some success (albeit minority success) in securing the support from those who are in favour of independence. The overwhelming bulk of Yes supporters vote for the SNP but there is a minority which is willing to vote Labour. Where people swivel, they tend to swivel between Labour and the SNP. Can the Labour party persuade independence supporters to back the party?”

How will Yousaf cope with attacks from the opposition?

Yousaf, who has worked as both justice and health secretary, hasn’t been without criticism even within his own party, with Forbes attacking his record while looking after the country’s NHS. This is a weakness that Prof Curtice said opposition parties will jump on as they try to shift the agenda away from Scotland’s constitutional debate and instead focus on the state of the devolved government and its services.

Earlier this year we reported on how the former health minister had presided over lengthy A&E waiting times and record high hospital waiting list numbers. Prof Curtice said the new First Minister will have to persuade and show the wider public that major issues in education, healthcare and equality are improving.

“Undoubtedly the opposition will want to attack Yousaf on the perception that he’s not leading a very effective government when it comes to delivering public services and somebody whose own personal record is not particularly good,” Prof Curtice said. However, he added that the unionist movement has been  trying to do so for quite a long time “without a great deal of success”.

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The reason for this is that the constitutional question is the defining issue in Scottish politics. “Voters in Scotland seem to be very much primarily focused on the constitutional question with most people voting for the SNP if they support independence (very few people vote for the SNP who don’t). To that extent at least Scotland in many respects now resembles Northern Ireland.”

Can he secure a vote on IndyRef2?

Yousaf’s success in driving support for Scottish independence will likely come down to one major factor, according to Prof Curtice – the economy. “The answer is pretty straightforward and something not talked about much during the leadership contest. The Scottish government, the SNP and Yousaf have to develop a coherent economic case for independence within the frame of the European Union to address some of the opportunities and challenges that that scenario would undoubtedly create.

“That was something Sturgeon was unable to get properly started. They need to get this case launched once more.”

Prof Curtice said Yousaf and the Yes movement need to increase support for independence to above 50%. Recent polls have shown support for Scottish independence is below 50% with the latest putting the No camp at 55%, ten percentage points ahead of the Yes movement at 45%.

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Last year Sturgeon’s drive for independence hit a brick wall after the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government did not have the legal power to hold ‘IndyRef2’, so can Yousaf succeed where the former First Minister failed?

“Much depends on the outcome of the next UK general election,” Prof Curtice explained. “It has long struck me that the only realistic way towards an independence referendum coming sooner rather than later is for a hung parliament at Westminster or a succession of hung parliaments in which it’s difficult to form an administration without the acquiescence of the SNP.


“The question is do we end up in a hung parliament in a situation where a minority Labour administration finds itself having to do a deal with the SNP in order to stave off being turfed out of office. That might take a while but that has always struck me as the prospect which is most likely to result in the SNP getting some kind of referendum from the UK government.

“Sir Keir Starmer will say ‘no, never ever’ but the reality of potential election defeat and losing office can sometimes change minds.”

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