Yousaf’s jibe in the Channel 4 hustings came just days after a similar STV event where Forbes had launched an extraordinary demolition of his record in office for the Scottish Government.
“When you were transport minister the trains were never on time, when you were justice minister the police were strained to breaking point, and now, as health minister, we’ve got record-high waiting times,” she said.
The contest to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minister has in recent days carried a similar vibe to the circular firing squad of the UK Tory leadership race last summer. Now, as then, opponents have pounced, turning every negative quote into a social media clip or future election leaflet.
Just as Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss made plain they wouldn’t serve in each other’s Cabinet, Yousaf signalled that he couldn’t work with Forbes because she had trashed the SNP’s record so forcefully.
In a clear reference to Forbes’ conservative stance on social issues like gay marriage, trans rights and sex outside wedlock, Yousaf said he was not comfortable that his party’s “progressive agenda” would be continued by his rival.
Yet although Forbes’ religious views are well known, a growing number of her critics – both inside and outside the SNP – believe that the real threat she poses to the party stems from her “unprogressive” agenda on economic policy and public spending.
In a movement that owes much of its success to winning over huge numbers of disillusioned former Labour voters in Glasgow and Edinburgh with an apparently left-of-centre, anti-Tory prospectus, any lurch rightwards is quite a problem.
And with independence put on the backburner at least temporarily after Sturgeon’s departure, the focus on the party’s record and future plans is sharper than ever.
Forbes’s failure to win many backers among MPs in Westminster and MSPs in Holyrood is in part down to a perception that she really is more right-wing than they are on economic as well as social issues.
One SNP MP looking through her list of supporters recently had a withering verdict on each: “right winger…right winger…would be a Tory…should definitely be a Tory…”
Some may argue that Forbes’ social conservatism is actually more in tune with a bigger proportion of working class voters in Scotland than many assume. But it’s her image as an agent of austerity that ought to worry her party more. And as Joe Biden has proved, focusing on jobs, healthcare and infrastructure can win over blue-collar votes more than any culture war.
Forbes, whose rural Highlands upbringing is far removed from the urban socialist traditions of the SNP’s current Glasgow power base, argues that her unashamedly pro-business and pro-enterprise credo is all about getting the growth needed for public services and tackling poverty.
But as Finance Secretary she has made some policy choices that leave her party vulnerable to attacks from progressives. Her 2021 budget infuriated councils – including SNP-led councils – because of its “totally unacceptable” real-terms cut in core funding of £371 million.
When Forbes announced a £150 per household council tax rebate to help with fuel costs last year, the Poverty Alliance said it was “deeply disappointing” that she had simply copied Rishi Sunak’s scheme. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said “governments can make different choices to support low-income families and both the Chancellor and Kate Forbes have let them down by spreading this far too thin”.
After Forbes’ spending review in the summer of 2022, the Institute of Fiscal Studies warned that “the axe is set to fall on a wide range of public service areas”. Budgets for local government, the police, prisons, justice, universities and rural affairs were set to fall by around eight per cent in real-terms over the next four years.
While Forbes was on maternity leave last autumn, deputy First Minister John Swinney pleased his party with a package of tax rises on high earners that means wealthy Scots pay much more than English equivalents. In putting up the higher rate from 41 per cent to 42 per cent and the top rate from 46 per cent to 47 per cent, Swinney said he was “guided by our values”.
Yet in a recent interview with the right-of-centre Reform Scotland think tank, Forbes appeared to distance herself from the tax hikes. “[Taxes] have gone up again recently, I was not in post, which is not to shrug it off me, but it’s slightly different,” she said. In a hint of a reversal of those tax rises, she said she wanted Scotland to be a high growth economy “so that high tax is no longer required”.
In an STV debate this week, Yousaf even said the Scottish government’s coffers had been “short-changed” thanks to Forbes’ negotiations with the Treasury.
However, the real difficulty for the SNP as a whole is that while Tory austerity since David Cameron has undoubtedly hit Scotland hard, the Scottish Government stands accused of presiding over low growth and austerity of its own in key areas – even before Forbes got her job.
Between 2013-14 and 2021-22, the local government revenue budget in Scotland fell by 1.9 percentage points, from 34.7 per cent to 32.8 per cent, as a share of the overall budget.
The SNP’s Growth Commission, which set out the case for the economics of an independent Scotland, came under fire in 2018 because it was seen as dominated by big business and excluded trade unions. Crucially, the IFS said it would lead to “another decade of austerity” thanks to a drop in spending on public services and benefits of 4 per cent of GDP.
There are other worries within the SNP about its lack of radicalism, not least its auctioning of ScotWind windpower sites in contrast to Labour’s plan for a nationalised Great British Energy body. Long-held hopes for land reform and a failure to use borrowing powers to invest are other complaints from left-of-centre activists.
Worst of all, the Scottish economy is forecast to grow even slower than the rest of the UK. Since 2014 Scottish wages have grown at a slower rate than any other UK nation, business confidence is lower and high-growth companies are less common. The Scottish NHS and education system are under-performing even though they’re run from Edinburgh.
It’s too early to write off the SNP’s formidable election-winning machine. But just as the cost of living squeeze is catching up with the Conservatives, low growth and wages may also be catching up with the party after nearly a decade in power.
And just as the disillusioned “Red Wall” in the north and midlands looks set to end their Conservative dalliance, the original “Red Wall” that Labour lost in Scotland is showing signs of a return to the fold. In the SNP’s leadership race, their own framed choice between more austerity with Forbes and more incompetence with Yousaf is not much of a choice at all.
Back in 1979, the SNP were dubbed “the Tartan Tories” because 11 of their MPs did a deal with Margaret Thatcher’s Opposition to win a no confidence vote that toppled the Labour government. The party as a whole, not just Kate Forbes, needs to quickly shrug off that Tartan Tory tag – or risk the same fate as their avowed enemies.