Humza Yousaf emerged narrowly victorious from the SNP leadership race, vowing to put Scottish independence “into fifth gear”. To continue the metaphor, much depends on which model of SNP vehicle he is now driving and whether he prefers Top Gear speeds or a more sedate cruise control on the long and still uncertain road to independence.
Why a goal which seemed within grasp in 2014 has slipped into the middle distance, despite (and sometimes because of) Nicola Sturgeon’s attempts to hasten a re-run is the key question for Yousaf’s tenure. The first requirement of someone talking the role at this point is a reality check.
The SNP has struggled more overtly with challenges in governing Scotland and disappointment has opened a door to Labour’s comeback. Yousaf has also sided with Sturgeon against Westminster over the status of gender recognition. He may well (and wisely) be trying to take the heat out of a polarising debate by appearing to backtrack on plans to take the UK government to court over the blocking of the legislation.
A clutch of external factors also demand more unclouded thinking about how best to persuade a majority in Scotland that independence would be delivered smoothly and with transparency about the benefits of greater autonomy – like ending currency issues or the nuclear deterrent, which the SNP opposes as “immoral, ineffective and expensive”. Arguably so, but how to manage a future transition at a time when Russia is moving nuclear stockpiles closer to western Europe is fraught with next-level decisions about how an independent Scotland would function as part of the Nato compact.
SNP politicians are also fonder of Europe right now than it is, in practical terms, of expediting independence, mainly because there are so many competing bids for the EU’s attention and expenditure and because the decisive independence battles for Europe’s futures are happening in Kyiv and Kharkiv, not Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Deficit problems are admittedly not limited to Scotland – but they make it a less attractive “acquisition” for a cash-strapped EU (and that is before we start an argument about which currency would be used and relations with the Bank of England and European Central Bank in controlling inflation.) Add to this the more immediate talking point in Scotland of a dimming SNP record on general management of public services, public finances and transport – and Yousaf’s starting conditions as Sturgeon’s heir are daunting.
The Sturgeon strategy of arguing that the next election should be considered a “de facto referendum” on independence ended in a meltdown (and a new leader). In his victory speech, Yousaf pledged to be “the generation that delivers independence.” But that is an ambiguous statement when the new leader is only 37.
His fate and with it that of his party, facing a Labour revival north of the border, will depend on how elastic he can make his pitch as a Sturgeon loyalist to change the terms of an argument which ultimately trapped her in promises she could not see through and a government falling behind on delivery.
The new chieftain has some time to think some of this through, but not very much before the election cycle bites. On one point, he should move quickly – ditching the idea that a vote for the SNP at the next election can automatically be counted as a “yes” vote for independence. That has driven more cautious nationalist votes to (or back towards) Labour, which has more clearly delineated itself under Keir as a Unionist party.
Yousaf has found his route to power in running largely as a “continuity candidate” to Sturgeon, gathering her vote base to clinch a narrow victory which relied on the votes of the third-ranked candidate. That is modest acclaim, even after a bruising start for Kate Forbes, the runner up, whose whose fervent religious views and personal opposition to abortion stymied her campaign to change the culture and style of SNP politics. Putting the bitterness of this race aside should be a priority.
But the most telling question for an inexperienced nationalist leader in Scotland is not how fast he wants independence, because we know the answer to that. It is how he intends to get there, now that the highway to freedom looks more like an obstacle course – and these are generally best not attempted in fifth gear.
Anne McElvoy is an executive editor at the media group Politico