Humza Yousaf and leading the SNP after Sturgeon

As the SNP pass the Independence torch from Nicola Sturgeon to Humza Yousaf, now is a moment to consider the nature of leadership of the party, the cause of independence and political leadership more broadly.  Nicola Sturgeon was probably the most accomplished party leader of her generation, and yet like so many now, her tenure ended in disappointment. Why did this happen and what does that failure tell us? 

Alex Salmond, her predecessor and mentor, stepped off the Holyrood merry-go-round on a dizzy high. His party had outperformed expectations in the 2014 referendum and had scared the life out of the British establishment through a gutsy grassroots campaign that contained all the hope and joy for a better Scotland.  Defeat felt like a win as thousands flocked to the party and the cause. The energy, and with it the future, seemed like it was with the nationalists. But Salmond went one better.  They say judge a person by their successor, and in passing the torch of independence to Sturgeon, Salmond left himself well judged, for a while at least. 

But for Sturgeon the new bar was set almost impossibly high.  How to go one better, and not just get a second Indy Ref soon after the last, but win it? This would be tricky at the best of times given the paradox at the heart of governments wanting independence; if you make a success of governing then you diminish the case for constitutional change – if everything is broadly ok then why take the risk of independence? Surely much better to blame London for Scotland’s ills and claim only independence will fix the country? But if after years of ruling the country still feels like it’s going backwards, then you diminish the claim that the country can stand on its own two feet and that you are the leader who can successfully take the Indy plunge.  

Sturgeon’s problems were then compounded by the lack of a constitutional route map to any Indy Ref 2. Under constant pressure from those within the party and without, she kept leading her troops up the Indy Ref hill, only to march them back down when it was obvious no such referendum was likely.  The Supreme Court decision that enshrined London’s sole right to call such a vote stopped the SNP in its tracks. Against the backdrop of poorly perceived governance at home, intransigence from London and troubles over gender recognition, Sturgeon had reached the end of her road. And unlike Salmond, she failed to gift the party an obvious next leader, instead allowing a vicious leadership campaign to ensue. 

But the fundamental arguments for Indy remain. The dominant Westminster model is mired in control from the centre, with all the pressure of the City, the rich and media to bend to the right not the left. The prospect of the Tories losing might change that dynamic to some degree. But for many the case for Indy is about the principle of sovereignty. 

It’s easy to say in hindsight, but instead of believing their own hype and going for one more heave after the 2014 result, the SNP should have set the bar at a consistent Indy poll lead of at least 60 per cent. This could be achieved by steady progress on service delivery, especially in health and education, alongside a message to the Scottish people that goes ‘this is what we can do with our hands tied, just think what we could do when we are free’.   Alongside this the wider Yes Movement of 2014 should have been encouraged to flourish – independence for the independence movement – not marginalised by SNP leadership control freakery. 

Ironically, Sturgeon’s problem was that she made some aspects of leadership look easy.  She bested opponents in debates, dominated the media and led the country through Covid with aplomb.  And of course, the SNP have had domestic successes: free care and higher education are real achievements. But the party is now in a bad place thanks to a divisive leadership contest and has no clear path to Independence. 

If one of the best politicians of the age fails, then it says more about the system than the person. It also says something about us and our need to pass all the responsibility of running a complex system in a perma-crisis world to one person. Especially when getting to the top demands behaviour that changes leaders, making them less effective. They lose their bearings and gain too much ego, as it all becomes about them. The system sets them up to fail. We set them up to fail. 

Until we realise we must lead too, and get the jubilant and ecstatic joy from making our world together, rather than have someone fail to make it for us, then every leader is bound to disappoint. While Sturgeon’s unionist opponents may be enjoying her fall, the same pressures and system will bring them down too.  

All leaders can really do is set the course and tone and then build the capacity of the party and a wider movement to facilitate big change. Two mottos should guide them.  The first is ‘to be humble and bold’. This balance feels exactly right.   The second is ‘to do today, so that tomorrow you can do what you can’t do today’.  This is the capacity building point. To build a good society takes time, energy, and huge resources. Little that lasts and is meaningful is achieved overnight. Big change comes from big thinking and even bigger movements that build block by block. The best name for such leadership is strategic incrementalism.

Whether Humza Yousaf is able to hold the party together and develop a new Indy strategy remains to be seen – but he has to do leadership in a different way.

Sturgeon is still relatively young.  She has time to take stock and do great things. She was on top of her game. But it wasn’t good enough. No one is good enough. It’s the game that has to change.  It’s us that need to change.

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