SNP leader Humza Yousaf showed his mettle to party delegates, but he cannot survive on giveaways, says TERRY MURDEN
Is Humza Yousaf finished or has he just got started? On the evidence of the SNP leader’s confident and rousing address to his party’s annual conference it would be foolish to write him off, or to assume that a change of government at Holyrood is a shoo-in. His opponents, both external and internal, were asked to accept that he may yet have what it takes to rise above current difficulties.
This was a speech laden with passion and determination, no doubt inspired by his personal distress over events in the Middle East, but also by his belief that he can lead Scotland to independence.
He admitted to being humbled by the Rutherglen and Hamilton West rout, but had the by-election taken place this week then this speech might have been enough to deliver a different outcome. Yousaf also knows that the SNP’s heart is in Holyrood, not Westminster, and that his predecessors, Salmond and Sturgeon, both delivered resounding victories in the Scottish Parliament after defeats in UK General Elections.
Furthermore, his call for an international response to the unfolding crisis in Israel and Gaza was not posturing for the sake of a headline. With a personal stake in the tragic events tearing the region apart his appeal to global leaders to help refugees also helped position him on the world stage. By the same token, his plan to raise funds on the international bond market was a message to the wider investment community that Scotland wants to be taken seriously as a global player.
He closed a nervous conference with a command performance that sent a message to all that he is not only party and government leader, but is in charge and intends to see through a programme to improve lives. In doing so, he went some way to shaking off the ‘useless’ epithet and accusations that he is floundering and directionless.
Yet even this statement of intent, backed by meaningful policy plans– an investment bond, a £500m commitment to wind energy, a pledge on council tax and more money for the NHS – prompted more head scratching among those who saw it as little more than an uncosted wish list by a leader who knows he has to dream big to win back dwindling support for his party.
The SNP’s record in government is not the rosy one he painted in Aberdeen; its ‘successes’ are essentially a list of free services that have landed the government with a £1 billion black hole in its budget. Yousaf’s legacy cannot be built on more of the same hand-outs, freebies and false promises.
Should Scotland achieve independence such largesse would get a Truss-like response from the international markets he is now trying to befriend. His plan to issue a bond before 2026 would test the appetite among those investors for Holyrood’s money. It would probably be underwritten by Westminster but as a first-time buyer with a huge risk premium it is not clear whether it would be priced in line with UK government gilts or at a level that reflects the sky-high Scottish government deficit.
A more immediate concern is the freeze on council tax that has already divided opinion. It is a clear electioneering ploy, but one that creates a potentially unsustainable situation. While intended to help those struggling with the cost of living, in a few words the First Minister signalled more cuts to local services. As taxpayers and councils deal with the consequences, it could negate all the fine words delivered in Aberdeen.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business