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April 26th 2024

Schadenfreude might not be an attractive sentiment but it is an inescapably human one. There is something delicious about watching one’s opponents experience extreme discomfort. We may wish that we didn’t feel that way, but it can be almost impossible to resist. A great many Scottish politicians are today enjoying the sweet but slightly grubby sensation that schadenfreude can illicit.


Napoleon once said that the quality he most admired in his generals was ‘luck’. Napoleon wouldn’t have liked Humza Yousaf very much. His brief (so far) tenure as First Minister of Scotland has been characterised by an off-putting combination of sanctimony and haplessness. Be it the ferries that don’t float or the deposit return scheme that has recycled zero bottles; the SNP under Yousaf has achieved very little. The decision to flush money down the drain pursuing legal action against the Westminster Government over self ID delivered nothing. The admission this week that the Scottish Government’s climate commitments were unachievable - a stunt rather than a strategy, if you like - reinforced the impression of the current SNP as a deeply unserious project. And the party, whilst still leading in most polls, is haemorrhaging support to its left and its right. Some of this is Yousaf’s fault. A lot of it is not. But luck is, by its nature, not fairly distributed.

Now Yousaf faces the prospect of being put out of his misery, thanks to his decision to dissolve the coalition which had provided him and his party with a majority. He kicked the Greens out of Government because he was worried that they might storm out anyway - incensed as they were by both Scotland’s failure to reach its climate targets and by Yousaf’s lack of supposed progress on a range of cultural issues. But in sacking the Greens rather than waiting for the eventual decision of their Emergency General Meeting, Yousaf has burned his bridge to continued power decisively. The Green MSPs are furious. And it is very, very personal. Now, shorn of a majority, Yousaf faces a no confidence vote and his fate rests in the hands of a woman - Ash Regan - whose defection to Alex Salmond’s Alba party Yousaf described as ‘no great loss’. One imagines the schadenfreude is particularly keenly felt in Ms. Regan this morning.

What will he do? Well, Yousaf could give Regan whatever she asks for, secure her vote and scrape by. But then, to all intents and purposes, Ash Regan will be the First Minister of Scotland - not Humza Yousaf. Given his lack of a policy programme it may be that Yousaf wouldn’t mind that very much. But it lacks a certain dignity.

Alternatively, Yousaf could stand down. Were this to happen, Hollyrood would have a fortnight to find someone who could hold the confidence of the Scottish Parliament. The Greens have heavily implied that they would be prepared to do another deal provided Yousaf is dispatched, and so this outcome could be viable. That said, the leading candidate to replace Yousaf would surely be Kate Ferguson, who came a close(ish) second last time around? And Kate Ferguson is not a woman with much sympathy at all for the Green Party’s social and cultural demands.

It is all a bit of a mess. And it’s fun, for Yousaf’s enemies, to watch. But it also teaches us something bigger and more important than that Humza Yousef isn’t very good at politics.

Parties that lack a coherent set of goals are vulnerable to sudden fracture. Of course, the SNP does have one ambition - independence from the United Kingdom - but, beyond that, they lack a united sense of what the world ought to be like. Some of them are very progressive. Some of them are socially conservative. Some of them are redistributers. Some of them are free marketeers. They all want independence but until and after that glorious rebirth they don’t have any collective view. That lends an agility - they can say almost anything to anyone - but it also creates a fragility. Should the SNP tie themselves to The Greens? For many SNP MSPs and members, the answer is ‘obviously yes’. Two left wing parties committed to independence; what’s not to like? But for many others in the party the answer is ‘obviously no’. Why should the dream of independence be tainted by association with the weird and the wacky?

That’s a bind in which whoever succeeds Yousef, should he be forced out, will find themselves. But it isn’t unique to the SNP. Take the post-2019 Conservative Party, for example, where Brexit has served a similar purpose to that played by independence for the Nats. Political parties that become myopic lack the ideological glue to hold themselves together.

The vote next week on Yousaf’s fate will be excellent political theatre. A great many Scottish politicians are about to have a lot of fun. The long-term weaknesses that it exposes in the SNP will be difficult to fix. Yousaf’s personal Waterloo may just signal the beginning of the end of nationalist dominance north of the border.