A Week That Changed Scottish Politics? From Humza Yousaf to John Swinney. Mark McGeoghegan writes on how Humza Yousaf’s termination of the Bute House Agreement (BHA) was rooted in broader political processes affecting the Scottish independence movement, which continue to be relevant beyond its collapse for his successor as First Minister, John Swinney. With an image of Mark Mcgeogehan and Bute House.

A Week That Changed Scottish Politics? From Humza Yousaf to John Swinney

Published: 7 May 2024

By Mark McGeoghegan

Harold Wilson’s quip that “a week is a long time in politics” may have become a cliché, but it has done because it is often proven correct. The week between Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf’s decision to terminate his government’s power-sharing arrangement with the Scottish Greens, known as the Bute House Agreement (BHA), and the emergence of his successor as SNP leader and First Minister, John Swinney, was a case in point.

However, the end of the BHA was rooted in broader political processes affecting the Scottish independence movement that were in train before the BHA was agreed and continue to be relevant beyond its collapse.

From 2014 onwards, the collective political purpose of the independence movement served as a glue to bind political parties and other political actors together, which otherwise had divergent political visions for Scotland. However, the perceived probability of achieving Scottish secession in the near term has diminished in the eyes of independence supporters, activists, and political party members. Consequently, the glue holding the Scottish independence movement together has gradually dissolved. Divisions over other, often highly polarising policy areas have deepened and sharpened.

The emergence of these policy cleavages has driven fractionalisation in the independence movement and within the SNP itself. The emergence of a plethora of minor secessionist parties in 2021, most notably Alex Salmond’s Alba Party, was the first significant moment of fracture in this process. New policy cleavages, as well as personality politics, played a role, but the most significant factor in this moment was disagreement over secessionist strategy and frustration that the movement, and the SNP leadership specifically, was failing to make progress towards independence.

The BHA was intended to provide a stable, coherent, secessionist Scottish Government that could push forward a joint policy agenda, which included holding a second Scottish independence referendum within the 2021-26 Scottish Parliament. However, it was robbed of its binding secessionist purpose by the UK Supreme Court’s decision in November 2022 that the Scottish Parliament could not hold an advisory independence referendum.

Again, other policy areas over which the SNP and the broader independence movement are divided gained prominence. The contest to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and Scottish First Minister exposed those divides, and while Humza Yousaf ultimately won that contest on a platform that included the continuation of the BHA, the vote was close and 81% of SNP members who voted cast a first or second preference for a candidate willing to end the BHA.

The process of fractionalisation continued to gain momentum through 2023 into 2024 as divides between the SNP and Scottish Greens emerged over a proposed council tax freeze, how the Scottish Government should respond to the final report of the Cass Review, and ultimately, the Scottish Government’s abandonment of its 2030 carbon emissions targets.

In light of these, Scottish Green members triggered a vote on their party’s continued participation in the BHA. The First Minister and his team concluded that the BHA was ending and that ending it on their own terms would be better, politically, for the First Minister and the SNP.

If the collapse of the BHA was due to structural factors, namely the ongoing fractionalisation of the Scottish independence movement, the end of Humza Yousaf’s time as First Minister was due to the individual politicians involved, particularly the First Minister himself.

Scottish Green Ministers Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater were invited at short notice to Bute House on the morning of Thursday 25th April, and informed that the First Minister had decided to end the BHA and sack them as Scottish Government Ministers. They then had to leave past an assembled press pack on foot without their Ministerial cars. It was a humiliation, and the First Minister would later acknowledge that he miscalculated how the Scottish Greens’ anger. This miscalculation led to his downfall – the moment he lost their confidence, it was clear that he could not govern.

John Swinney, who was elected SNP leader unopposed on Monday and will now succeed Humza Yousaf as First Minister, had effectively retired from frontline politics following Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. However, he is broadly seen as the only SNP parliamentarian who can unite his party in this moment of significant political danger.

His first stint as SNP leader, from 2000 to 2004, was broadly seen as a failure, and he carries the baggage of policy failures from his time in government, most notably the controversy over how Scottish school examinations were handled during the Covid pandemic. However, he is a highly polished political performer and a very effective operator with 16 years of experience at the highest levels of the Scottish Government.

His agreement with Kate Forbes to bring her into a senior role in his Cabinet in exchange for her backing has unified his Parliamentarians, and he has signalled his intention to focus on high-salience political issues like economic growth and the performance of public services to rebuild the SNP’s voter coalition.

However, the political challenge facing the incoming SNP leadership remains the same as that which faced their predecessors: to resist the centrifugal force of fractionalisation in the broadest of big tent parties while making the policy concessions needed to govern as a minority government.

The personnel have changed, but the political environment has not. The independence movement is fractured and far from being ‘frustratingly close’ as Humza Yousaf put it in his resignation speech, Scottish secession from the United Kingdom is a long-term prospect at best. Mr Swinney will have to actively manage fractionalisation within his party, and will not be able to rely on the promise of independence to bind his party or the independence movement together in common purpose.

His leadership will be a testing one. Only time and upcoming elections will tell whether he and his team have the skillset needed to continue defying political gravity in the way the SNP Scottish Government has for the past decade, and whether personnel changes were ever enough to overcome the structural forces tearing at the SNP.

 

Mark McGeoghegan is an author, columnist, and pollster writing on Scottish politics and secessionism, and is a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow completing a thesis on the tactics of self-determination groups. 

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