What Led to Humza Yousaf’s Incredible Self-Own?

You can't tweak your way to progress.

by Adam Ramsay

30 April 2024

Scotland’s former first minister Humza Yousaf, March 2023. Russell Cheyne/Reuters

It seems Humza Yousaf was persuaded to go on a dramatic trip over his own shoelaces by an SNP strategist called Kevin Pringle.

When the now ex-first minister appointed Pringle – formerly Alex Salmond’s spin doctor – as his official spokesperson and strategic advisor last June, it was widely written up as a good move by Scotland’s drone of centrist sensibles.

A New Statesman profile on Pringle in October was glowing, describing him as more “pragmatic and hard headed” than other SNP figures.

Chris Deerin, the author of the piece, cited his recent interview with Humza Yousaf as evidence. Yousaf, Deerin purred, had toned down his “social justice agenda”, and spoken about differences between the SNP and Greens on oil and gas. “If I ever thought it wasn’t in the party’s best interests then we’d take that decision to end the co-operation agreement,” the first minister had said of the partnership with the Greens. Deerin commented approvingly: “The words coming from Yousaf’s mouth were … pure Pringle”.

Humza had, in other words, moved to the right since Pringle got his ear.

Which isn’t surprising. For the eight years since leaving Salmond’s side, Kevin Pringle had been a corporate lobbyist with the leading Scottish communications agency Charlotte Street Partners. The firm had represented Airbnb when the Scottish government was regulating temporary lets. Pringle himself had been representing the trade association for private healthcare companies and health tech firms.

Equally unsurprising, then, is that Pringle had always been sceptical of the SNP’s deal with the Greens. Writing in the Courier newspaper when Yousaf became first minister, the first minister’s then future advisor argued that he didn’t need the Greens, that the SNP would be better as a minority government.

There were two problems with this. The first is that a first minister needs 64 MSP votes to survive in post. While the SNP won exactly 64 seats in 2021, one of those MSPs – Ash Regan, who happens to represent my area – has defected to Alex Salmond’s Alba due to her opposition to trans rights and support for the oil industry. While Sturgeon had brought the Greens in as a piece of internal party management – bluntly, so she could tell the right of the SNP to fuck off – Yousaf had come to rely on the seven Green MSPs for a majority after Regan’s defection. Sacking the Greens – pushing them into opposition – meant losing that majority.

The second problem is that neither of the theoretically plausible ways it could have been pieced back together worked out.

Yousaf’s decision to eject the Scottish Green party came after discontented Green activists forced their leadership to announce an extraordinary general meeting to vote on whether to end the deal themselves. This was due to take place next month. Had the meeting gone ahead as planned, the Greens may well have walked out of the Bute House Agreement themselves. I’m a Green member, I voted sceptically for the deal in the first place. I would have voted out this time.

But in that context, it seems likely that Yousaf could have renegotiated a looser deal with Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, much like the arrangement which kept Nicola Sturgeon in office from 2016-2021. Indeed, had Humza gently approached the Greens asking to renegotiate, he may well have succeeded. Instead, he summoned them, and sacked them.

I think the Greens should have proposed a loose arrangement to support Humza anyway: rather than forcing the FM out, they could have driven a hard bargain for their votes of confidence from outside government. Now, there is a risk that the SNP will elect Kate Forbes from the party’s right as its leader, and she will deal with Ash Regan instead, cutting the Greens out, and rolling back Scottish government progress (though it currently looks like John Swinney, an architect of Sturgeonism, is more likely to win). But Harvie and Slater clearly felt betrayed by a first minister who had just sacked them. They decided they couldn’t trust him, and got a little petulant. A cleverer political advisor would have seen that coming.

The other way that Yousaf could – in theory – have pieced together a majority would have been persuading different parties to back him on different things at different times. That’s what Salmond did from 2007 to 2011 – usually doing deals with the Tories or Lib Dems, because Labour always refused to play ball. This seems to have been Pringle’s preference, for a simple reason – those parties are more right-wing than the Greens. Co-operating with them would have meant fewer demands to do things like raise tax on the rich or radically decarbonise the economy.

In practice, this was never going to work. Back when Pringle was advising Salmond, Scottish politics was in its pre-Indyref state. It wasn’t nearly as polarised. The Tories were happy to vote through SNP budgets if they got a few more cops out of them. These days, there is just no way that’s going to happen. The entire Scottish Tory schtick is SNP-bashing.

So the problem for Yousaf was that this “pragmatic” and “hard headed” corporate lobbyist-cum-advisor doesn’t seem to have thought through a simple question. What next? How can he get together 64 MSPs without the Greens? The answer, it turned out, was that he couldn’t. Within a week of sacking Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, Yousaf had sacked himself.

But, of course, it’s deeper than the question of individual characters, isn’t it? The problem isn’t just that the SNP’s guru turned out to be a bit goofy.

The basic conflict between the SNP and the Greens is about conflict itself.

Sturgeon, Yousaf and the like are always willing to do the right thing so long as they don’t have to fight anyone for it. Or, at least, not anyone too powerful. They want action on climate change, they just don’t want a bare-knuckled scrap with big oil. They want to solve the housing crisis, but don’t let those rent controls squeeze landlords too tight. They like to think they represent the nation in some sort of inevitable march towards progress. Their version of progress is broadly left-wing, but they don’t seem to see the social forces holding it back (other than unionists) as the enemy. This sort of centrism is what the commentariat thinks of as hard headed because they are generally against standing up to the powerful. In reality, it’s woolly thinking.

The main role the Greens played in government was to try to gee the SNP leadership up for those battles: pushing them to introduce rent controls, cracking down on grouse moor owners, scrapping with the drinks industry over bottle recycling, encouraging more taxes on the rich and opposition to big oil, insisting on opposing the media’s moral panic about trans people.

It’s not that Yousaf necessarily disagreed with the Greens on these issues – he started out in politics in the movement against the Iraq war, and has always leaned to the left. It’s that he would rather have ducked these things and stuck to bland territory that doesn’t upset anyone, but doesn’t really change much either.

The good news for the independence movement is that its support largely stems from the deep failures of the British state. For the last decade, an alternative to independence has been offered – a Labour government in Westminster. When the Labour government does come, it will be in the form of Keir Starmer. And he’s not exactly going to satiate the hunger for real change.

The worst thing the SNP can do in that context is follow Labour to the right, and become another party of the same old same old.

But if they do, then you can expect the next two years to see growing support for the Greens, as Scotland’s left-wing voters – who 15 years ago migrated from Labour to the SNP – look for another new home.

Adam Ramsay is a Scottish journalist. He is currently working on his forthcoming book Abolish Westminster.

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