The Slow Decline of the SNP

After winning the SNP leadership race, Humza Yousaf inherits a party weakened by scandals and division that threaten its dominance of Scottish politics – and provides new political opportunities for its opponents.

Humza Yousaf has won the SNP leadership contest and will be named as Scotland's new first minister. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

After a bitter and bruising election contest, Humza Yousaf has won the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) leadership and become Scotland’s First Minister. His victory over his nearest rival, Kate Forbes, was far from convincing. Yousaf won 48.2 percent first preference votes to Forbes’ 40.7 percent. As neither candidate gained over 50 percent, the second preferences of the third-placed candidate, Ash Regan, were distributed to give Yousaf 52.1 percent and Forbes 47.9 percent.

The SNP was blindsided by Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation as party leader and First Minister on 15 February this year. It has yet to become clear why she resigned. There was no successor in place, so the SNP held its first leadership election since 2004 when Alex Salmond returned to the role. When Salmond resigned after losing the independence referendum in 2014, Sturgeon—as Salmond’s deputy—was the only candidate, representing a coronation rather than a contest. 

The party Yousaf now leads is a listing but not a sinking ship. The contest revealed party membership had fallen from 119,000 in 2021 to 72,000 in 2023. Previously, it was just 20,000 in 2013. The party is indebted by around £1 million, has an operating deficit of £750,000, and has suffered significant resignations, most obviously in the form of its chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell. There is an ongoing police inquiry into allegations of misappropriation of funds, while controversy continues over the Scottish government’s nationalisation of shipbuilding firm Ferguson Marine in 2019.

Yousaf was the continuity candidate, seeking to uphold the socially liberal agenda of Sturgeon. Forbes was the insurgent, being both economically and socially conservative. Just 70 percent of members voted in the election, indicating some displeasure at the choices on offer. That most of Regan’s second preferences went to Forbes indicates how conservative SNP members are. Indeed, according to polling, Forbes is more popular amongst SNP voters than Yousaf. Much of this concerns opposition to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament.

Yousaf also pledged to continue with Sturgeon’s strategy of proclaiming to be a social democrat and using the language of fairness, diversity and equality while not practising what he preaches. Forbes was on the mark with her cutting comment to Yousaf: ‘You were Transport Minister, the trains were never on time. When you were Justice Secretary, the police were stretched to breaking point. Now as Health Minister, we’ve got record-high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as First Minister?’ This all testified respectively to his faith in the private sector, support for cutbacks, and a lack of resources. 

The implications for the left of any sort in Scotland are not straightforward. Many on the left will have heaved a sigh of relief that Forbes did not win. But that does not mean Yousaf’s victory will be met with much joy either. The SNP’s coalition with the Scottish Greens, needed to secure a majority government, is now not as imperilled as it would have been had Forbes won. But the headway made by the Greens in government for a progressive agenda since 2021 has been meagre, to say the least.

Where some hope may lie comes from three places. 

The first is that the ending of an effective one-party state is underway. The SNP has come to dominate national and local government and much in between it, such as various quangos. The party can no longer be run in the top-down, managerial way it was before, with a ‘husband and wife’ team at its helm. This opens up space for dissent voices within and without the SNP, even if a re-run of the political situation of 2003 is unlikely. This was when Scotland had its so-called ‘rainbow parliament’ with Greens, Scottish Socialists and independents able to prevent the domination of the mainstream Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP parties. Whether the SNP Trade Union Group can continue on the path it set out on during the SNP leadership campaign remains to be seen.

The second is the prospect for a revival in the fortunes of Scottish Labour at Holyrood and Labour at Westminster. While the Scottish Conservatives are currently the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Labour is experiencing an upward movement in polling for the next Scottish Parliament elections, due no later than 7 May 2026. Though that is some time away and Scottish Labour may not form a government after these elections, it does bolster Labour’s prospects at Westminster.

The next Westminster general election is due no later than 25 January 2025. With Labour well ahead of the Tories in British-wide polling, the ability of Scottish Labour to increase its tally from one MP to a dozen or more will be vital if Labour is to form the next government at Westminster. Labour will hope it does have to rely on SNP votes to do so, but this will not be plain sailing. While the SNP ship is listing, it may help right itself by emphasising the ‘new’ Labour credentials of Keir Starmer and Labour’s opposition to granting another referendum on Scottish independence. This strategy was successful before the SNP.

The third is that the SNP is no longer in a position to dominate the independence movement as it once was. Sturgeon’s strategy for independence was left in tatters by two events. One was the Supreme Court’s decision last year that the Scottish Parliament was not legally competent to hold a referendum. The other was that her ‘Plan B’ to make a Westminster general election a de facto referendum was panned even by her most loyal supporters, including Yousaf. 

Now the SNP will have to be more humble in dealing with the independence movement. However, the rub is that the forces for independence can barely be called a movement as they were in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, and whether they can resuscitate themselves with a newfound freedom remains to be seen. 

None of what emerges from these three places of hope is simple or even compatible. There will be forces within the SNP around the new leadership that wish to re-assert the element of top-down control. Whether this succeeds and at what cost will become clear in the coming weeks and months. But two things are for certain: the seeming stability of a Sturgeon-dominated SNP is over, and the SNP dominance of Scottish politics along with it.

About the Author

Gregor Gall is an Affiliate Research Associate at the University of Glasgow and a Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds. He is author and editor of over twenty books on unions, politics and Scotland.