Euan McColm Euan McColm

Humza Yousaf is failing to further the independence cause

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

When Nicola Sturgeon stepped down as leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland a year ago, she said she’d reached the conclusion that she could no further advance the cause of independence. It was time for a new leader with new ideas to energise the campaign to break up the United Kingdom.

Responsibility for invigorating the separatist movement fell to Humza Yousaf, voted in as First Minister on 29 March 2023 with the promise that he’d lead the nation to new highs. If Sturgeon had become too divisive, playing a key role in the creation of a constitutional deadlock, Yousaf would encourage unionist voters to think again about the benefits of independence.

Twelve months on, it is safe to say that the current First Minister has failed to come close to achieving that objective. A recent poll shows that, while a majority of voters remain pro-devolution, more than half think the Scottish parliament has served them well. The survey, carried out by the Diffley Partnership for the Holyrood Sources podcast, suggests SNP politicians should concentrate on making devolution work before demanding further constitutional upheaval. While 56 per cent of those surveyed said devolution had been positive — and 43 per cent so closely identified with the project that they said it made them more proud to be Scottish — just 40 per cent felt Holyrood had served them well, while only 37 per cent believed their local MSP served their area well.

As Scotland’s political parties pick over the poll, one particular aspect will surely concentrate minds. The survey found that just a fifth of voters (the same proportion as supports the abolition of Holyrood) are happy with the current devolution settlement. Yousaf should be careful of reading this as encouragement for greater effort to break-up the United Kingdom — support for independence, regularly at almost 50 per cent, drops to just 38 per cent when option of a more powerful Scottish Parliament is offered.

For one of the podcast’s co-hosts Andy Maciver — a former spinner for the Scottish Tories — this finding should guide the main unionist parties. On the results, Maciver said that: ‘Many of us have felt for some time that the pro-UK parties are failing to offer people the option that would settle the constitutional matter for good: a more powerful Scottish parliament. The Tory/Labour status quo commands only 20 per cent support, but when more options are included, 62 per cent of people oppose independence.’ He added that: ‘For Anas Sarwar and Labour, that should light the way for their 2026 Holyrood manifesto.’

I’m not so sure that a ‘more powerful Scottish parliament’ would, in fact, settle the constitutional matter ‘for good’. A majority may want a more powerful Holyrood but, without detail, we have no idea what that would look like. An offer of a more powerful parliament sounds great, even if we are unsure in which areas it should be able to exert greater authority.

As one Labour politician put it:

If you ask people whether they want a more powerful parliament, of course they’re going to say ‘yes’, but the fact is that the parliament has got stronger and stronger over the years and it’s never going to be enough for the SNP. When Holyrood secured more powers under the Smith commission after the 2014 referendum, the nationalists spun the whole thing as a terrible betrayal despite them getting just about everything on their wish-list. If we keep on talking about more powers for Holyrood, we’ll stay stuck on the SNP’s territory and no matter what we offer, it’ll never be enough.

Any politician looking to the new poll for a policy blueprint will be disappointed. All we really know is that most Scots support devolution but would like a different version of it. And so, as he marks a year in power, Humza Yousaf has no choice but to accept he has done nothing to make Scottish independence more likely.

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Euan McColm

Euan McColm is a Scottish journalist and political commentator who has written for The Times, The Scotsman and The Press and Journal.

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