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It’s been a month…

Scottish Parliament

We are now little over a month into the life of the new Scottish Government, led by first minister Humza Yousaf. It has been an extraordinary time since then, with the SNP consumed by a host of damaging issues relating to the party’s finances. The crisis has threatened to derail or at least divert Scotland’s youngest and first ethnic minority first minister before he had even really begun.

As ever in such circumstances, we need to look beyond the present noise, no matter how loud and consequential, to analyse how Yousaf is doing in a more rounded sense. This first in our monthly series of Public and Government Affairs blogs balances out where he deserves initial credit, while also considering the very substantial challenges he faces.

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1. Most positively, we can see much more willingness from Yousaf to engage with business.

We understand a number of meetings with business leaders, in Edinburgh and London, have already taken place and more are planned. In one sense, the essential need for Yousaf to demonstrate that he cares more about business, enterprise and economic growth than Nicola Sturgeon appeared to raises concerns that it could just be a box-ticking exercise. His dire political inheritance could encourage him to retreat into a Green-tinted comfort zone, but these worries have not been realised as of yet.

There is a real opportunity for businesses to engage with the Scottish Government, and we were pleased to see one senior minister – Neil Gray, the economy cabinet secretary – visiting Japan this week, ostensibly on the hunt for investment. We need much more of this.

 

2. However, this is all coming from a position of weakness.

Yousaf quickly realised, to his dismay, that he was in danger of becoming a prisoner of the conditions he created for himself as the self-styled ‘continuity candidate’. He is now a continuity candidate being forced to preside over substantial change, the need for which preceded his election, even if the widespread realisation did not.

All swagger from the SNP leadership is gone, and we can detect this in the way the new first minister is engaging publicly, such as in problematic spontaneous media huddles, which usually lead to memorable headlines regarding colleagues being arrested or ‘burner phones’. Would we have witnessed such uncertain projection from either of his two predecessors? No.

Think back to the early days of Rishi Sunak’s premiership, and the relative speed with which he came north to meet privately with Nicola Sturgeon. That low-key interaction was in itself a shift in approach, as the UK Government belatedly realised that previous images of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson being publicly received almost as foreign dignitaries in Scotland aligned with the SNP’s strategic aims.

This time around, Yousaf has been obliged to go to London to meet the prime minister, and all before Sunak is due up in Scotland at the end of this week anyway, for the Scottish Conservative conference. It is some shift in the balance of power, although Yousaf may be able to make a virtue out of the necessity to walk humbly.

 

3. On policy and legislative impact, the first month has been spent defining more what Yousaf’s government won’t do, and that won’t cut it in the medium to long term.

Initiatives have been delayed, paused or taken “back to the drawing board”, and Yousaf’s first major statement to the Holyrood chamber after the Easter recess was much more about thematic positioning.

As we have noted in previous briefings, this is as about as far as Yousaf can go right now in distancing himself from his predecessor, but we understand there is a desire for a significant burst of legislative and non-legislative activity over the year and a half before the expected UK general election.

For this to be successful, the next four months will be crucial as Yousaf’s government gets to work in formulating its first fully-fledged Programme for Government (the Holyrood equivalent of the King’s Speech), due for delivery in early September.

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Iain Gibson, partner

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