Humza Yousaf’s relatively comfortable seven-point victory in the SNP’s leadership election gives a reasonably clear indication of the direction that members of Scotland’s dominant party want it to take.
The main challenge to Yousaf, seen as the continuity candidate and the one favoured by outgoing leader Nicola Sturgeon, came from Kate Forbes, a rising star who is young, articulate and, as opinion polls showed, quite popular with Scottish voters. However, her membership of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, her opposition to same-sex marriage and her belief that having children outside wedlock is simply “wrong”, appeared to have alienated important sections of the SNP’s younger membership.
Forbes was also seen as lukewarm on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, supported by a majority of her party and a make-or-break issue for its coalition allies, the Scottish Greens.
The SNP’s recent domination of Scottish politics rests largely on its success in replacing Labour as the first choice of voters in the heavily urban and densely populated ‘Central Belt’ which stretches from Glasgow to Edinburgh. The two parties are distinguished by the SNP’s support for independence and Labour’s for the union. But both are progressive social democratic parties.
Yousaf, in his campaign, spoke of his willingness to raise taxes on the highest incomes to boost spending. Forbes on the other hand came out against any tax increases and argued that the party should present a more business-friendly face.
Progress on the SNP’s central platform seems stalled after the UK supreme court ruled last year that the Edinburgh parliament, where there is a pro-independence majority, cannot call a new referendum on the question. Humza Yousaf now faces a formidable task, particularly in replacing the highly popular Sturgeon. But he is at least a leader in the tradition of the SNP mainstream. A party led by Forbes would have risked the immediate departure of its Green coalition allies while being vulnerable in the longer term to an erosion of support among left-wing voters.