It was the fifteenth and final public debate of the brutal six-week contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon as Scottish National Party (SNP) leader. On Tuesday evening, the contenders, Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, filed into the Times Radio event in a corporate room six floors above George Street, the elegant commercial thoroughfare that bisects Edinburgh’s New Town.
The toll of the campaign, which has been marked by sharp exchanges, was etched on the faces of some candidates. Rank outsider Regan showed up at the last moment, looking tense. Front-runner Yousaf, Scotland’s health secretary who is seen as Sturgeon’s preferred heir, was pale and drawn, a shadow of the natural, charismatic campaigner of much of the contest.
Scotland’s 32-year-old finance secretary Forbes, meanwhile, arrived half an hour in advance of the other two and immediately worked the room. Afterwards, she was the last of them to leave. She moved around shaking hands, holding eye contact and making her business-friendly pitch with all the intensity of someone who knows it is now or never, as the race’s chequered flag looms.
Forbes was almost bounced out of the contest last month as soon as it began in a social media furore over her socially conservative views. Backers deserted her while the SNP establishment ranged up behind the left-leaning, socially progressive Yousaf. Forbes, who is on maternity leave from her post, believes her religious faith as an evangelical Christian was “weaponised” against her.
Since then, she was clawed back into contention with an insurgent campaign portraying Yousaf as an incompetent lightweight and the SNP as being out of touch on governance and ripe for change. In parallel, the party, for so long the most disciplined political machine in Britain, has been roiled in the final weeks of Sturgeon’s reign by scandals over its finances and resignations over a collapse in membership. This has complicated Yousaf’s messaging as the candidate of continuity, aiming to run the party and Scotland’s devolved government while also fighting for independence.
“The contest has been brutal and it has been personal,” Forbes told The Irish Times on Tuesday, speaking on the fringes of the Times Radio debate. She sounded sore over attacks on her values after she, unwisely, admitted weeks beforehand that she wouldn’t have voted for same-sex marriage.
“I was on the back foot from the beginning. I went straight from singing nursery rhymes to answering questions in the national media. You will have heard tonight the accusations that I made it personal [by attacking Yousaf]. But it was personal, and levelled at me, long before any TV debate.”
There is a paucity of reliable polling of the 72,000 SNP members who will elect the new leader. Most polls of SNP voters show Yousaf and Forbes neck-in-neck, while she is favoured by the wider electorate. Some party stalwarts, resentful of Forbes’s criticisms of the party, believe Yousaf will hang on to win next week.
At about 2pm on Monday, Scotland will find out the identity of its next first minister. If Forbes does manage to upset the odds to win, the SNP may be in for a shock as consequential as Sturgeon’s announcement last month that she was quitting.
Earlier this week, six hours before the Times Radio debate, Yousaf was more energetic at a campaign event at the Spartans football academy on the northern tip of Edinburgh. He is slicker and more charismatic than Regan or Forbes, who nonetheless has a better grasp of policy details.
Yousaf, a committed Celtic fan, was to have a kickabout with teens to highlight his pledge to give free football club memberships to kids from poorer families. Yet his advisers clocked a problem: the size nine boots they brought for Yousaf didn’t fit. A pair of size 10s were swiftly borrowed from Spartans. Not yet elected, but already too big for his boots.
The son of Pakistani immigrants, he is believed by some SNP insiders to have grown in leadership poise as the campaign has progressed, even as Forbes’s attacks over his stewardship of Scotland’s rickety health service have rained down. At the football event, one reporter even asked him what his “presidency” would be like. It was a Freudian slip, given Yousaf’s personality-driven campaign to become Scotland’s first minister.
He took to the Spartans football pitch to play on the right wing, in contrast with his political ideals. He engaged gamely in the banter. After one young footballer was upended nearby after failing with a flash attempt to control the ball, Yousaf roared: “That was always me when I played – the cocky git down the back who gets pegged.”
Still only 37, he was well off the pace in the match with the teens. “Maybe the nursery kids might be more his level,” joked a Spartans bystander. In a way, she was correct. Yousaf traipsed over to a nearby pitch to play football with three- and four-year-olds, displaying a jocular ease in their company and a common touch that is, although coveted, still uncommon in many seasoned politicians.
Yousaf’s pitch is to tax and spend more while also pursuing social issues such as transgender and immigrants’ rights. His self-styled progressive agenda comes wrapped in bellicose, if superficial, rhetoric about challenging the Westminster establishment for an independence referendum.
Overall, his pitch is not dissimilar to the one made by Sinn Féin to young voters in Ireland. He refused to be drawn on whether he would in future seek closer ties with that party, and he made a point of highlighting his admiration for president Michael D Higgins, a Labour grandee.
“Michael D has a deep love for Scotland and I hope he feels, and the Irish people feel, that has been reciprocated by our leadership. One of the first visits I’d like to do outside Scotland would be to the Republic,” he said.
Regan, meanwhile, has looked out of her depth in the campaign, which she has used to highlight her scepticism of the SNP’s pro trans-rights policies. If the race is tight, her transfers could prove crucial in helping either Yousaf or Forbes over the line in the single transferable vote contest. Scottish political insiders believe that if Yousaf doesn’t get close enough to a majority in the first round, Regan’s second preferences could give Forbes a chance. The truth is that nobody knows.
Regan has fended off accusations that she is too close to former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, who is Sturgeon’s former mentor-turned-nemesis. He fell out with her a couple of years ago and left to form the rival Alba party, a new force for Scottish independence.
This week he laughed off the accusation by Yousaf that he was “interfering” in the SNP contest. “It’s as if they think I’m standing over things, pulling the strings,” he told The Irish Times.
Salmond argues that the candidates were “plunged into a campaign” by Sturgeon’s hastily arranged exit, giving them no time to draft proper policies. This, he believes, was part of a “huge impetus” from party headquarters to get Yousaf elected. Inside the party, such accusations rankle. Yet Salmond described a succession of social media endorsements of Yousaf from SNP politicians who are close to Sturgeon as being like “hostage videos: some of them are reading from cue cards”.
He has “no idea” who will win and is suspicious of any polling. SNP’s membership is believed to be older and more male than its youthful activist base, which could favour Forbes. But, like much in this campaign, the detail is shrouded in mystery.
Whoever wins will have a big task to reunite what looks to be a party sharply divided over how to govern, and also what tactics to use to reinvigorate the stalled push for independence.
At the bottom of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, beyond the throngs of tourists in the Old Town, the European Union flag still flutters outside the Scottish Parliament. Inside, constitution minister Angus Robertson, who surprised many by not throwing his hat into the ring to replace Sturgeon, said that whoever wins, the SNP will still push for greater powers for Scotland and, eventually, a return to the EU after independence.
“We want to find a way back into the biggest single market in the world,” he said.
The English media has portrayed the SNP’s leadership debate as some sort of existential implosion. But Robertson argues, with some justification, that it would actually be seen as politically typical in most European countries. It is certainly no more raucous than recent Tory leadership battles.
With the SNP facing a challenge from a resurgent Labour in the next Westminster election, some believe the ambitious Robertson is holding back so he can bid to replace the next leader, who may stumble after replacing Sturgeon.
First, the SNP must get through the cliffhanger contest between Forbes and Yousaf. It is a choice of pure contrasts, a signal that suggests Scottish democracy remains as vibrant as any. From that, at least, both contenders could take solace.