Scottish independence is a high stakes game for Humza Yousaf - but it's a price he may be willing to pay

15 September 2023, 20:15

It's a high stakes game for Yousaf.
It's a high stakes game for Yousaf. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Marching her party members to the top of the hill only to march them down again, was something Nicola Sturgeon was accused of on numerous occasions when she led the SNP.

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That promise of an independence referendum out there somewhere over the next hill kept the faithful happy - for most of the time anyway.

But if Nicola Sturgeon was the SNP's Grand Old Duke of York, Humza Yousaf appears to have cast himself as the party's very own Lord Cardigan, prepared to charge directly into a constitutional battle after the next General Election.

In a motion to his party conference next month he says if the SNP wins just one more MP than any other party, it would trigger negotiations to "give democratic effect to Scotland becoming independent" with whomever sits in No10. Never mind winning the hearts and minds of the majority of Scots, never mind if the SNP brigade in Westminster is far lighter than at present - and polls suggest it could lose 20 of its current crop of MPs reducing its numbers by almost half, no, the only thing that matters for a mandate is to have one more MP than his rivals.

And to be clear, that's not a mandate for asking for another referendum, but to start the process of leaving the UK.

There are many words to describe this approach. Radical, brave, foolhardy, undemocratic depending who you ask ... or how about the ones used by veteran SNP MP Pete Wishart? He told LBC this idea was neither credible or realistic, and would likely not be accepted on the international stage. A blow for a party which wants to take an independent Scotland into the EU.

So he will be seeking to amend his party leader's big plan from the conference floor. His plan though, which is supported by other SNP MPs including Joanna Cherry and Douglas Chapman, is just as radical/foolhardy delete as you deem appropriate.

They want to use the General Election as a defacto referendum, which would need the SNP and other pro-independence parties to win 50 per cent plus one of the share of the vote and that, they say, would mean that Scots had "voted to become an independent country with immediate effect."

A lot of all of this hangs on the fact that the SNP believes that putting in the first line of its manifesto that a vote for them equals a vote for Scotland to become an independent country. No ifs or buts. Forget any other reason why someone might choose to vote for Yousaf's party (for instance they're the only real opposition to the Conservatives in some Scottish seats), he believes that this one line is all the clarity Scots need.

Both his and Wishart's motions are huge gambles for the SNP. Critics of the party say they're just doing the same as Nicola Sturgeon did - stirring the base, making sure independence voters turn out, and that they don't perhaps "waste" a vote on other smaller pro-independence parties. Supporters are just delighted that they can allow themselves to believe there's a way out of the constitutional cul-de-sac - they will charge into the valley they believe has opened up before them.

But just what happens when their irresistible force meets the immoveable object of the UK government has never been answered by Yousaf. If the SNP does get one more MP than other parties and the UK government just shrugs, what then?

Wishart believes he has an answer - the SNP would withdraw its MPs from Westminster, convene a National Assembly and "begin to take forward the establishment of Scotland as an independent nation." But the Supreme Court made it very clear last year that the constitution is reserved to Westminster. Again, going against the law as it stands would surely bring about the same credibility issues on the international stage that Pete Wishart is so concerned about with Yousaf's plan.

The SNP is in checkmate. Without a legal "gold standard" referendum any other move can be ignored by the UK government - even worse, Yousaf's plan could generate real unrest in Scotland.

Of course the whole idea could backfire spectacularly, stirring up voters who want to stay in the UK to lend their votes to whichever party will absolutely stop the SNP from winning a seat. SNP losses could go beyond the 20 mark, and where would that leave Yousaf and his leadership?

It's a high stakes game for him, but might be a price he and the delegates at the SNP conference agree they want to pay given they are no further forward in securing their goal than they were in 2014. They've cannons to the left and to the right of them and they are ready to charge, with Humza Yousaf leading the way.