The Yousaf Parable – lessons from the SNP in government for Stormont’s liberals…

David Morrow previously worked at Stormont and has a Masters in Public Policy. He is writing in a personal capacity.

It’s been a busy 2024 for devolved governments, and it’s not just the return of Stormont. In Scotland, the SNP are about to embark on a second leadership contest in little more than a year following the resignation of Humza Yousaf as First Minister. Meanwhile in Wales, after 6 years in charge Mark Drakeford was replaced by Vaughan Gething as First Minister and Welsh Labour leader in March.

The challenge in government for Welsh Labour and the SNP has been similar – how to govern as left-leaning liberals with tight budgetary constraints imposed by an at best indifferent and at worst hostile Westminster. How they have gone about it respectively offers important lessons for their governing counterparts in Stormont – most obviously Alliance but also arguably Sinn Fein and the UUP (admittedly the UUP could only be considered left-leaning or liberal relative to other Unionist parties, which isn’t saying much).

It’s true to say that neither the SNP nor Welsh Labour have much to shout about in terms of what should always be the priority of devolved governments – management of public services. Scotland has fallen down international league tables for schools while making little progress elsewhere. Statistics on waiting times in the Welsh NHS are about all the Tories can offer nationally as evidence for why the Labour Party in power would make the health service worse not better.

With little positive to say on public services (or the transformation thereof) both parties have found controversy following legislative proposals that would traditionally be considered “green”. And it is their different approaches here that is most informative for Stormont’s liberals.

In Scotland, the SNP led by Sturgeon and then Yousaf (the continuity candidate in the 2023 leadership contest) have gone all guns blazing into the culture wars. Much of their recent time in office has been focused on transgender services for young people and hate crime legislation.

This has been an error. By letting the Green Party tail (vote share at election < 10%) wag the SNP dog, the SNP in government has come to look out of touch with the primary concerns of the majority of Scottish voters, while finding itself promoting legislation on social issues increasingly at odds with wider public opinion.

Stormont’s liberals should not make the same mistake. Engaging in culture wars while public services are falling apart will look at best misaligned with the electorate’s priorities, and at worst will push the parties into positions that may play well with some members on Twitter but are not well supported at large.

There is a proven alternative. As First Minister of Wales for 6 years, the softly-spoken Mark Drakeford managed to lead a left-leaning liberal devolved administration without being sucked into and driven by culture-war politics. He was credited as a reasonable man doing his best as leader in tough circumstances, remaining relatively popular to the end of his tenure before resigning on his own terms.

And when Welsh Labour has been radical in government, at least it has been in the right places. The 20mph speed limit policy may not survive public opinion, but its aims in reducing road deaths, encouraging active travel, and making streets safer for kids to play on, are important and worthwhile.

They also show genuine action on the urgent issue of climate change – politically difficult but necessary measures for a transition. Far superior to the Scottish government’s approach of setting unreachable targets for short-term political purposes, being unable (and unwilling) to get anywhere close to them, and then watching on as the political hens come home to roost.

The early signs from Stormont in the months since its return are concerning. With budgetary deadlock and little evidence of significant movement on public service reform, we’re entering Westminster election season in NI with battle lines being drawn at Stormont on RSE and Hate Crime – important issues, but not more important than the issues which more than anything were the rallying cries for the return of Stormont in the first place – our crumbling public services.

On the environment, there is a 0% chance that Stormont will meet its self-imposed 2030 climate budgets from the 2022 Climate Change Act – which looked good when wiping out the Green Party at the last devolved election but suffer from the minor inconvenience of being totally unrealistic to achieve (and not a single significant step has been proposed in the three months since Stormont has returned to even try). The fall-out when it comes may be less great as these are budgets that can be rolled over and not targets as they were in Scotland, but credibility will still take a hit.

Mark Drakeford left Welsh Labour in reasonable shape – a quiet transition and still leading comfortably in the polls. Sturgeon and Yousaf, less so: cratering support and internal party chaos within the SNP.

Stormont’s liberals should take note. It is possible to be successful and left-leaning in a devolved government under the current circumstances if you avoid being led by culture-war politics, target where you’re going to propose radical change in the right areas, and above all ensure that in what you’re saying and doing you relentlessly focus on your number one priority – management of public services.

The SNP approach is a political cul-de-sac, and the speed at which they crumbled from untouchable pre-eminence is an important cautionary tale.

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