Humza Yousaf’s Fall Leaves Scottish Nationalism in Crisis

Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, broke a coalition deal with the Greens under pressure from his own party’s right wing. Yousaf’s move sabotaged his own leadership and has weakened the already flagging cause of Scottish independence.

Scotland's first minister, Humza Yousaf, announcing his resignation at Bute House in Edinburgh, Scotland, on April 29, 2024. (Andrew Milligan / AFP via Getty Images)

Carl Jung believed that human behavior is governed from the shadows by a set of unconscious fears and desires working in constant tension against our own rationally acknowledged interests. In the future, psychology students will study the rapid collapse of Humza Yousaf’s leadership as a textbook case of Jungian self-destruction.

Ten days ago, Yousaf was at the head of a fractious yet relatively stable coalition administration. By noon on April 29, he had announced his intention to resign as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and first minister of Scotland.


The proximate cause of Yousaf’s downfall was his decision, on April 25, to terminate the so-called Bute House Agreement. This was the deal, struck by his predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon, in August 2021, that brought the Scottish Greens into government and established a functioning pro-independence majority at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh.

Yousaf’s decision blindsided the Greens, who, furious at their former ally, quickly joined with Scotland’s unionist parties — Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats — in calling for the first minister to go. Yousaf, apparently, hadn’t anticipated the ferocity of the Green response.

Nonetheless, the parliamentary arithmetic was clear. The SNP holds sixty-three out of Holyrood’s hundred twenty-nine seats. Opposition groups, including the parliament’s politically neutral presiding officer, Alison Johnstone, hold sixty-six. Slim from the start, Yousaf’s chances of survival were being systematically shut down.

As the reality of his situation set in, Yousaf panicked. On April 26, he canceled a speech in Glasgow and convened a media walkabout in his adopted home city of Dundee, with the aim of showcasing a “new” — in fact, repackaged — £80 million investment program in public housing. Instead, he was besieged by journalists demanding to know if and when he was going to resign.

Level of Hurt

On April 27, Yousaf sent a letter to Holyrood parliamentarians pleading with them to “contribute constructively” to his government. The letter was dismissed by the Conservatives as “humiliating and embarrassing.”

On April 28, Yousaf opened talks with his former SNP leadership rival Ash Regan, now sitting as the sole legislator for Alex Salmond’s anti-woke splinter party, Alba. Regan’s vote, together with that of Johnstone, could just tip the parliamentary balance back in Yousaf’s favor. But it would come at a price.

Regan and Salmond wanted Yousaf to abandon the socially progressive “identity agenda” he had pursued with the Greens in exchange for a stripped down “people’s agenda” focused on jobs, economic growth, and independence. In other words, Yousaf could prostrate himself before a party that rarely surpasses 2 percent in the polls, or he could lose his job.

By the morning of April 29, Yousaf’s defenestration was complete. Under pressure from the SNP hierarchy, he rejected Alba’s offer. A few hours later, he publicly conceded defeat.

By jettisoning the coalition agreement, “I clearly underestimated the level of hurt I caused Green colleagues,” Yousaf told a cluster of reporters inside his official residence in Edinburgh, the titular Bute House. “I have concluded that repairing the political divide can only be done with someone else at the helm.”

Thanking his family for their support, Yousaf choked up a little toward the end of his speech. Otherwise, the thirty-nine-year-old, a father of two whose Scottish-Palestinian in-laws had only recently escaped Israeli rocket fire in the Gaza Strip, seemed to breathe a deep sigh of relief.

A Makeshift Candidate

You could be forgiven for thinking that, on some level, Yousaf wanted out. When he initially ran for first minister thirteen months ago, he was a makeshift candidate, parachuted in to salvage the nationalist movement after Sturgeon’s abrupt — and, for most SNP members, unwelcome — departure in the spring of 2023. Had more senior figures in the party, not least constitution secretary Angus Robertson, put themselves forward, he probably would not have stood.

But he did and, from the outset, his inheritance was bleak. After sixteen turbulent and austerity-strained years in office, the SNP’s reputation as a safe center-left steward of Scotland’s public services was crumbling. In November 2022, the British Supreme Court ruled that Holyrood lacked the authority to stage a second referendum on separation from the UK, all but destroying the impetus at the heart of the independence campaign.

Most damagingly of all, in the weeks following Yousaf’s election last March, Sturgeon, her husband, Peter Murrell, and the SNP’s onetime treasurer, Colin Beattie, were all placed under investigation by Police Scotland as part of a bombshell corruption probe.

That probe is ongoing. With eerie synchronicity, on April 18, precisely one week before Yousaf blew up his pact with the Greens, Murrell was charged in connection with the embezzlement of party funds. More charges may yet materialize.

The scandal has dogged every move Yousaf has made over the past year — every half-baked public relations reset. Alongside the paralyzing inertia of the independence project, it is the primary driver of nationalism’s decline.

Right Turn Ahead

Throughout his short tenure, Yousaf made one mistake after another, sometimes with the support of the Greens, sometimes without. Higher education budgets were cut, major industrial assets left to shutter, environmental reforms ditched or watered down.

In October, without consulting his Green colleagues, Yousaf froze the Council Tax, effectively stripping Scotland’s local authorities of the ability to raise revenue. In April, he instructed his environment secretary, Màiri McAllan, to scrap Scotland’s “world-leading” carbon emissions targets.

Coalition tensions worsened with the publication of the Cass Report, which questioned the use of hormone suppressants for trans teenagers under the age of sixteen. Green co-convener Patrick Harvie disputed the report’s scientific credibility, while Yousaf, increasingly under the influence of centrist ex-Salmond adviser Kevin Pringle, was prepared to implement its recommendations.

By that point, however, the first minister’s authority was already fading due to a rising chorus of conservative criticism coming from within his own ranks. Had he not resigned this week, he certainly would have done so after the UK general election due to be held in the second half of this year. Polls suggest the SNP could lose twenty Scottish seats to Labour, reversing the extraordinary gains the party has made since its first, landmark election victory in 2007.

There is now a real risk that the SNP will embrace the darker political impulses it has sought, with considerable success, to repress over the last two or three decades. Specifically, the debate over reform of the Gender Recognition Act has become a fetish for older independence activists who would rather blame woke liberalism for the SNP’s electoral problems than accept that the fight for Scottish sovereignty has, for the time being, been lost.

Some of the rhetoric emanating from the nationalist right circles the discourse of Steve Bannon. In February 2023, Salmond attacked gender self-identification as a “daft ideology imported from elsewhere.” Fergus Ewing, Yousaf’s most prominent backbench critic, has railed against “extremely graphic” trans education classes being taught in Scottish schools.

With Yousaf on the way out — no official date has yet been set for his exit — Kate Forbes stands a realistic chance of becoming the next SNP leader. Or, at least, the next bar one.

When Forbes ran for the leadership against Yousaf last year, she claimed that media scrutiny of her religious beliefs — the Highland politician is an evangelical Protestant who opposes gay marriage and abortion — signaled a growing culture of secular intolerance in Scottish public life. Against Yousaf, a millennial Glaswegian and self-styled social democrat, she secured the backing of 48 percent of the SNP membership.

The strength of Forbes’s appeal should come as no surprise. Beneath its slick, focus-grouped facade, the SNP bears a deep Presbyterian identity, the product of its rural, petty-bourgeois roots. Its first batch of postwar leaders hailed from Scotland’s small towns and were contemptuous of Labour’s cosmopolitan socialism.

The party’s growing hostility toward “soft” social issues — including action on the climate; Forbes is an advocate of accelerated oil and gas drilling in the North Sea — is part of that provincial legacy. In the eyes of many SNP members, Yousaf’s failure discredits the superficially progressive platform championed by Sturgeon. Observers of the SNP should brace themselves for a sharp rightward turn.

The Swinney Stopgap

Before then, the party needs to find a new leader. Standing in Forbes’s way is former deputy first minister John Swinney, a shrewdly bipartisan figure capable of temporarily bridging nationalism’s bulging internal divides.

Swinney led the party for four years between 2000 and 2004 before resigning after a string of election losses. He has since reinvented himself as a softly spoken elder statesman of the independence movement, liked and respected even by the Scottish Greens, who indicated on Monday that they could work with him to pass legislation through the hung Holyrood parliament.

If Swinney takes charge, he will likely serve as leader on an interim basis, delaying Forbes’s ascent until after the UK election later this year or even the next Holyrood election in 2026. But Swinney’s candidacy can act only as a displacement tactic for a party palpably losing its grip on power and suffering from serious psychological fractures. Formally, the shadows will soon be running the show.