On Monday, Humza Yousaf succeeded Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland following a bruising leadership contest that exposed deep divisions within the SNP over the future direction of the party. Having defeated chief rival Kate Forbes by a narrow 52% to 48% margin, it is clear a large portion of the SNP is no longer united around anything other than the (far-off) quest for Scottish independence and, as a result, Yousaf will now face a huge challenge uniting the party. Yousaf campaigned as the ‘continuity candidate’, pledging to continue the centre-left, socially inclusive agenda of the Sturgeon era. Forbes, on the other hand, was highly critical of Sturgeon and Yousaf’s record as a minister in her governments. Forbes was defined by her socially conservative beliefs, with her plans to drop Sturgeon’s commitment to fight Westminster’s veto on the Holyrood gender recognition reform bill in the courts causing controversy, even if her policy was supported by a majority of Scots. Yousaf’s first opportunity to unite the party was the formation of his cabinet. However,Yousaf has already fallen at the first hurdle as Kate Forbes turned down his offer for the (low-octane) position of Minister for Rural Affairs, deciding instead to leave the government. If Humza Yousaf had been able to successfully work in government with previous leadership rivals it would have automatically eased tensions and offered important acknowledgement to the rival wing of his party. Additionally, a successful working relationship between Yousaf and Forbes could have provided a model of collaboration for how the party can successfully navigate differences in opinions over key policy issues, including the Scottish government’s response to the UK blocking the gender recognition reform bill The gender clash was a significant flashpoint in the leadership campaign given the growing feeling of ‘independence fatigue’ within the party. Yousaf has already shown a more conciliatory approach to this policy issue throughout the leadership campaign by backing away from his commitment to challenge the ruling by saying he will be guided by legal advice. However, he will have to continue to navigate this issue sensitively if he wishes to maintain some semblance of party unity. Ultimately, the key policy area that will need careful manoeuvring is Scottish independence, the SNP’s raison d’être. Absent the dual binding factor of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, the issue of Scottish independence has increasingly become a tension point. Given the totemic importance of independence to the party, it would be wise for the First Minister to avoid engaging proactively with Scottish succession until he has secured full control of a fractured party.
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