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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

SNP leadership debate shows a party at war with itself

Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan went head-to-head on STV’s SNP leadership debate.
Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan went head-to-head on STV’s SNP leadership debate. Photograph: STV news/Youtube

It was billed as the first chance for candidates for Scottish National party leadership to speak directly to the country.

But at Tuesday’s first televised debate, after five fairly bland party hustings, the message the three prospective first ministers screamed loud and clear at Scotland was: “We are a party at war with ourselves.”

Those viewers more familiar with the disciplined, “family hold back” approach to public disagreement within the SNP would have been forgiven for adjusting their television sets as the often ferocious STV debate progressed.

The health secretary, Humza Yousaf, the so-called continuity candidate, warned that a Kate Forbes win would result in a “lurch to the right”.

The socially conservative finance minister, Forbes, took a swipe at her government’s record and, by extension, that of the incumbent first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, as she told viewers: “More of the same is not a manifesto – it is an acceptance of mediocrity.”

Ash Regan, who resigned her junior ministerial role in protest at her party’s gender recognition changes, started off simply but brutally: “The SNP has lost its way.”

The first TV debate revealed in vivid technicolour the extent of what all three candidates and their supporters understand all too well: the SNP is facing an existential moment that will define the direction of the party and success of the independence movement for decades to come.

But perhaps most crucially for SNP members watching, it also exposed an approach to the independence strategy from the two frontrunners, Forbes and Yousaf, that is arguably even more cautious than the one Sturgeon has until recently been derided for.

While Forbes declared herself the reset candidate, and Yousaf heavily underlined he was the only one of the three planning to challenge the Westminster block on Holyrood’s gender bill, they found themselves on remarkably similar ground, insisting on the need to build public support and win over the undecided.

It is little wonder that Regan accused both of being “wishy-washy” on independence. She went on to break entirely from previous strategy when she said another referendum was “not the gold standard” and that the matter should be decided by a general election.

Regan said other pro-independence parties that she had contacted earlier that day were “very excited” about her plans. No matter that the SNP government’s partners, the Scottish Greens, immediately insisted they had not heard from her.

Alex Salmond, the former first minister and now leader of Alba, confirmed he was “delighted” – which will do little to quell suggestions that he is the not-so-invisible hand guiding her campaign.

The fissures were particularly apparent during the segment when candidates were allowed to cross-examine one another. Forbes was cheerfully picking up opposition attack lines from first minister’s questions last week when she challenged Yousaf on his record in transport, justice and health: “What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?”

After Forbes haemorrhaged support within hours of launching her campaign when she confirmed that, as an evangelical Christian, she did not agree with same-sex marriage or having children outside marriage and was opposed to self-identification for transgender people, Yousaf hit back: “You’ve had many people, particularly from our LGBTQ community, say they won’t vote for independence if you are the leader. Forget persuading no voters, you can’t even keep yes voters.”

Given the rarity of seeing SNP politicians disagreeing with each other so openly, how will party members – who cast their ballots from next Monday – view such attacks?

As is the modern convention, the real-time debate was accompanied by an internet chorus, and it was immediately apparent who was having the best night, as the Scottish Labour party flooded social media with a series of lovingly constructed memes about “tartan Tory” Forbes, “no plan” Regan and Yousaf, “the worst health secretary since devolution”.

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