Whatever your politics, it is undeniable that Nicola Sturgeon has been a commanding figure in Scottish politics for two decades. For good reason many suggest that she is the preeminent politician of the devolution era. She will be a hard act to follow, for sure.
But those hoping that a change of leadership will spell disaster for the SNP, and that support for independence will crumble away, shouldn’t count their chickens yet.
The aspiration that Scotland should become a normal independent country and reset its relationship with the rest of the UK isn’t just a phase. It is an ambition which has registered sustained levels of support among half the population for several years – and enjoys even greater support among voters under fifty years old. The SNP is not the reason people support independence. The desire for independence is the reason there is an SNP.
There is no denying that confidence has been knocked by sustained attacks on the right of people in Scotland to decide their own future. For example, despite continually voting for representatives on a pledge to deliver another independence referendum, those mandates have been denied and blocked by Westminster.
As a result, frustration and anger have ensued which has undoubtedly fractured the wider Yes movement. However, it hasn’t made anyone who thought Scotland becoming an independent country was a good idea suddenly decide it’s a bad one.
So, the challenge for the new leader of the SNP is to galvanise and unite the movement for change. That means building on the strong foundations for independence which have been laid over the last twenty years. But it also means reaching out to engage with new people and harness new ideas.
To my mind, Humza Yousaf is the person who can meet that challenge. Despite his relative youth, he has more than a decade’s experience in high office. In that time, Humza has handled some of the toughest jobs in government, briefs that many others would have shied away from.
Humza is also seasoned grassroots campaigner, who knows how to motivate and lead people on the ground. I remember when he came to campaign for me during the 2019 general election. His energy and enthusiasm were clear to see.
Some have referred to Humza as the “continuity candidate”, implying that there will be no change from the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. That’s inaccurate.
Sure, the Scottish Government will continue to deliver on the manifesto it was elected on. However, as leader of Scotland’s largest political party, Humza will bring with him a fresh approach in how the SNP organises, communicates, and engages with our base. This is essential if we are to unlock new levels of engagement.
With a change in leadership also comes the opportunity to reset political strategy. It will allow us time to think about how we deliver a credible roadmap to independence, and to shift the debate from process to policy. In doing so, we must set aside the idea of using the next Westminster election as a de facto referendum, and instead use each democratic event to advance the case for independence.
With this approach, we can build support to levels that cannot be ignored and demonstrate majority support for independence. Only then we can definitively say that independence has become the settled will of the Scottish people. Only then will we achieve it.