Humza Yousaf does not have his troubles to seek.
Yesterday afternoon, he presented his government’s prospectus for the next three years, Equality, Opportunity, Community in the Scottish Parliament, but his big announcement has undoubtedly been overshadowed by the arrest of one of his MSPs, the SNP Treasurer, in connection with the ongoing police investigation into his party’s finances.
Elected as a continuity candidate, Yousaf now finds himself in the invidious position of having to manage a damaging crisis in his party while he is yet to really establish his authority as First Minister. He rather urgently needs to show he has a firm grasp of the challenges he faces while putting some distance between himself and his predecessor. Today’s prospectus, rather optimistically subtitled ‘New leadership - a fresh start’, does at least signal a significant shift in tone and emphasis, even if the substance of that is as yet untested.
Yousaf’s three-pillared approach is most notable for its explicit recognition that stable and sustainable public finances will require growing the economy and by extension the tax base; creating good quality jobs and boosting productivity will be key to improving living standards and providing high quality public services. The prospectus makes clear: “we must grow the economy … and seize the opportunities of net zero”, a statement of intent that should offer some reassurance to the business community that the government is serious about strengthening the economy and understanding their needs.
While the aspirations for the energy sector are not new, the fresh prioritisation placed on them, and the commitment to a ‘new deal’ with business more generally indicate that the government is in listening mode. This is not insignificant given that the consultation on the Scottish Government’s energy strategy is still open. Maybe as a gesture of good faith, Yousaf has also pressed the pause button on the controversial Deposit Return Scheme, delaying its implementation until March 2024 to allow ‘work to address concerns’; likewise, contentious plans for alcohol advertising have been sent ‘back to the drawing board’. He has nothing to lose by jettisoning unpopular policy initiatives at this juncture.
A different nuance is also evident in relation to social policy, with a stronger focus on public service delivery and a suggestion that scarce resources may be more carefully targeted in future policy direction. The announcement that local government may acquire more ability to tailor property taxation to local needs could be a useful lever to help address housing shortages and chronic key worker recruitment challenges in some areas if implemented in combination with other measures.
Lastly, the presentation of the prospectus itself suggests a more collegiate approach to government, perhaps a welcome sign that Yousaf intends to give his Cabinet Secretaries more profile and scope to lead than has been the case in recent years. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating though, and the extent to which this prospectus will translate into any real change in direction remains to be seen.
Eilidh Whiteford is a former SNP MP for the Banff & Buchan constituency and is now a Senior Adviser at strategic consultancy firm True North.