What does SNP debacle mean for retailers?

Humza Yousaf

The ongoing debacle following First Minister Humza Yousaf’s resignation means more chaos and uncertainty for local retailers at a time when the sector badly needs clarity.

By Antony Begley

They famously say that a week is a long time in politics, but it can be an even longer time in trade publishing. The problem with publishing a monthly title like SLR is that events can crop up just as you’re going to press and in the four or five days between sending a magazine to press and it landing with retailers, the narrative can change dramatically.

That’s the position we find ourselves in with this issue thanks to First Minister Humza Yousaf’s decision to step down just a day before we were due to go to press. What happens next is anyone’s guess but one thing is for sure: the developments will lead to yet more uncertainty and confusion for the local retailing sector at a time when what we desperately need is clarity.

As it stands right now, as we go to press, Yousaf has given his carefully worded resignation speech and the scramble to replace him is underway. The fact that Yousaf pointedly said he would remain as FM until a replacement is found was not a gesture of goodwill – it was carefully calculated. By not resigning with immediate effect, it meant that the 28-day countdown that the SNP have to find a new leader had not yet been triggered. In other words, he’s bought the SNP National Executive some time to get their ducks lined up.

As I write, the clear frontrunners are former party leader John Swinney and Kate Forbes, the woman who narrowly failed to defeat Yousaf in the last leadership contest, gaining 48% of the vote.

Her hardline Christian views, however, played a part in her undoing back then and may do so again. Usually described as an adherent of the ‘socially conservative Free Church of Scotland,’ Forbes has some views on subjects like same-sex marriage and abortion that many people with a more liberal outlook find offensive.

It’s also widely accepted that the Greens don’t seem too keen on her which may well be a factor, particularly as it looks likely that the Greens tail may well continue to wag the SNP dog, even after a new FM is in place.

Far more likely is that Swinney, an old safe pair of hands, will prevail but that comes with the usual caveat that anything is possible in politics.

So what does all this mean for local retailers in Scotland? Well, the most obvious conclusion is that, far from a settled, concerted and strategic approach to reinvigorating Scotland’s economy, we’re more likely to see political horse-trading, confusion and compromise as key issues take a back seat to party politics once more.

It’s probably uncontroversial to say that, strictly from a local retailer’s point of view, the impact of the Greens over the last couple of years hasn’t been universally welcomed. The most obvious example is the monumental mismanagement of the DRS affair. Very few people can hand on heart say that Greens Co-Leader Lorna Slater managed that episode particularly well. It’s too easy to say with hindsight, but I’ll say it anyway: if the SNP-Greens coalition had listened to the industry – to producers, wholesalers and retailers – the DRS scheme could have been in place by now in Scotland. Not everyone may have welcomed it, but we could have got it over the line. But those in power chose to refrain from engaging with industry in any meaningful way and ignored the long, long list of enormous and very practical, real-world challenges that stood in the way of making DRS happen. Bluntly, DRS was a flagship Greens policy and they were determined to get it done, regardless of reality. But reality has a nasty habit of getting in the way, as Slater found out the hard way.

There are many in our sector who didn’t take kindly to what they saw as Slater’s cold arrogance, so there were no doubt a few retailers permitting themselves a satisfied grin when Yousaf ended the Bute House agreement between the SNP and the Greens at the end of last month.

The problem here – and it’s a big one – is that the influence of the Greens is unlikely to be weakened by very much in the future. As The Metro told the FM on its front cover ‘You’ve only got Yousaf to blame,’ but the reality is probably a little more complex than that. The way he brutally ended the Bute House agreement had Slater and Co-Leader Patrick Harvie in apoplexy but it’s unlikely that Yousaf took that decision single-handedly.

With the Greens debating whether to move to end the agreement themselves after the SNP backed out of its climate change targets, Yousaf got his revenge in first, no doubt hoping to demonstrate bold decision-making in an attempt to prevent the next few months being dominated by politics when he had a whole lot of other real-world problems to be getting on with.

That clearly backfired in spectacular fashion and the tabled vote of no confidence in the leader was enough to bring the house down. Harvie said he would back the motion and the arithmetic of Holyrood meant that Yousaf needed one vote to be confident of surviving the vote of no confidence. His only hope was, ironically, Alba’s Ash Regan, a former SNP member. Regan and party leader Alex Salmond enjoyed 48 hours in the media spotlight, touting themselves as kingmakers and issuing a no doubt lengthy list of demands to Yousaf in return for their support.

Yousaf’s resignation speech, however, included an oblique reference to not betraying his principles, which effectively put Regan back in her box. To bring us right up to date, Labour also proposed a vote of no confidence in the Government itself, rather than just its leader. If that had gone through and been supported, it would trigger an election up here – but in reality, very few would welcome that. Scotland has a fixed-term election system so, even if an election was triggered, we’d still be doing it all over again in 2026 when the next election comes around. Harvie quickly snuffed out that prospect, however, by saying that the Greens wouldn’t back the motion if it was tabled.

And here we get to the real crux: by not backing that proposal, the Labour vote of no confidence is dead in the water. Harvie made it clear that he wanted to revive the Greens’ relationship with “by far and away the biggest political party in Scotland”. It was just Yousaf that he didn’t fancy. So while Bute House is no more, it looks very much like the Greens tail may indeed continue to wag the SNP dog. If Swinney does become FM, it’s likely he will do a better job of working with those across the Chamber at Holyrood, but the fact will remain that he’ll be leading a minority government. The support of the Greens will arguably be more critical than ever.

It has been clear for some time that many in the SNP were getting a little tired of the arguably disproportionate influence that the Greens were having on the coalition’s policy making. For many of the party faithful, issues like DRS, gender identity, housing insulation and rent capping may all be very important, but they should have been much further down the government’s priority list given the chaos that surrounds us on grand-scale issues like economics, health and education.

So is this a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’? Very possibly. While the SNP themselves, Labour and the Tories all have different approaches to how to treat the key issues of the day, they at least agree to a greater or lesser extent on what those issues are. The Greens’ agenda is unique in that sense and stands to one side on mainstream politics.

With a UK General Election on the horizon, it’s likely that these big issues will come to the fore once again. Sort the economy, cut waiting lists, refocus on education. Those sorts of things. And many would agree that those are indeed the sorts of things we should be focusing on.

The risk in Scotland is that a minority government that has to go cap in hand to the opposition to get every piece of legislation passed will end up with another series of compromises and agreements achieved through political horse-trading. That’s far from an ideal scenario when decisive, difficult decision-making is required to get Scotland back on its feet. In a sense the Greens have nothing to lose by leveraging their outsized influence in this unique period in history to pursue their own agenda. They are perfectly entitled to do so, of course, because we thankfully live under a democracy. But a democracy naturally entails cross-party deal-making and compromise and favours and secret meetings. As Winston Churchill once famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others.”

So what will it mean for local retailers? Confusion and lack of clarity, for sure, but don’t count against yet more poorly considered legislation, drafted without proper consultation with the industry.

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This website contains images and information relating to tobacco products. Please do not view if you are under 18 years of age.

This publication contains images and information relating to tobacco products. Please do not view if you are under the age of 18 years old.