In the green room at the penultimate SNP leadership hustings, the tension between the candidates was palpable. The silence was punctured by Humza Yousaf’s entrance and then the occasional joke that followed between Yousaf and Forbes. Notably, upon her arrival, Ash Regan requested to prepare in a separate room. Both candidates made light of recent media speculation about themselves with Forbes asserting that she requires daily convincing to stay in the race – although this was perhaps an attempt to disarm her opponent.
The hustings itself provided little by way of diversity in the topics covered in the previous debates, addressing recent operational issues before moving on to independence, health, the cost of living crisis, sustainability, and gender reform. Of note, each candidate took a more collegiate approach to previous hustings, which may be in response to recent criticism and the turbulence at the weekend.
As expected, the recent party membership scandal coloured the opening of the debate, with Regan seemingly intent throughout to prove that she had previously highlighted potential issues, whilst also being the most heavily critical of the SNP’s internal structures.
All candidates have vowed to get to the bottom of the issue of the party’s rapidly declining membership. Most interestingly, however, is the U-turn Forbes appears to have done on her previous calls to re-examine the voting process, perhaps indicating that she thinks she is in with a shot at Scotland’s top political job despite consistently polling behind Yousaf. It’s possible that her team is taking heart from the assumption that she is a second preference to Regan supporters, who is currently 14% and 20% behind Yousaf and Forbes respectively with little chance of catching them up.
Notably, Scottish independence has felt like a somewhat secondary issue to most of the topics that have led the debate. It reads as if candidates have recognised that a hard-line campaign based on Independence wasn’t going to cut it and a referendum at all-costs approach is not the right way to go.
Speaking to other SNP party members, who have felt that the issues surrounding gender reform and equal rights, as well as the recent membership scandal, have muddied the waters and distracted candidates from some of the most pressing issues facing the nation. There are many members left unsatisfied with the lack of focus within this debate placed on what specific measures these candidates propose to achieve their mandates and lots are yet to cast their vote as a result.
The SNP is undoubtedly at a crossroads. Whoever takes up the mantle as SNP leader and by default, the First Minister will represent a changing of the guard and will set the party on a new path. Right now, it is hard to see how the SNP in its current form, amid recent internal turmoil and a divisive leadership race, can sustain its success and unite to deliver something as significant as Independence. Some party members may not have cared for Nicola Sturgeon, but up until recently, most seemed to agree she was the right person for the job.
With just a single hustings to go until polls close at noon on Monday 27th March, and polling putting Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes within a few percentage points of each other, it is all still to play for.