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The most surprising thing about Humza Yousaf’s win in the Scottish National party leadership election is how narrow his margin of victory actually was. Although the outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did not formally endorse him, her deputy as well as the majority of the party’s parliamentarians did, making it obvious that he was the preferred choice of the SNP’s ruling establishment. This perception was only enhanced by the curious strategic decision of his two rivals to effectively accuse said establishment of rigging the contest on Yousaf’s behalf.

The SNP is a famously loyal and well-disciplined party, not only at a parliamentary level but also among the grassroots. They have consistently voted for the leadership’s preferred motions on the floor of the SNP conference, seeing off an attempt to force the party into a more radical strategy for securing Scottish independence in 2019, and confirming the coalition agreement negotiated by Nicola Sturgeon in 2021.

The modern party is one built in Sturgeon’s image. Almost all political parties start to resemble their leaders over time, as discontented activists leave and are replaced by supporters. That is why Keir Starmer ran for the Labour leadership in 2020 promising a more competent version of Corbynism, and why, now he has moved Labour significantly to the right of where it stood in 2019, an avowed Corbynite is unlikely to win the next leadership election.

The winning SNP strategy was always likely to be “I’m the new Nicola Sturgeon”, and so it has proved. But in the end, compared to the thumping victories that the party leadership enjoyed in 2019 and 2021, Yousaf’s 52.1 per cent of the vote to the 47.9 per cent of Kate Forbes, Scottish finance minister, was a narrow win.

That is a reflection of many things, not least Yousaf’s own limitations as a candidate. While emulating Sturgeon’s style is a good strategy if your aim is to maintain the SNP as Scotland’s largest party, her leadership failed to make significant inroads into the ranks of people who voted to stay part of the United Kingdom in 2014. The SNP has also developed political difficulties among the voters who backed independence but favour a continuing breach with the EU. Yousaf was almost certainly the best available candidate for retaining the support of the 45 per cent of Scots who have powered the SNP to so many electoral victories since 2014. However he offered no plausible account of how to achieve the large and steady lead for change that many now think represents the independence movement’s only chance of securing another referendum.

His own administrative record cannot have helped. In a long ministerial career, his only distinguishing trait has been failure: he has been blamed by some for the faltering ferry services and the shortcomings of Police Scotland, both of which fell under his previous briefs. He is both well-known by the Scottish electorate and not well liked.

But Yousaf’s narrow win reflects a changing mood within the SNP. The party has spent much of the past few weeks watching Forbes attack the Sturgeon government’s record with a pace and ferocity that would be more commonly found from the opposition. Although this contributed to her loss, it also found a ready audience within the SNP.

The party’s failed attempt to change the process of securing a gender recognition certificate — the document that changes your legal gender in the United Kingdom — turns out to have been the most significant public policy proposal it has put forward since it entered government in 2007. Not because it has dislodged the party in the polls — at time of writing, it still enjoys a healthy lead — or even because it forced Sturgeon to leave office earlier than expected: her departure had more to do with controversies about how the SNP is run.

No, the gender recognition reforms were significant because they broke the internal taboo on public expressions of disagreement. Like any other political party, the SNP has not been without ideological and strategic divisions in private, but unlike other parties they have been able to keep these firmly hidden from view. Now they have gone from keeping their fractures — on everything from a preferred currency after independence to an independent Scotland’s relationship with Nato — out of sight, to bitter divisions in public over almost everything.

Yousaf will hope that his party will now unite behind him and once again discover the value of loyalty. But the more likely outcome is that the SNP’s newfound addiction to schism is only getting started.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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