Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Humza Yousaf takes a massive policy gamble – Gordon Hector

Humza Yousaf’s first few weeks have hardly been quiet. Last week he added to the cacophony, by teeing up a big change in SNP social policy. 

The SNP has long trumpeted its universal benefits: free tuition, childcare, prescriptions, baby boxes, plus laptops, school meals, bicycles and bus transport for young people.

The First Minister signalled a new direction. He gave a statement saying “We need to consider whether targeting help is the way forward when money is so tight… the debate must now be about tax, targeting and tough choices.”

This is a fascinating intervention – and it’s worth unpicking just how significant it could be.

In policy terms, there’s really no need to make everything universal, or everything targeted. You can have a mix of systems sitting quite happily alongside each other, with the technical and ethical justification for targeting or universalism being pretty bespoke to each policy. Government always has spending limits, and various blends of tax and spending policy can be rational.

So on the face of it – this is just a mature statement of reality.

The problem for the SNP is that mature statements of reality are often terrible politics.

This is a lesson that opposition parties learnt and re-learnt under the SNP: universal benefits have huge symbolic power. You can make all the arguments you like about the best use of resources. Taking a policy in isolation, voters quite like the idea of targeting. Yet it doesn’t land because people don’t see policy detail. They see values. If they don’t trust your leader, your motives, or your overall credibility, your attack only ends up confirming their worst fears. 

This dynamic has played out time and time again since 2007 – whether it’s tuition fees, or prescriptions, or baby boxes. It’s frustrating for policy purists, but you have to meet voters where they are. You have to respect their right to judge you harshly and instantly.

So while it often makes for bad policy, there’s no denying it makes for good elections. The SNP’s basic pitch has been a core constitutional identity, buttressed by a projection of competent, feel-good policy. Primary colours, big brushstrokes of patriotism, niceness, being one of us. Universalism is the clearest distillation of that brand.

So it matters – a lot – if the SNP are now proposing something of a vibe shift. 

It’s odd, too. It makes sense for the SNP to try and look like the grown-ups in politics, and focus a bit on delivery. It also makes sense to try and talk about something – anything! – that isn’t arrests or motorhomes or missing funds.

But Yousaf’s statement was strangely lacking in a sense of narrative. It felt tactical. One-off. Random.

These things have to have some sort of overarching story to make sense. It’s the same lesson as the one opposition parties have learnt: you cannot see policy decisions in isolation, but only in terms of the wider offer and reputation you are projecting. That feels lacking from the Scottish Government.

It’s hard to avoid thinking, for example, that if Kate Forbes had won the SNP leadership, the exact same words would feel much less casual. You can switch hard to targeting and you can raise taxes, if it’s coherent with a wider gospel of fiscal savvy and operational grip.

But without that frame, the message lacks purpose. It’s tough choices, but without the toughness.

That just leaves – well, choices. And that means a very juicy opening-up of the policy debate.

For every campaigning organisation looking to win funding for their pet cause, it’s open season. If everything is a choice, anything is a choice.

For the right, there’s a sliver of a chance to detoxify. The language of touch choices is just quite Tory in feel. Appeals to target services are now just the same common sense that the First Minister offers. And there might even be a bit more bite to the tax rises Yousaf is clearly trailing – compared to almost zero political impact of tax rises in 2016-21.

And for Labour, there is now much more rhetorical space to outflank the SNP with a bit of vision and moral purpose. As important, the ground has shifted a notch away from the constitution, and towards domestic policy. That’s helpful for a Labour party that should want to win votes from either side of the Yes/No divide.

Maybe this is all a deliberate ploy by the SNP, and it’s setting a trap for the opposition to start making undeliverable demands.

But in doing so, the SNP has conceded one of its greatest powers: to set the agenda, and use the heft of government to define the limits of acceptable policy discourse. Universalism, tax, the whole question of who gets what – the FM himself now says it’s all up for debate. That just creates so much more space for others to define what comes next.

For the SNP, it’s a risk. For the opposition, it’s an opportunity. For observers, it’s a fine opportunity to see who’s really capable of seizing the moment.

Scotland’s policy debate is more open than ever: may the best politician win.

Gordon Hector is a policy consultant and former Director of Policy and Strategy for the Scottish Conservatives