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Humza Yousaf giving his resignation speech.
Alamy/PA/Andrew Milligan

Scotland’s government fell apart in a week – here’s what happened

Contrary to popular belief, coalition governments are generally stable and usually last their full term. What has unfolded in Scotland therefore requires some explaining. Broadly, first minister Humza Yousaf, of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), abruptly terminated an agreement with his governing partners, the Scottish Greens, before they had a chance to do the same. The move backfired almost immediately and Yousaf ended up resigning.

But how did he get into this situation in the first place?

In the Scottish election of 2021, the SNP won 64 out of 129 seats in parliament – one shy of an overall majority. A minority government was a feasible option (and had been how the SNP governed following similar results in 2007 and 2016). However, the party, under then-leader Nicola Sturgeon, chose instead to form a coalition with the Greens. The Greens are also supportive of Scottish independence and had collaborated frequently with the SNP in the 2016-2021 parliament. While this term had not been a disaster, the SNP had grown tired of seeking opposition support for every bill and yearned for the certainty of a coalition.

From the Greens’ perspective, too, a coalition made sense. The SNP’s one-seat gain meant an effective government-opposition tie in parliament, diminishing the ability of opposition parties to influence legislation. An agreement seemed the best chance for impact. The two parties therefore drew up the Bute House agreement – a loose coalition which included junior ministerial positions for the Greens and a shared policy platform, but substantial opt-outs.

What went wrong?

Things began to go wrong for the coalition in February 2023, after the fall of Sturgeon. Her sudden departure removed a linchpin from the party and left no clear successor. A dearth of talent at the top of the SNP was exposed and the leadership campaign ended up in a close match between Yousaf (as the “Sturgeonite” social democratic candidate) and former finance minister Kate Forbes. Forbes represented the party’s right wing, which was hostile to the Greens as too economically leftist and socially libertarian (especially on transgender rights), arguing that their positions alienated voters. Yousaf eked out a narrow victory and the Greens agreed to continue in office.

Two politicians speaking into microphones.
The Scottish Greens leaders hold a press conference after the coalition deal collapsed. Alamy/SST

Although Yousaf remained committed to the Bute House agreement initially, he was faced (unlike Sturgeon) with very vocal internal criticism of it. Meanwhile, the SNP turmoil had breathed new life into the Scottish Labour party, making them a meaningful threat for the first time in a long time.

The leadership election had exposed deep rifts in the SNP and emboldened right-leaning critics of the deal. Increasingly, the SNP began to act unilaterally. A key example was the scrapping of proposed reforms to council tax in October 2023, following a Labour by-election victory. A spooked Yousaf returned to the SNP’s previous policy of council tax freezes (despite a spiralling local government funding crisis), leaving a trail of angry Greens in his wake.

During this period the SNP leadership seems to have taken onboard media and opposition narratives that the Greens’ policies and presence in government were dragging down the SNP’s poll ratings. But this isn’t really true – the voters saying the greens have “too much influence” tend to be those already voting for the Conservatives. Independence voters are largely socially liberal and left leaning, and have trended more so since 2016.

This narrative also overlooks the huge hit to the SNP’s reputation from a string of scandals, as well as growing failings in the NHS and cost of living issues.

Why did Yousaf resign?

The immediate trigger for the crisis came on April 18, when the government announced it was scrapping the highly ambitious climate targets written into the Bute House agreement, again with seemingly minimal consultation with the Greens. For the Green membership, that was the final straw. Party co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater announced they would ask Green members to vote in May on whether the party should continue in the coalition.

Yousaf could have chosen to let this play out and have the Greens take the hit for withdrawing from government. Voters don’t normally take kindly to parties precipitating government instability, and the Greens have a built-in reputation as a party not suited to government.

Instead, mystifyingly, Yousaf chose to ditch the Greens before they had chance to ditch him. Seemingly, he must have imagined that this would make him look decisive and that it would give the impression that he had calculated that the Greens would return happily to their 2016-21 role as a friend but not partner to the governing party.

If this was his intention, it is bizarre that he made no effort to negotiate an end to the coalition and sound out the Greens on a looser arrangement. He instead briefly informed them of the agreement’s termination. Not entirely unreasonably, the smaller party was apoplectic.

When the Conservatives tabled a motion of no confidence in Yousaf, the mistake was clear. With parliamentary arithmetic as it was, the Greens now held his fate in their hands. If they joined the opposition in voting in favour of the motion – which they swiftly confirmed they would – he would be forced to stand down.

The only way for Yousaf to secure his position would be to strike a deal with the only MSP from former SNP-leader Alex Salmond’s Alba Party – something which he could not countenance. A day later, Scottish Labour tabled a second vote of no confidence – this time in the government as a whole. The consequences of this passing would be even more severe for the party as a whole, and Yousaf was left with little choice.

With the Yousaf-era ending, speculation is now rife over his successor. John Swinney, a key figure under Sturgeon, is rapidly emerging as the frontrunner. In many ways, his appointment would shows lessons learnt from Yousaf – he would be a leader with a recognised track record of ministerial competence and political nous.

John Swinney, pictured on the street.
John Swinney: next in line? Alamy

But while Swinney may restore some of the SNP’s much-tarnished reputation for governing competence, the problem of securing reliable parliamentary allies has not been faced. The Greens were understandably cautious about entering a full coalition in 2021, but arguably the looser agreement they made left them without the ability to control the direction of government. They must think carefully if they are faced with the choice again.

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