The candidates seeking to replace Nicola Sturgeon at the head of the Scottish National Party and the First Minister of Scotland attacked each other in a heated televised debate that exposed tensions within the party.
The hostile tone of the debate on STV on Tuesday night suggests the SNP may struggle to restore unity in a party that has governed Scotland since 2007 and was, under Sturgeon, renowned for its discipline and unity in the pursuit of its objective of independence vis-à-vis the UNITED KINGDOM.
In the campaign’s first televised debate, Kate Forbes, the finance secretary, launched a scathing attack on the record of health secretary Humza Yousaf, the frontrunner who also won the support of most party heavyweights. Forbes suggested she wouldn’t keep him in his current position if she won.
“When you were transport minister the trains were never on time, when you were justice minister the police were at their wits end and now as health minister we have bad times. ‘record expectation,’ she told Hamza.
Forbes’ echo of rival party lines of attack on one of Sturgeon’s most senior government ministers will be welcomed by opposition leaders but could risk alienating some SNP supporters.
Sturgeon shock ad the last month that she would step down from a post she had held since 2014 sparked the independence party’s first leadership battle in two decades.
The contest focused on the party’s independence strategy after Sturgeon’s plan for a “de facto referendum” ran into opposition within the SNP. As Scotland’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Sturgeon held firm to the party.
Yousaf, who has held government posts since 2012, sought to cast himself as a candidate who would build on Sturgeon’s record and champion the socially and economically progressive direction of the party. Forbes and former SNP Community Safety Minister Ash Regan have presented themselves as candidates for change.
Regan, who resigned from government last year and is seen as the outsider in the leadership race, began his speech by saying the SNP had “lost its way”.
In her introductory remarks, Forbes, who has been finance secretary since the start of 2020 but has been on maternity leave since last summer, said she would offer Scotland a fresh start. “More of the same is not a manifesto, it’s an acceptance of mediocrity,” she said.
Yousaf hit back at Forbes’ attacks and suggested she had overstated her prowess and negotiating skills as finance secretary, saying she allowed the UK government to short Scotland hundreds of millions pounds in previous budget discussions.
He also said he was the only candidate to challenge Westminster’s decision to veto a Scottish law to allow trans people to legally change their gender.
Douglas Ross, leader of the opposition Scottish Conservatives, seized on Forbes’ suggestion that she would not keep Yousaf as health secretary if she wins the leadership election, which ends on March 27.
“They fought like Nats in a sack and the only thing they agreed on was independence and dividing the country again,” Ross tweeted.
Additional reporting by Mure Dickie in Edinburgh