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Scotland’s new first minister should govern for all Scots

It is a mark of Nicola Sturgeon’s impact on Scottish and UK politics that the contest to succeed her as Scotland’s first minister has drawn interest far beyond British shores. Yet the outgoing Scottish National party leader’s achievement in entrenching support for independence at a little under 50 per cent was not matched by her record in government. The fixation with sovereignty squandered a political dominance that could have been used to more positive effect. Her successor Humza Yousaf should focus less on picking arguments with Westminster and more on effective governance. By proving it can deliver real policy successes, the SNP would enhance its cause. More important, it is what Scots, including the majority who still want to be part of the UK, deserve.

Yousaf, whose grandfather brought his father to Scotland from Pakistan, was the favoured choice of the SNP establishment. His victory, though narrow, represents broad continuity with the Sturgeon years, not the disruption that would have ensued had the more socially conservative Kate Forbes prevailed. Yousaf will, though, struggle to impose his authority after a rancorous election. For the wider electorate, a man who has held the health, justice and transport portfolios is also strongly associated with the SNP’s mediocre record, as Forbes chose repeatedly to point out.

One wing of his party favours a more urgent push for independence. Scotland’s problems, they claim, stem mainly from being shackled to the UK and can be solved only by taking control of its own destiny. Yet most in the SNP mainstream recognise that argument is flawed. It will not win over the moderate voters the party will need, moreover, if independence is one day to triumph in a referendum.

Westminster’s refusal to allow a second plebiscite so soon after 2014’s vote means independence is not on the immediate agenda. A wiser course, and more beneficial to Scots, is to show the party can deliver real results. During his campaign, Yousaf rightly eschewed Sturgeon’s plan to turn the next UK general election into a “de facto” referendum. He should keep his pledge in victory to govern for all citizens.

Health, high among Scots’ priorities, is one area for focus. The Scottish government’s room for manoeuvre is limited by spending decisions taken in London. Yet though NHS Scotland’s record is not wildly different from that south of the border, managing its health service to deliver superior outcomes within the resources available would be proof of real competence. Public health more broadly still lags behind England’s own deteriorating performance. Sturgeon’s plan for a National Care Service, which could relieve pressure on hospitals, remains unrealised. In education, too, the outgoing first minister leaves office without having achieved a central aim to close the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils.

Progress in these areas could help fend off a resurgent Labour party ready to seize on any SNP weakness to try to re-establish itself north of the border. Whether Yousaf’s government succeeds or not, however, supporters of the UK union cannot rest on their laurels. The temporising strategy of recent Conservative UK governments has bought time for now but offers no long-term solution to the urge to Scottish sovereignty.

With polls showing support for independence swelling especially among young voters, making the union function better and appear more responsive to the aspirations of Scots, as well as of the Welsh and Northern Irish, will be vital in any case. It will be even more so if Yousaf’s government does manage to exceed the somewhat low expectations currently being placed upon it.

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