Coming into 2023, Nicola Sturgeon remained the dominant figure in Scotland’s political landscape. While frictions within her party were becoming more obvious and public, nothing suggested an implosion was imminent. A few short weeks later, though, and she was gone, triggering an acrimonious SNP leadership contest, the scars from which remain vivid and angry.
Nicola Sturgeon’s anointed successor, Humza Yousaf, sought to bridge the divisions by talking up the chances of finally delivering independence by creating a ‘big tent’ of support. In the event, the prospect of a second referendum looks further away than ever and the only ‘big tent’ to be seen was the one erected in the garden of the former First Minister and her husband, Peter Murrell by police officers investigating alleged irregularities in the SNP’s finances. As 2023 draws to a close, the outcome of those investigations is no clearer, but they hang heavy over the party and Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy.
Having come out on top, just, in the leadership contest, Humza Yousaf hit the ground stumbling. Badged as the ‘continuity’ candidate, he has struggled to decide whether to stick with the programme he inherited or chart a different course. Along the way, key planks of policy, from a chaotic Deposit Return Scheme to ill-conceived proposals for Highly Protected Marine Areas have been abandoned, while others, including plans for a costly, centralised care service and land reform are repeatedly delayed.
Meantime, controversies over deleted Covid-era WhatsApp messages and his Health Secretary’s holiday splurge on data charges haven’t helped Mr Yousaf’s cause as he tries to manage an SNP group at Holyrood that often appears in open revolt, in part due to tensions created by the coalition with the Greens.
And so a difficult year for the First Minister came to a close with a budget containing tax rises and deep spending cuts: never a great combination. Needless to say, after 16 years in government, this is all the fault of everyone but the SNP. Yet the First Minister’s reckless insistence on freezing council tax has certainly plunged his government’s finances deeper into a blackhole and left local authorities, including here in Orkney, in dire straits. A £200m cut to the housing budget in the midst of a housing crisis, and cuts to energy efficiency funding in the face of a climate emergency are also hard to fathom.
Much like the Conservatives at Westminster, Mr Yousaf and the SNP give the appearance of having been in government too long. They certainly look to have run out of steam, ideas and even patience with one another. As at Westminster, while making predictions is a precarious business, there is a sense that change is coming in Scottish politics.
Of course, and quite rightly, much of the attention continues to be focused on events overseas. In Ukraine, an attritional conflict has seen little of the much hoped-for progress in expelling Russian troops after the illegal invasion by Vladimir Putin’s regime almost two years ago. The worrying signs of fatigue and divisions amongst Western allies of President Zelensky and his people are only made worse by the alarming spectre of a potential return to the White House of Donald J Trump.
Yet focus has largely turned from the grinding war in Ukraine to the unfolding horror in the Middle East, following the barbaric attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas on 7 October and the subsequent brutal bombardment and blockade of Gaza by the Israeli Defence Force. The spiralling death toll in Gaza, particularly of women and children, is prompting a growing clamour across the international community for a cessation to the violence, including attacks on Palestinians living in the West Bank.
Israel’s right to defend itself is entirely legitimate, but this has never been an unconditional right nor one that absolves the Israeli government of its responsibility to act in accordance with international humanitarian law. Of course, there can be no military resolution to this long-standing, bloody conflict which will only be resolved through negotiation. At this point, however, the path to such an outcome is difficult to discern.
A gloomy note on which to end, but whatever 2024 brings, I wish you and yours all the very best.