LONG-RUNNING divisions in the SNP and a lack of trust in politics across the world are contributing to a dip in Humza Yousaf’s popularity, experts have suggested.

A poll by the research body Norstat – formerly Panelbase – last week showed Yousaf’s net popularity score among those who voted SNP in the last General Election in the study had fallen to -7%, down from a positive 14% rating in January. Some 29% said the First Minister was doing a good job, while 36% felt the opposite.

With the general public, Yousaf’s popularity dropped close to that of his Conservative rivals as it dipped to -32%, just short of Rishi Sunak’s rating of -35%.

But politics experts believe much of this shift is not necessarily down to Yousaf as a leader but because of problems that preceded his tenure which are now coming home to roost combined with a widespread feeling of distrust in politicians.

However, there are fears Yousaf is not resonating with party members or the public as well as Nicola Sturgeon did and may not be communicating his vision for the SNP and independence well enough now that voters are beginning to form their own opinions of him in an election year.

And experts have added this should concern independence supporters, arguing that all successful independence processes across the world have had a strong leader with a clear vision at their core.

Distrust in politics

DR Judith Sijstermans, a politics lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, said she doesn't believe the dip in Yousaf’s popularity was much to do with him as a person but reflects a growing sense of dissatisfaction with politicians.

She told the Sunday National: “It’s very little to do with him as a person. There is a general rise in dissatisfaction [with politics] around the world, and in the developed world, no leader has an approval rating above 50%.

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“There is a general lack of trust in political leaders and when you are in government, it’s difficult and I think that’s the case everywhere.”

Dr Coree Brown Swan, whose research focuses on the politics of independence and Union, agreed a general sense of “malaise” was sweeping through politics - and all leaders are suffering the consequences.

“People are frustrated with politics and the cost of living and it feels quite grim. I wonder if that’s coming home to roost in terms of people feeling like they need someone to blame,” said the University of Stirling lecturer.

“I think it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. I think those who are perhaps not so engaged in independence are saying, ‘we’re all shivering in our homes facing rising inflation and things aren’t working and independence is a distraction’, whereas those who are supportive of independence and are perhaps impatient for it say, ‘we’re all shivering in our homes, food prices are rising, independence is the solution, why are we not making progress towards that?’.”

Dr Paul Anderson, a politics lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, added: “I think there is an issue with trust and it’s imperative on every politician to seek to restore trust across all of the nations of the UK, irrespective of policy or ideological position, for the sake of democracy.”

Divisions within the party

DESPITE the apathy being felt by voters everywhere though, there is an acknowledgement that frustration over long-held and unaddressed splits in the SNP – which have been exposed recently within the debate around the Hate Crime Bill – and the independence movement may now be starting to show in Yousaf’s popularity statistics.

Anderson said: “I do think the hate crime issue has contributed. We saw this when the gender recognition reform (GRR) came around – it [his rating] slipped a bit and now you see it again with the hate crime, so I think these things are seen by some as controversial bits of legislation they don’t necessarily understand, and what they think they do understand they don’t necessarily agree with.

The National:

“I think what it throws up as well is that issue of the SNP being a somewhat divided party - which again we saw with GRR - and the fact that the small support for the other pro-independence parties makes a big difference.”

The figure for Westminster voting intention for the SNP was the lowest recorded by Norstat since the 2014 referendum at 32% - which put them neck-and-neck with Labour - while backing for the Scottish Greens and Alba was at 4% and 2% respectively.

Polling expert John Curtice said support for other pro-independence parties would transform the SNP’s electoral fortunes and would likely see them lose key battlegrounds.

Sijstermans argued Yousaf is potentially beginning to be blamed for divisions because the SNP has an issue with the overcentralisation of power.

She said: “There are divisions within the party and there is nowhere for them to be expressed because there isn’t a division of leadership roles - there isn’t a sense there is power beneath the First Minister.

“I think [the SNP] haven’t given enough space for that diversity of opinions to be explored. With Salmond and Sturgeon, there was this overcentralisation of the party which meant there wasn’t a development of other individual politicians, and perhaps Humza Yousaf wasn’t developed enough either in his profile before he became First Minister.”

The shield of Sturgeon

FOR a long time, these divisions within the SNP have been somewhat masked from view given the immense popularity of Yousaf’s predecessor Sturgeon, even with those who didn’t agree with her.

Some might even say the shield was followed up by another one of people giving Yousaf a chance on the back of a prickly SNP leadership contest.

But it is becoming clear those guards are now gone and people are now forming stronger opinions of Yousaf and where he is taking Scotland.

Dr Brown Swan argued Yousaf seems as if he is “besieged”, battling to please those he pledged to be the “continuity candidate” for while also trying to set out his own stall.

She said: “I think because Sturgeon was perceived as quite a strong leader, even if you didn’t agree with her, you might say, ‘well, she’s still taking action’.

“I wonder because the big headline things that have come through are not big, decisive policy areas that has had an impact on the perception of Yousaf.

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“I follow Scottish politics very closely but I couldn’t say what the overriding objective of this Government - Yousaf’s administration - is.

“He seems a bit besieged. I wonder if he’s trying so hard to keep everyone happy within his party and I wonder if there’s actually a strategy where he said, 'this is who I am, this is what my goals are', a very clear delineation of those objectives that would mean even if people are unhappy, they still respect that strength.”

Anderson added: “The key thing for Humza Yousaf going into any election is answering what his leadership of the SNP is going to be like because there are murmurings of ‘what would Kate Forbes have looked like?’. You can present yourself as the continuity candidate but you also have to lay out your stall about what you’re going to bring to the SNP leadership.”

Impact on the independence dream

THERE is an argument that very little can be read into the fall in Yousaf’s popularity in a climate of general disillusionment among voters across politics.

But experts have warned that were it to continue, it could spell problems for the independence movement.

While it is unlikely Yousaf’s ratings will affect the level of support for independence, both Brown Swan and Sijstermans insisted it could impinge on its likelihood.

When asked if Yousaf’s popularity matters to the independence cause, Sijstermans said: “I think it matters a great deal. If you look at independence processes across the world, individual leadership and a strong, clear actor – so whether that’s the party’s popularity or the individual leader – matters a great deal.

“For example, with Catalonia, it has a divided party system, even within the independence campaign, and we can see how progress towards independence has stalled in part because of Spain’s reaction but also because the two main parties promoting independence can’t seem to get along.

“When there is division in the movement, that causes problems, so having a strong actor promoting independence is very important because independence happens at a domestic level but also at an international level too.”

Brown Swan argued that Yousaf’s popularity would also matter to those soft Yessers who may not yet feel fully convinced by independence.

She said: “I think it does matter for these people because confidence in government is really important. We saw the SNP were able to deliver the 2014 referendum and the origins of that were the performance politics of 2007 to 2011 saying, ‘don’t worry, we can deliver for Scotland, we can show the limitations of devolution’, so I think that personality does matter'.”