FOR anyone on this island with a progressive disposition, the triumph of Humza Yousaf as SNP leader and Scottish First Minister should be a relief.

Ours is an age of “culture war”, a euphemism for cynically weaponised backlash against the claims for justice of minorities and women.

If Kate Forbes – who is instinctively against LGBTQ rights and abortion – had triumphed, it would have been hailed as a victory for social reactionaries across the Western world.

“Even the SNP have rejected wokery!” would be the new battle cry of Telegraph provocateurs and GB News trolls. The pressure on Labour from the left would have subsidised, encouraging them to glide further rightwards.

Instead, a Muslim politician who champions LGBTQ rights – a path previously trodden by London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan – is the victor.

READ MORE: Top Kate Forbes ally challenges official line on why she left government

His belief that the rights of minorities rise or fall together, however disparate they may seem to be, and that therefore solidarity and unity is imperative, becomes the official position of the Scottish Government.

But a bruising election contest exposed the contradictions which underline every independence movement.

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There is a progressive case for Scottish nationalism, whether you agree with it or not, and it goes like this: Scotland’s impulse for social justice is being suppressed by the Union.

Something more akin to Nordic welfarism – and certainly representing a decisive break with US-style neoliberalism – could be built.

Here is a civic nationalism which cherishes the rights of minorities – and which particularly appeals to young Scots in urban communities.

Here is a vision upheld by Yousaf, a millennial who sympathises with the political and social values of his generation.

But 48% of the SNP’s electorate rejected – or certainly did not endorse – this vision.

In Kate Forbes, they had a candidate who not only unapologetically extolled social conservatism, but embraced a dramatic shift to the right on the economy.

Where are the 'Tartan Tories now?

The “Tartan Tory” epithet once commonly levelled at the SNP was certainly an inaccurate description of Nicola Sturgeon’s administration – but is it really an unfair characterisation of Forbesism, and if so, how?

The SNP’s hegemony has been underpinned by a public unity which has been completely alien to other political parties stricken by bitter civil wars in recent years.

The 2014 referendum forged an electoral bloc which united voters with eclectic political backgrounds – the unexpected success of the nationalist cause provoked a sense that its goal could be achieved with one more heave, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, encouraging iron discipline.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf refuses to apologise for appointing minister for independence at FMQs

While those of us on the left understand historical progress primarily as being driven by conflict between social forces, the role of the individual can play its part, and Sturgeon’s sheer force of personality helped paper over not so much cracks, but profound ideological chasms.

No longer, now that the leadership race has exposed the long-suppressed splits within the nationalist movement in technicolour.

It was cynical opportunism on the part of Keir Starmer to crow about the SNP’s lurch to the right given Labour’s own political trajectory under his leadership.

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Neither did many of Forbes’s voters endorse her socially conservative views, and it’s unlikely many would have much enthusiasm for the practical implications of her neoliberal economic worldview.

Some were undoubtedly beguiled by the media bandwagon behind her, which extolled her as competent, as a fresh face, as representing much-needed change and able to reach voters open to independence but as-yet unconvinced.

But that her rightward lurch was at best of secondary importance to those voters is itself revealing.

A vote for Forbes was a vote for independence for independence’s sake, not because it offers the opportunity for a new socially just Scotland liberated from a reactionary English counterweight.

Indeed, here is a corrective to another narrative. In the 2000s, it was widely held that the British population was becoming depoliticised.

A compelling piece of evidence to support this theory was the long-term secular fall in the membership of political parties.

This was comprehensively challenged first by the surge in membership enjoyed by the SNP and Scottish Greens during and in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, and by the hundreds of thousands who joined Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

But how politicised were all of those members? Under Corbyn, the right believed the inflated membership represented an ideologically extreme cult; much of the left believed they were principled, committed socialists – but in 2020, they rejected the left’s standard-bearer Rebecca Long-Bailey in favour of Starmer.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf marks debut FMQs with punchy performance despite interruptions

Similarly, much of the SNP’s membership may embrace independence – but the limits of their political commitment beyond that have been underscored.

If Yousaf fails, Forbes – who will be showered with media attention – will be in a strong position to succeed him and reshape Scottish nationalism in her own image.

Flexible nationalisms 

This is why the political character of nationalism is always up for grabs – independence represents a shared goal for different classes and ideologies, with other considerations treated as lesser priorities.

When he was first minister, Alex Salmond, proffered Scotland as a “progressive beacon”; but he had once sought to emulate Ireland in becoming a “Celtic Tiger” economy by slashing corporation tax.

When the Irish economy collapsed in the 2008 cataclysm, the SNP pivoted towards the Nordic model, and now Salmond heads the socially conservative Alba Party.

Nationalism is prone to shapeshifting, and with Humza’s leadership, remains committed to a progressive variation – witness his proposal to consider a wealth tax and his admirable commitment to fight the Westminster government’s attempt to veto trans rights. But it was so close to choosing a very different path.

The complexity of Scottish nationalism has remained bizarrely underinvestigated. In the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum, there was no shortage of media analysis about the phenomenon of Labour voters who opted for Leave.

Yet almost the same proportion of SNP supporters had plumped to leave the European Union. But how serious a discussion has there been about the SNP Brexiteer?

The contradictions of the independence movement – particularly as it expanded in support and became diverse – are only now being seriously debated.

In the late 1970s, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm attempted to puncture the triumphalism amongst some on the left with an essay entitled “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”

At the time, there were mass strikes, and trade union membership was yet to peak at a post-war high in 1979. But Hobsbawm pointed to underlying weaknesses and contradictions which, he believed, foreshadowed possible decline.

The question now, surely, is whether we are witnessing the forward march of independence halted.

Yes, nationalism can point to some strong underlying fundamentals, not least that younger voters tend to be more predisposed to independence.

In the last referendum, overall support for independence began at 28% and culminated in a total of 45%. But with the old unity gone, with the internal divisions now impossible to ignore, and with no obvious strategy for independence on the horizon to act as a disciplining force, the challenges have drastically replicated.

When the SNP won 56 of the country’s 59 MPs in the 2015 election, it looked like not so much a landslide as the wheel of history turning.

Scottish Labour – the party that had won every single general election north of the Border from 1959 onwards – appeared routed for at least a generation.

Starmer’s allies now sense an opportunity and believe the future of the Union hinges on a revival of Scottish Labour.

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It should not be forgotten, though, that the rise of Scottish nationalism had much to do with not just resentment of the Thatcherite legacy, but with Labour’s failure to unpick it.

SNP turmoil and the Tories’ self-immolation mean Labour are likely to pick up seats – it should be recalled that Labour’s albeit temporary advance in 2017 owed much to turnout among SNP voters declining, and the demoralisation provoked by the party’s internal schism makes that much more likely.

But while Labour are set to raise expectations simply by ejecting the Tories from power, it is easy to see how a new opportunity may arise for the SNP.

Those at the top of the Labour Party are wedded to a political formula from 1997 – well over a quarter of a century ago, when the economy was growing and living standards rising, albeit due to an unsustainable financial bubble.

This time around, the island has suffered protracted economic stagnation and an unparalleled decline in living standards.

If a new Labour administration fails to offer convincing solutions to a United Kingdom defined by crisis, the case for independence may receive its most powerful boost yet.

The SNP no longer have Sturgeon, the most formidable frontline politician on the island. Their new leader starts from the unfortunate position of being little known, but unpopular among those familiar with him.

With the lack of unity imposed by strong leadership and convincing strategy, the SNP face their gravest threat since they first formed a government in 2007.

But while the SNP’s foes are now in triumphalist mode, it would be foolish to dismiss the party’s prospects as their greatest opportunity may be yet to come.