KATE Forbes is the candidate to replace Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister that the opposition parties would most like not to win. They would much rather see Humza Yousaf lead the SNP.

This is for the not very noble reason that Ms Forbes is really rather good at her job – and, as such, would pose something of a challenge to the opposition parties – whereas Mr Yousaf, well, isn’t and wouldn’t.

But like it or not, the opposition parties are going to remain in opposition for a good while yet, and the SNP are going to continue in government. Given that it is in all of our interests that Scotland has a competent and impressive First Minister, I hope – and I believe we should all hope – that Kate Forbes wins this race.

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If that makes life more difficult for the opposition, so be it. They will just have to up their game. That would be no bad thing, a better opposition being as sorely needed in Scotland as a better government.

I know there is a third declared candidate – Ash Regan – but even with three runners no-one should make the mistake of believing this to be anything but a two-horse race. Ms Regan stands no chance. She has entered the race not to win it but in order to gain recognition. The best she can hope for is a plum ministerial appointment in someone else’s cabinet.

In the choice between Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf, SNP members have a decision to make which essentially boils down to this: do they want change or do they want continuity? Yousaf is the continuity candidate, and has already picked up the backing of a range of B-list MSPs, who think of themselves as Nicola Sturgeon’s loyal lieutenants, guardians of the legacy. Yousaf will offer more of the same, but with added sanctimony and none of the thirst for hard graft or talent for leadership Ms Sturgeon exhibited.

The Herald: SNP members have a choice to make between a candidate of change or a continuity candidateSNP members have a choice to make between a candidate of change or a continuity candidate (Image: Newsquest)

Humza Yousaf is a master of listening to people he already agrees with. He does not like to be challenged, makes low demands of his officials, and falls headlong into all the beartraps such self-assured commitment to groupthink would set for anyone.

He’s a thoroughly nice guy – he's charming and warm and polite – but this is his Achilles heel. He knows he’s a nice guy, he believes he is a good and virtuous man, and he is so convinced of his own good intentions that he catastrophically wrongly believes that nothing he does can be bad or go wrong.

This is why he got into such bother over the wretched business of the Hate Crime Act. He wanted to do good. He wanted to make it a crime for other people to behave in such a way as evinced hatred for a vulnerable group. Who would not want to be in favour of that, he reasoned.

He wanted to believe that only bad people would be caught in the web of the criminal law and that virtuous souls would have nothing to fear. But, making such low demands of his officials meant that, until he presented his proposals to Parliament, no-one had pointed out to him the obvious pitfalls.

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That he was in fact seeking to criminalise free speech simply never occurred to him. That innocent parties would find themselves ensnared in a nightmarish maze of criminal accusation simply for saying something which someone else disagreed with and saw as offensive was a consequence of his Hate Crime Bill that had just never been explained to him.

So it all came as a crashing, crushing surprise when he found himself having to do deal after deal with the opposition in order to amend his Bill, make it compatible with human rights law, and get it enacted. Should this episode not torpedo any sense that Humza Yousaf has what it takes to run a government or lead a country? Charm isn’t enough. He who is easily led is easily misled. An innocent in a troubled world, as First Minister he’d be a disaster.

But this is not the reason why Kate Forbes should be backed instead. Her candidacy is not about “stopping Humza” (although his, increasingly, is about little more than “stopping Kate”). The Forbes campaign is about something much bigger, much more profound. For she recognises what the Sturgeon continuity crowd refuses to see.

Kate Forbes knows that the Sturgeon route to independence is a dead end. Kate Forbes knows that, if Scotland is ever to become the independent state of her dreams, a new route-map is needed. Kate Forbes is right.

Scotland will never become independent unless and until two things happen. First, there needs to be an SNP government prepared to use the many powers at Holyrood’s disposal genuinely to transform this country for the better. Make the NHS fit for the 21st century. Reverse the calamitous decline in standards in Scotland’s schools. Fix the country’s broken infrastructure. And then, once you have done that, we might start listening to how much more you think you could achieve with independence.

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Secondly, Scotland’s economy needs foundational reform, so that it becomes strong enough to withstand the undoubted challenges independence would bring. Alex Salmond used to understand this. Nicola Sturgeon never did. But Kate Forbes gets it in spades (as does her apparent campaign manager, the quietly impressive but strangely underrated Ivan McKee MSP, who would make a formidable Finance Secretary).

Scotland needs growth. It needs investment in growth. And it needs a First Minister who understands the importance of growth. Without it, independence is dead in the water. It is so long since we had a First Minister who understood the importance of a strong economy that we have forgotten what it is like. I hope the SNP’s membership gives Kate Forbes the chance to show us what we have all been missing.

Adam Tomkins was a Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region from 2016 to 2021