In the 1990s the most important site of Scottish politics was well away from government. It was not John Major’s Conservative administration in London that determined the future of Scottish policy: rather, it was the Scottish Constitutional Convention. It was their work which shaped the new devolved politics that was to come, and it was all the more powerful because of its arm-length remove from government.

Now that Humza Yousaf’s new administration has been installed in Edinburgh, a remarkably similar opportunity has opened up in Scottish politics to the one the Scottish Constitutional Convention so successfully exploited 30 years ago—for the future shape and direction of Scottish politics will certainly not be set by the new Government.  

The question is, though: who will step up? Who will plug the gap that Humza Yousaf has elected to leave so invitingly open?

The gap is obvious to anyone who cares to look and listen. Poll after poll shows that the Scottish people have two main political priorities. The first is the economy. Voters want the cost of living crisis tackled. They want prosperity and a sense of hope to return. They want wages to rise, the effects of inflation to be mitigated, and they crave a return to growth.

Read more: Why the mediocre Scottish Parliament needs reform

The second priority is public sector reform. Scots know the NHS is crumbling. They know our schools are not what they once were. They know standards are sliding. And they don’t like it. The anger I have heard expressed of late about both hospitals and schools is more impassioned, more vociferous and more widespread than anything I can remember since I moved north of the Border 20 years ago. And these are not Tory voters I am talking about—these are middle-class, public sector, left-leaning urbanites. Their votes are up for grabs and they are deeply unimpressed by what the Scottish Government is offering them.

The two priorities are related. Scottish voters don’t button up the back. They know we cannot have reformed, fit-for-purpose public services without the sustained economic growth to pay for it.

Why Humza Yousaf has decided not to dedicate his time in Bute House to delivering on these priorities I have no idea. That he has decided not to do so, however, is clear. There is no one in his Cabinet who has even the faintest idea how to return growth to the Scottish economy. Not the new Finance Secretary (Shona Robison) and certainly not the new Economy Secretary (Neil Gray). Mr Gray’s job is not to drive growth but to promote something called the wellbeing economy: less a minister for business and enterprise and more a sort of Named Person for economic welfare. Remember the last time the SNP tried to impose Named Persons on us in order to promote wellbeing? That didn’t end well, either.

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It is equally clear that there is no one in Mr Yousaf’s Cabinet with a brief to reform public services. The jobs of the new Health and Education Secretaries are simple: to keep their respective portfolios out of the news and away from the headlines as much as possible. The lower a profile each of them manages to keep, the better. That seems to be the mission.

Instead, the new administration gives top billing to politics as performance. Thus off to court they go on the cul-de-sac of gender self-ID. Thus they appoint a new minister for independence. Thus they dance to whatever loony tune the Greens start whistling next, with their student union empty-gesture politics, their tedious identitarian sloganising, and their fantasy economics.

If the Scottish Government is more interested in its own priorities than in the people’s, where will voters go in order to find a party – or a movement – prepared to work for them rather than against them? This was the gap the Scottish Constitutional Convention filled in the 1990s. Who will fill it now? Not the Scottish Tories: any hope they once had has long since vanished.

The Scottish Labour Party, then? They may still think it’s early days but, thus far, they’ve had a crushingly disappointing 2023. They have precious little to say about restoring economic growth and absolutely nothing to offer when it comes to reforming public services. Yes, Anas Sarwar is great at pointing the finger at SNP failures, especially as regards the NHS. But what would a Sarwar-led government do differently, apart from not being nationalists? I keep waiting to find out. I keep being disappointed that I still don’t know.

Read more: As a unionist, Kate Forbes is the SNP leader we most fear

If Labour is struggling to up its game, that leaves only one other as a sort of putative backbench leader, if not of the opposition, then at least a Leader of the Alternative. Kate Forbes has spent a good deal of time of late professing loyalty to the new regime, whilst her supporters have been busily briefing the press about how unhappy she is.

She has every right to regret coming second to the hollow, unserious man who is our new First Minister. But she should not be unhappy. For she has the people on her side. She is in synch, more closely I think than any other politician in the country, with the people’s priorities. She knows we need to drive growth back into the economy. And she knows that Scotland’s public services will fall over if they are not radically reformed. Could she yet emerge as the focal point in a decidedly non-governmental site of politics that will shape and direct where Scottish politics goes next? The 1990s showed us one thing: our national politics do not have to be led by the government of the day.

Personally, I think we should forget all about today’s Government. It won’t be there for long. The future of Scottish politics lies elsewhere—and it’s time for the challengers to step up, whatever party they belong to.

Adam Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow School of Law. He was a Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region from 2016 to 2021.