Andy Maciver is Founder Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters, and a former Head of Communications for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.
It feels, in a sense, deeply introspective to think and talk and write about the reaction and the impact here at home, of the last ten days in Israel and Gaza. And yet, it is right that we do. Our words and our actions matter and, along with the United States, the United Kingdom is the most important Western power in the region.
Much of the focus is at Westminster, understandably, but what role has Scotland, the Scottish Government and Humza Yousaf played in this debate-at-home over the last ten days? ConservativeHome readers might wonder if there is an obvious conclusion, somewhere between ‘irrelevant’ and ‘unhelpful’. If you want this article to augment that notion, then I’m afraid it won’t. For all the wrong reasons, out of tragedy and angst, this has been Humza Yousaf’s best week as First Minister.
My analysis is not without caveat. Mistakes were made, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter in Israel.
Contextualisation is devilishly difficult during an ongoing conflict, but it seems certain that, in another fifty years, this will be seen as being at least as significant at the 1948 war, and the Six Day Way, and Yom Kippur, and very possibly more so.
In this country, we remember 9/11 and 7/7. But for Israel, and for Jews, this is exponentially more tragic. Based on population size, this is a 9/11 which kills nearly 50,000, not 2,977. It is a 7/7 which kills almost 10,000, not 52.
I wince at the thought of what this feels like for Scottish and British Jews. I imagine life-changing. I imagine scarring. And I imagine, made worse by the reaction at home. One Saturday, their people were massacred by a terrorist organisation of uncommon viciousness; the following Saturday, they watched footage on the BBC – their national broadcaster, which refuses to call Hamas terrorists – of thousands of people on marches calling for them to be wiped off the map (literally, ‘from the River to the Sea’). Always to blame, even when they are the victims.
The Scottish Government could be fairly criticised for being slow to react to the massacre. Only Angus Robertson, its External Affairs Secretary, immediately gave his unequivocal view that this was an attack by terrorists, without justification.
The spotlight, instead, fell on tweets by members of Scotland’s Greens – the SNP’s partners in government. One, known to be influential with the SNP Cabinet, said that Palestinians have the right to “attack their occupiers”. Another said that the slaughter was the consequence of “Israeli imperialism”.
They should have been swiftly and unequivocally condemned by Yousaf. St Andrew’s House – the main seat of Government in Edinburgh – has four flagpoles. Two carry a Saltire, one carries a Ukrainian flag, and one is empty. Mr Yousaf should have ordered the Israeli flag to be run up that flagpole, in common with Rishi Sunak in London, Emmanuel Macron in Paris, Olaf Sholz in Berlin and many, many others around the globe.
To do so would not have been a show of support for the Israeli Defence Force, nor an expression of equivocation towards Palestinian statehood. It would simply have been a gesture to the people of Israel and the Jewish diaspora that says “we are thinking of you”, just like the gesture to the people of Ukraine.
By doing that, Yousaf would have given himself a better foundation on which to make the important and insightful interventions which he has been making since last Tuesday. On that day, his letter to Foreign Secretary James Cleverly captured a critical axiom which, until that point, was struggling for clarity in the fog of the immediate reaction to the attack; that Israel and Hamas are not equivalents, but Israelis and Palestinians are.
He said in the letter that Hamas are terrorists and Israel has a right to defend itself, and he said that we need to hold the same regard for innocent Palestinian life as we do for innocent Israeli life, while calling for Mr Cleverly to influence Israel on the creation of humanitarian corridors.
Yousaf then attended and spoke at a large service with the Jewish community, hugging and comforting the mother of a Scottish Israeli man murdered in the Hamas attack, before meeting the same day with representatives of the Palestinian community.
He did this as First Minister by day, before switching by night back to the role of husband to a woman, Nadia El-Nakla, whose mother and Palestinian father are trapped in Gaza, in fear of their lives.
Israel is angry, and so should we be. Israel wants to defend itself, and we should help them. Israel wants to destroy Hamas, and the world should share that aim, including Palestinians. But our job, as one of the West’s most important actors, is to temper the anger, to limit the destruction in order to protect innocent life, to preserve the international reputation of Israel, and in turn to minimise the chance of wider warfare in the region.
The IDF is the national army of a democratic ally, which operates within the boundaries of international law and attempts to limit Palestinian civilian casualties. Hamas is a group of medieval terrorists which sees the death of innocent Israelis and Palestinians at Israeli hands, as a PR victory. But a baby killed accidentally by an Israeli air strike is just as innocent, and just as dead, as a baby with its throat cut by Hamas.
We need to have these hard conversations with our ally, Israel. If we tacitly offer a free pass to an Israeli government overcome with fear and rage, we are playing into Hamas’s hands.
Yousaf is showing a very astute understanding of that. Words are easier than actions, of course. Sunak and James Cleverly, clearly, think the same thoughts, but international diplomacy requires them to speak those thoughts using different language. And civilian casualties are distressingly inevitable in a dense urban war in which your opponent is intentionally placing its own people in harm’s way. But nonetheless, the UK Government should hold Yousaf closer.
In the final analysis, this is unlikely to make much of an electoral difference to Yousaf in 2024 or 2026. He inherited a party which was trending down, he inherited a police investigation against his predecessor, and he inherited a coalition which is offering him little more than a daily headache.
Until this week, he was merely the unfortunate manager of those dismal circumstances. Now he is a Scottish First Minister who has earned the right to be heard in Scotland’s Jewish community and Scotland’s Palestinian community, and who was a first-mover in what will inevitably become the settled position, that the most British thing we can do is to promote the foundations for peace, rather than perpetuating the theatre of war.