15 Feb 2023

Political Insider: Sturgeon resigns: where does Scotland go from here?

After eight years in the role, Nicola Sturgeon has announced her resignation as leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland. In this article, Andrew McQuillan, Account Director at MHP Group assess her tenure, the reasons behind her departure and what's next for the SNP and the quest for Scottish independence.

Andrew McQuillan

What’s happened?

The end of an era in Scottish and British politics. Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she is to stand down as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party. Under her, the party has become the immovable object at the heart of Scottish political life. Yet, for all that electoral success and the personal recognition which came with it, Sturgeon failed to shift the dial on the fundamental objective of separating Scotland from the rest of the UK.

Why has it happened?

Sturgeon herself said her resignation was not a reaction to “short-term” issues and rationalised her decision in terms similar to those offered by Jacinda Arden following her departure as Prime Minister of New Zealand. But what is really at play?

Referendum ructions

There have been rumblings over recent months that the end game had started for Sturgeon but many within the nationalist movement will be shocked by the speed of events. The Supreme Court ruling towards the end of 2022 that the Scottish Parliament could not hold a unilateral referendum on independence ignited unparalleled dissent in recent SNP history, with MPs and MSPs railing against Sturgeon’s plan to treat the next general election as a de facto referendum. Acknowledging this, Sturgeon has said the SNP will be “free” to decide a new course at its special conference on its independence strategy in March.

Discontent at Westminster

The ousting of her close associate Ian Blackford from his role as SNP Leader at Westminster and the subsequent election of Stephen Flynn – the Aberdeen MP who is reported to have described Sturgeon’s position on North Sea oil as “crazy” – was a sign that her previous iron grip was loosening.

Grim polling

Recent polling will have worried Sturgeon and her tight-knit group of advisers. Research by Lord Ashcroft for the Scottish political journal Holyrood found half of SNP voters believed Sturgeon’s plan to treat the next general election as a de facto independence referendum was not credible and also found that the unionist side had a 12-point lead on the question of independence. Her former mentor and now erstwhile foe, Alex Salmond, has reacted to her departure by saying that squandering the impetus towards independence will be her legacy.

Not so Bonnie Scotland

While internal SNP machinations over the road to independence are the underlying factor, the end of the Sturgeon era has been hastened by what some will view as a wider malaise in Scottish public life. A faltering health service, spiralling drugs deaths, the diminishment of Scottish education and failures in public procurement – such as the botched attempt to replace the ferries serving Scotland’s islands which has cost the Scottish tax payer £500m – are emblematic examples her opponents will point to.

Rishi Sunak is not the only politician facing allegations of presiding over a culture of sleaze. The SNP’s finances are under investigation and Sturgeon’s husband, the SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell, is at the centre of the issue. With the SNP keen to create the impression that it is somehow more moral and just than Westminster, this and the legacy of the Alex Salmond court case and various other scandals have diminished that carefully constructed narrative.

However, the fallout from the Scottish Government’s gender recognition reforms have proven particularly toxic; footage of Sturgeon stumbling over her words when asked whether a convicted double rapist, who had transitioned after the crimes were committed, was a man or a woman was excruciating viewing. For many, the whole issue of gender reform has shown fundamental faults with the way the Scottish Government develops and delivers policy.

Despite this, Sturgeon said she remained confident that Scotland was on the cusp of independence. It will be up to her replacement to prove that point.

 Who replaces her?

The timings of the leadership election are a matter for the SNP’s National Executive Committee, with those details to be set out in the next few days. In her resignation statement, Sturgeon did suggest that a less polarising figure than her may be best placed to deliver independence; the slight issue in that diagnosis is that there is no candidate of similar stature readymade to fill those shoes and, like it or not, the constitution will be inherently divisive regardless of the players involved.

A consequence of Sturgeon’s style of politics – a top-down approach to devising policy and her being front and centre of seemingly all SNP and Scottish Government communications – means that very few of her ministers have any meaningful public profile.

The early front runner appears to be Kate Forbes, the 32 year old Finance Secretary who has said she is refreshed and ready to go after maternity leave. Subject of some sympathetic profiles in the press recently, her candidacy may be hobbled by her strongly held Presbyterian beliefs which run counter to a membership which is largely more liberal on issues such as abortion and transgender rights. Where she sits on the latter issue in particular, will be crucial.

Angus Robertson, the party’s former Westminster leader and now an MSP, has never been short in coming forward and will likely enter the contest. Humza Yousaf, viewed by many as a potential successor a few years ago is now regarded as somewhat gaffe prone having underperformed across various portfolios including Health, Transport and Justice.

Sturgeon said the election contest will allow the Scottish public to see the “array of talent” on offer in the SNP. With 69% of participants in a poll at the weekend for the Sunday Times plumping for “don’t know” when asked who should replace Sturgeon, that talent does not seem immediately obvious. Fundamentally, whichever has the most compelling offer on how to get independence will win the day.

What next?

What are the immediate issues arising from today’s shock development?

New SNP Strategy

Whoever wins will have two clear long-term challenges. Emerge from Sturgeon’s shadow and somehow chart a plausible way of convincing the UK Government to allow a referendum, which Sturgeon found akin to pushing water uphill. For a party which has under both Salmond and Sturgeon presented a united front, a competitive elections process will have the unfortunate consequence of airing years of built up grievance in public.

In the short-term, they will need to urgently solve the Gordian knot of the gender reform issue; this is as essential as agreeing on a path to independence. To persist with a demonstrably controversial and ill-thought out policy will continue to prove repellent to middle Scotland and many nationalists. Its potential to do serious electoral damage cannot be underplayed.

Sturgeon spoke about the need to have a more rational and dispassionate discourse in Scotland. Sturgeon herself used phrases like “democracy deniers” to describe unionist politicians and said in an interview she “detests Conservatives”. A more measured approach from her successor would help achieve that. For the Conservatives in Scotland, they have in effect lost their most effective recruiting sergeant. No.10 will be hoping for a leader who pursues a more conciliatory tone.

Building bridges with business

The new First Minister will have to reset the Scottish Government’s relationship with business. Many movers and shakers in Edinburgh and Glasgow feel as though policy is made in a vacuum and that Sturgeon took no heed of the realities of corporate life; the botched implementation of a new deposit return scheme and planned restrictions on alcohol advertising are the latest battle grounds. Many feel that come the next Holyrood election, the SNP should junk their current working arrangement with the Scottish Greens who are viewed as forcing the party to tack to the left on too many issues.

Can Labour win back Scotland?

Today is a big opportunity for Keir Starmer. Scotland is essential to Labour’s prospects and their analysis is Sturgeon’s persona wedded many of their former voters to the SNP. Her departure from the stage has been described by Scottish Labour stalwart Jim Murphy as a “very significant moment in the election of a majority Labour government”. Until now, the Starmer bounce has been somewhat more tentative in Scotland and Labour’s offer to the Scottish electorate remains vague – unkind observers have described it as SNP-lite, especially since Labour have been broadly supportive of the SNP on the question of gender reform. Some thought on what a progressive, unionist agenda means in Scotland is needed.

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