The background to the SNP leadership election: The issues and problems facing the SNP and Scotland

By March 23, 2023March 26th, 2023Member's perspectives

The SNP Leadership Election has been nothing short of a total farce. First, we learned that the candidates to replace embattled Nicola Sturgeon were Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf all from three different wings of the SNP. It has been worst kept secret in Scottish politics – not that the English media have ever understood this – that the SNP is essentially a big tent party spanning from the political right to the political left of Scottish politics.

Hence it should come as no surprise to learn that Kate Forbes, representing a more traditional SNP base, has views not far detached from the Scottish Conservative Party on economic issues. But, in the same vein, it should not be a shock that Humza Yousaf is attached to the social democratic direction the party has taken under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. Ash Regan is a fundamentally more radical representation of the SNP, an individual who is a nationalist with a populist leaning, not defined by traditional ideology, but merely the quest for independence.

Three televised leadership debates have proven to have been a bruising experience for the Nats who haven’t had a proper contest for the leadership since 2002. Therefore, it is possible to understand why catastrophic communications and operational missteps are so prevalent in this contest. For the last twenty-four years, the SNP has essentially been run by an ageing generation of Scottish politicians. These include: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, former First Minister Alex Salmond (now of the Alba Party), Deputy First Minister John Swinney, SNP President Michael Russell, and recently departed former SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell.

As these individuals have all indicated that they will no longer seek to be at the forefront of Scottish politics a clear division has opened within the SNP; it is becoming increasingly impossible for the party to balance the desires of the more radical supporters of independence. These individuals have grown increasingly impatient with the lack of action in delivering on the proposed second independence referendum. In 2021, the party committed to seeking a Section 30 order to proceed with a referendum in 2023 – the party fell one seat short of an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.

Following the rejection of this request by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the SNP proceeded to lay the foundations for what they deemed to be an advisory referendum. An advisory referendum means that the outcome of the vote is not legally binding – the Conservative UK Government disputed the position of the SNP Scottish Government, resulting in the SNP taking the UK Government to court. The case was a defining moment for the case of Scottish independence with the defeat of the concept of any advisory referendum by the UK Supreme Court on the basis that the Scottish Parliament does not have any legal right or power to legislate within reserved competencies as set out in Schedule 5, Part I of the Scotland Act, 1998.

The impact of this case should not be understated, with the UK Government subsequently launching a full review into the use of the Scottish Civil Service to pursue outcomes in reserved areas of policy, in particular spending and tasking pertaining to Scottish independence without the express consent of the UK Parliament. Furthermore, increasing strain has been placed on the party by the formation of the SNP/Green Coalition in 2021. The Coalition has resulted in the SNP being forced down narrow policy objectives that have destabilised the party and its base. It has long been the case within the SNP that a vocal minority of the party’s MSPs and MPs have opposed the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) based on protecting women’s rights in Scotland.

“It’s time to admit that feminist criticisms of self-ID and the GRR Bill were right, eat some humble pie and sort this mess out before it does more damage to the reputation of our party, parliament and the cause of Scotland’s independence.”

– Joanna Cherry KC MP, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights

The controversial GGR Bill is the first piece of legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament that the UK Government has blocked from receiving Royal Assent; this is achieved through the application of a Section 35 order via the Scotland Act, 1998. These powers exist to ensure that Scottish legislation does not have a detrimental impact on legislation within the reserved competencies or the operation of UK-wide legislation. In this case, the legislation impacted by the GRR Bill is the Equalities Act, 2010. The UK Government argues that the GRR legislation impacts on the operation and the protections granted within the Act.

The Coalition with the Greens has also backed SNP into a corner on green issues; these include abandoning the traditional support the party has given to further exploration and development of North Sea Oil and Gas, and the creation of a Deposits Return Scheme (DRS) for bottles and cans. Former First Minister Alex Salmond blasted the SNP and Greens for their position on future and current North Sea Oil Development.

“Abandoning the North Sea would be a betrayal of the workforce and used by opponents to damage the independence case which for many decades has focussed on developing our country’s huge natural resources.”

 – Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland.

The DRS has been overseen by Lorna Slater, Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity, who has presided over a shambolic fiasco of planning and implementation with the awarding of the contract to an American-owned business as the single vendor removing fair competition from the DRS; it has been suggested that this will create an inflationary effect. The UK Government is also preparing its own DRS with implementation planned for 2025, but glass bottles will be exempt from the scheme in England.

In the two-year period where Scotland will operate alone, separate barcodes covering the origin of purchase will be required increasing costs for businesses and consumers across Scotland. It is also the case that the Scottish Government has not yet filed for the trade exemption required for the scheme to become legally operational under the UK Internal Markets Act, 2020. It has been speculated in the press that the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, may withhold the exemption from the UK Internal Markets Act to protect Scottish businesses and the consumer.

“Anecdotally, Aldi will sell 12 bottles of Scottish water for £1.59. Under this scheme, that will become £3.99. If that is not inflationary, if that is not adding to people’s cost of living, I do not know what is.”

– Alister Jack DL MP, Secretary of State for Scotland.

Finally, I will discuss the elephant in the room, the record of the SNP in Government; the SNP, under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, has overseen the decline in Scottish Education from the best to the worst in the UK with the so-called “Curriculum for Excellence”. The SNP pledged to eliminate the attainment gap; it has increased since 2018/19 and has not returned to pandemic levels. In health, waiting times are up, and patients are being forced to go private to alleviate their pain. It is fair to note that these issues also exist in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the SNP’s failure in Scotland on cancer care is acute and a national disgrace.

“Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to. It really matters.”

– Nicola Sturgeon MSP, First Minister of Scotland.

In transport, leadership contender Humza Yousaf (Current Health Secretary) overseen delays in the duelling of the A9 and attended the launch of a ferry with painted-on windows. He claims the completion of the Queensferry Crossing as a victory – Ash Regan rightly points out that the bridge was six months late, and he oversaw the last year of a ten-year project.

Not forgetting the biggest fiascos in Scottish procurement history with the Ferguson Ferries Contract awarded under dubious circumstances to the most expensive and inexperienced builder in the bidding process to support a failed firm. Scotland’s island communities are left isolated and suffering from the incompetence and failures of this SNP Government. The next two ferries will be built in Turkey instead of on the Clyde. Let’s not forget the newly minted NatRail (ScotRail), which in the first weeks of nationalisation suffered endless strikes, the slashing of one-third of services, and total inability to meet the needs of Scotland commuters – Abellio was dreadful, but anything is better than NatRail.

“But after just seven weeks, nationalisation is already proving a disaster. As with the ferries, as soon as this government steps into sort things out, the problems get even worse.”

– Douglas Ross MP MSP, Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

The Smith Commission recommended in light of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum that the Scottish Parliament be given more power in the areas of taxation, welfare and other general competencies such as the environment. The SNP Scottish Government aimed to have its own supplemented benefits office to be known as Social Security Scotland, established in 2018. Despite the organisation is reliant on the UK Department of Work and Pension for the current operation of benefits, including the Personal Independence Payment in Scotland – the Scottish Government delayed the launch of devolved management of these programmes due to the pandemic with the Scottish Child Payment launching successfully, as a directly administered benefit.

When considering the application of the tax-raising powers given to the Scottish Parliament, the record of Kate Forbes as Finance Secretary is also called into question. Forbes has overseen the rollout of a higher additional rate income tax in Scotland to 47p and 42p paired with a lowering of the threshold for the upper rate from £150,000 to £125,140, which has resulted in a revenue shortfall made up by the UK Government. Scotland has also suffered from lower economic growth and output compared to other regions in the UK under the leadership of the SNP.

“We estimate that, in the absence of Scottish and UK income tax policy differences, the net position would have been minus £1,004 million [£1bn] in 2022-23. By having relatively higher tax rates in Scotland and lower thresholds for higher rate taxpayers, the income tax net position shifts to an expected minus £157 million in 2022-23,”

 – Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC)

In conclusion, it can be argued that in the past Scottish voters have favoured the SNP for two key reasons:

  1. The supporters of Scottish independence will vote for the SNP to secure a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional status and future; this includes overlooking failures in certain policy areas to have a united and cohesive block for independence;
  2. The SNP has presented itself as a dominant and united political party giving the semblance of competent government. This is especially true under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, but that image is becoming increasingly hard to maintain as the party begins to suffer from Government fatigue paired with infighting.

These two considerations are important when understanding the previous political success of the SNP, who have progressed significantly since 2007, when they were first elected to Government, forming a minority. This allowed the SNP to present themselves as a competent, Scottish and populist party with pledges to abolish Council Tax and introduce free university tuition fees. The SNP is a political chameleon which has adapted to displace the traditional social and political order in Scotland; they have achieved this by listening to, supporting, and championing perceived grievance issues by externalising the blame for these failures to Westminster. Some have suggested that SNP, as a result, has a symbiotic relationship with the Conservative Party in Scotland because both rely on the central issue of Scottish independence in their election campaigns. This can also be demonstrated in England, where the Conservatives have highlighted the threat of a Labour and SNP Coalition; this was especially effective in the 2015 General Election.

Overall, the SNP’s mounting issues and internal divisions have created an opportunity for the opposition in Scotland. Should the SNP’s perceived credibility continue to disintegrate rapidly and the factions within the party continue to pull in different directions, the party fall victim to breakaway factions or new parties with similar objectives. However, I believe the SNP’s divisions will likely require an election defeat to be properly addressed, but we can only wait and see for now.