On the 15th of February Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as First Minister of Scotland and as leader of the SNP. This came as a shock to many people as she was still popular despite the number of short-term setbacks that she had faced. Despite these, a YouGov survey on the day of her resignation found that 53% of the Scottish respondents thought that she had either done a fairly good or extremely good job as First Minister, while only 39% of Scottish respondents found that she had done either a very bad or fairly bad job. Sturgeon’s resignation now leaves the SNP in somewhat of a leadership crisis with there being no obvious successor to her tenure with there being two different people as Deputy First Minister and as Deputy Leader of the SNP. Additionally, Sturgeon’s resignation has the potential to bring divides within the SNP to the surface after they started to appear during the voting on the ‘Gender Recognition Reform Bill’ with ten of the SNP’s MSPs either not voting or voting against the bill.
Sturgeon’s resignation now gives a rare opportunity to see how Scotland and the SNP can cope with a change in leadership after her tenure of eight years as First Minister and leader of the SNP. There have only been four changes in the leadership of the SNP since 2000 with the last one happening in 2014 when Sturgeon was elected and the one prior to that was in 2004 when Alex Salmond was elected. Sturgeon fought the 2014 election unopposed and the 2004 election in a joint bid with Salmond being his deputy leader.
In this election, however, it is not clear who will succeed Sturgeon, with the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, ruling himself out for the election. At the time of writing, no candidates have announced their leadership bid, though the media are tipping finance secretary, Kate Forbes, the health secretary, Humza Yousaf, and the MSP for Edinburgh Eastern, Ash Reagan. I believe that the most likely candidate to win the election is Kate Forbes, who in recent years has seen a meteoritic rise in the party from being appointed as Deputy Finance Security just over two years after being elected to Holyrood and then to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance in 2020. Whilst she doesn’t share Sturgeon’s views on some social issues, most importantly she follows her line on calling for a second independence referendum. Additionally, during her tenure as finance secretary, from September 2020 to September 2021 Scotland’s economy grew by 7.1% compared to 6.6% for the rest of the UK during the same period.
If Forbes becomes First Minister, then there may be some cooling of tensions between Westminster and Holyrood on certain issues, particularly the issue of trans-rights, there would certainly be little to no cooling of tensions based on Scottish independence, that may see a resurgence in popularity after recently slumping in popularity to 37% voting ‘Yes’ in the most recent poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft. Whilst this slump may be attributed to the introduction of the SNP’s ‘Gender Recognition Reform Bill’ and Westminster blocking it, if Forbes is victorious in this election, then I believe that there will be an increase in those who see independence as a viable option for Scotland. The Tories and the rest of Westminster will have to continue to convey to the Scottish electorate that the best future for Scotland remains in an independent United Kingdom and that both sides are reliant on each other, Scotland for financial resources and the rest of the UK for the Scottish natural resources.
However, many other candidates could be seen as a continuity of Sturgeon’s policies, which Westminster will face an even larger battle to combat. Some Conservative commentators have said that during the Covid pandemic, the UK was following the lead of Sturgeon’s government due to how inept the Westminster government was. Additionally, all bar ten potential candidates voted for the hugely controversial ‘Gender Recognition Reform Bill,’ which Westminster blocked from gaining royal assent. This means that if a backer of the bill was victorious, the High Court case that was proposed over the blocking of said bill will be inevitable and will drag on longer. Another proposal of Sturgeon’s that would most likely still occur, is to use the next general election as a de facto independence referendum rather than conducting it through a referendum (a second thing that was blocked, though this time by the high court).
The new leader may not have to deal with battles only with Westminster. With Sturgeon’s resignation some SNP MSPs may decide to join Salmond’s new Alba party to go back to being a ‘Sturgeon-Salmond’ policy ideas. There have already been some disagreements within the SNP with one cabinet minister, Ash Reagan, resigning over the bill and many other backbenchers voicing opposition towards it. Finally, the future SNP leader will have to deal with the new threat that the anti-independence, Labour Party poses with some polls predicting that they could gain victory in the next elections for Holyrood.
To conclude, the battle for Scottish independence will continue, no matter who is elected leader. The new leader will have to face a Labour Party that is gaining support and could derail their strives to independence as well as potential rebels in their own party, which may include possible defections to others.