Sturgeon’s final straw

Have we reached ‘peak SNP’? Is the dream of Scottish independence now fading? Eddie Ford reports on the leadership battle and continuing culture wars

Following Nicola Sturgeon’s “shock” resignation as first minister, there are three candidates fighting it out to become the new leader of the Scottish National Party (after meeting the required threshold of 100 nominations by party members in at least 20 branches). They are Humza Yousaf, health secretary, Kate Forbes, finance minister, and Ash Regan - who used to be the community safety minister until she resigned last year in protest over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (GRRB). The single-transferable-vote election opens on March 13 for the party’s approximately 100,000 members and closes on March 27, with the result expected to be declared that day.

Of course, whatever the likes of the BBC might say, Sturgeon’s departure was not really a shock. She had clearly run out of road, when it comes to her pursuit of Scottish independence - the SNP’s raison d’être. Indeed - not that we are leftwing Nostradamuses - the CPGB’s ‘Perspectives 2023’, published only a few weeks ago, anticipated a “post-Nicola Sturgeon” SNP that might go down the Catalan path - ie, hold an “unofficial or illegal referendum” that comes into direct conflict with the UK government in Westminster.

The various factors accounting for her resignation are relatively obvious. Firstly, the calls from Sturgeon’s government for a second referendum that were frustrated, when the UK government predictably refused to grant a section 30 order. Secondly, that was followed by the extremely predictable decision from the Supreme Court that the Scottish government did not have the powers to call an ‘advisory’ referendum on Scottish independence. The court also told us what we all know: Scotland does not have the right to self-determination. It is Westminster - the crown in parliament - that is sovereign.

Brilliant idea

Then, thirdly, we had the brilliant idea from Sturgeon that the next general election would be treated as a de facto referendum. Well, it is very hard to see how that could have worked. Normally, well nowadays, the SNP gets a huge majority when it comes to Westminster elections, but it cannot achieve a majority of seats when it comes to Holyrood elections - because the latter involve PR, of course, not first past the post. But for a general election to work as a de facto referendum, you surely need at least 51% of the vote. Yet that did not happen last time, in 2019 - it got 45% of the vote on a turnout of 68.1%.

Moreover, since then there has been a dramatic surge in support for Sir Keir’s Labour Party, including in Scotland. Hence the straightforward deduction is that, far from the SNP getting 50% or more of the vote at the next general election, they would actually lose seats … and votes. In other words, if pro-independence parties get below 50% of the vote, it means they have lost the ‘referendum’. First you lose Indy 1, then the campaign for an ‘advisory’ referendum, and now you are in real danger of losing ‘Indy 2’. Game over, it would seem.

What else led to Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation? As briefly mentioned above, her determination to remain within the constitution - hence all the malarkey about the Supreme Court, futile appeals to the Tory government to play fair, and so on. As has always been clear, she definitely does not want to go down the Catalonian road, in which an overwhelming majority of those who voted, voted for independence: 92.01%, but on a 43.03% turnout. However, the central government in Madrid invoked article 155 of the constitution and came down hard on the Catalan regional government with arrests, trials, imprisonments, etc. Needless to say, Sturgeon does not find the thought of jail very appealing. She is no Éamon de Valera (he was arrested for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising and sentenced to death).

Of course, there are SNPers and various left nationalist outriders who do want to follow the Catalan example - yet succeed somehow where Raül Rueda and the Junts pel Sí coalition in Barcelonia failed. Perhaps Alex Salmond and his Alba Party and Colin Fox’s Scottish Socialist Party can be put in that camp. But Sturgeon wanted to keep everything strictly legal, and therefore she had nowhere to go.

Maybe another factor - though it has been officially denied - was the GRRB. From her viewpoint it was an entirely uncontroversial piece of legislation. The bill was passed on October 27 last year by a majority of 88 to 33, but on January 17 this year the UK government used section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 to block the bill from receiving royal assent - a first.

Subsequently, Sturgeon was roasted over the trans question and the SNP’s poll ratings have taken a bashing. Something that the former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, has not been shy to point out, describing the GRRB as a “trap” and “self-indulgent nonsense” in the service of “some daft ideology imported from elsewhere”. He has accused the first minister of having “thrown away” 30 years of a careful and gradual building of support for independence. Maybe that was the final straw for Nicola Sturgeon, or perhaps it was just a combination of everything.

Anyhow, culture wars are raging around the leadership candidates - centred for now on the figure of Kate Forbes, who was originally the frontrunner. The only poll published so far, on February 25, showed that 23% of Scottish voters preferred her as first minister, compared to 15% who liked Humza Yousaf and 7% who wanted Ash Regan, with the rest being undecided or ‘don’t knows’. If we had another poll today, the results would probably be quite different - though you should never underestimate the puritan streak in Scottish society.

Forbes is a ‘wee free’ - that is, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, an evangelical Calvinist denomination, which views Christmas as a pagan abomination, whose origins have nothing to do with Christianity (which is quite correct historically). More to the point, it has strict ethical rules and thoroughly disapproves of sex and childbirth outside of marriage - not to mention homosexuality or same-sex marriage, along with most abortions - let alone the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which presumably it regards as something hatched in hell. Forbes, a fluent Gaelic speaker, has said that her faith is “essential to my being” - which is undoubtedly the case. Fortunately for her, she was on maternity leave at the time of the GRRB vote. But she is totally open and public about her stance, declaring in a recent BBC interview that she would not have supported the bill nor the challenging of the Westminster government’s section 35 order. The same goes for the same-sex legislation, in accordance with her faith.

Now, there is a big difference arguably between what you would think and do as a private individual and what you would vote for in terms of legislation. Forbes has said she would not attempt to reverse existing same-sex marriage laws in Scotland, as a democratic decision had been made and by implication the same would go for trans rights, because - in her own words - “in a free society you can do what you want”. Then again, perhaps she would lead rearguard action against the GRRB. But as a result of her comments a number of MSPs have dropped support for her, like the party’s deputy Westminster leader, Mhairi Black - saying if Forbes had had her way, she would not have been allowed to marry her wife.

Interestingly, showing the nature of culture wars, Forbes has gained support. Various mosques and Muslim groups are now saying that they will back Forbes precisely because of her views on gay marriage and the GRRB - thus they will not be supporting their fellow Muslim, Humza Yousaf. Rather a wee free than a backsliding Muslim.


Yousaf likes to present himself as a socially liberal supporter of gay marriage; and as the “continuity candidate” - though he has said that he is “not wedded” to the de facto referendum idea (for obvious reasons). But, interestingly, it has been revealed that back in 2014 he went to Alex Salmond saying he was coming under pressure from the mosque and therefore wanted to be absent for the final vote on the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act. Salmond granted him leave of absence.

Yousaf has stated his support for the GRRB and if he wins the election would consider appointing Forbes to his cabinet. But if she became first minister, which is not impossible, he may decline the offer to serve in her government, certainly if she changed the party’s social policy positions towards a more conservative stance. Given such remarks, you can certainly imagine a schism opening up within the SNP and the Scottish government over trans rights and other related issues.

Ash Regan too, as we know, would abandon the GRRB - saying she would seek to introduce new laws to ensure all transgender-women prisoners go to men’s prisons and all transgender-men prisoners go to women’s prisons - perhaps there should be “a trans wing on the prison estate”. On independence, she has said that, instead of using elections as a de facto referendum, she would begin negotiations with the UK government, if political parties supporting Scottish independence receive more than half of the vote collectively in an election to either the Holyrood or Westminster parliament. Regan wants to establish a “constitutional convention” with other political parties and organisations that support Scottish independence.

It almost goes without saying that she pitches herself as the “unity candidate” and stands for “competent government”. She has also said that the independence movement has been divided by “petty differences and personal agendas”, which did not prevent her from taking a swipe at the SNP leadership - having the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell, in charge of the contest to replace the first minister (who happens to be his wife) was a “conflict of interest”. That, of course, has nothing to do with “mudslinging”, which she is totally against.

Taking a step back, while the constitutional question will continue to bubble and boil, it is conceivable that we have reached ‘peak SNP’. If that is the case, you would expect the growth of more militant forms of Scottish nationalism. That does not necessarily mean Salmond’s Alba Party, which failed to win any seats to Holyrood in 2021, attracting only 1.7% of the vote, surprising many people. Having said that, Salmond seems more willing to go down a radical or unconstitutional path.

However, conditions seem ripe for some sort of Labour revival, simply because, if you take one of the biggest arguments for voting SNP, it has been that if you do not have independence then you will end up under a Tory government. Needless to say, this is a very powerful argument in the central belt of Scotland, which has seen traditional Labour areas, including in Glasgow, being taken by the SNP - but on a anti-Tory basis, rather than being captivated by a romantic nationalist dream of a ‘free and independent Scotland forging its own destiny’.

Now things are different. If we get a handsome Labour majority at the next general election, which seems the likely outcome at the moment - including a swing to Labour in Scotland - it will no longer be the case that you need independence or even an SNP government to avoid getting the Tories.