A fruitless crown

The contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon has proved unexpectedly fraught. Scott Evans reports on a movement that has run out of options

It has been a rocky few months for Scotland’s ruling party and the UK’s third largest party, the Scottish National Party. On March 17, around one month after Nicola Sturgeon stepped down from her role as leader and hence first minister of Scotland, SNP media chief Murray Foote stepped down too, following a scandal about party membership numbers. The following day, Sturgeon’s husband and party chief executive, Peter Murrell, who had been in post since 1999, threw in the towel, citing primarily this scandal.

The SNP has lost around 30,000 members in two years - down from around 100,000 - a loss which Foote had initially publicly denied to the press.1 The failure to inform the candidates and this lying to the media is (claimed to be) what sunk both Foote and Murrell. Officials have since played down the membership drop by pointing to the SNP’s relative size compared to other Scottish parties - convincing nobody except party loyalists. Sturgeon denies she knew about the numbers, but this is perhaps another reason for her swift exit in February.2

In the days leading up to Murrell’s departure it was revealed that the party’s national executive committee was set to hold a no-confidence vote in him, which he was expected to lose. Seeing the writing on the wall, he resigned. The fact that this has happened now - not immediately following Sturgeon’s departure and not after the leadership election is over on March 27, but in the final two weeks of the contest, which will shape the party’s future - is a testament to the fractious internal politics of the SNP at the moment. They are in the midst of a full-blown succession crisis, created (or at least greatly exacerbated) by the generally highly bureaucratic-centralist nature of the SNP under Sturgeon, her mode of personalist rule, and the seeming complete lack of a succession plan.

The background is, of course, Sturgeon’s political failings. Firstly, the SNP has failed to deliver a realistic scenario for a second referendum, since the first one in 2014, when Sturgeon first took the reins - calling into question the party’s raison d’être. Subsequently there has been not only the missing party finances scandal, but also the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (GRRB) fiasco and the Tories’ invocation of section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 to block it. Signalling the Tories’ intention to continue this open war on the SNP, they are also planning to block a new bottle recycling scheme, which the SNP needs permission for (though this is disputed), because it would mean different regulations for the same product in Scotland from the rest of the UK.3

The GRRB and the Tory response has been fully covered in the Weekly Worker (not least in Mike Macnair’s recent series). The other major scandal - around party finances - has been bubbling away since 2017, when supporters raised £600,000 to be used specifically for independence campaigning. Most of that money - around £500,000 - completely disappeared within two years and no account of it has yet been produced.4 In mid-2021, Police Scotland confirmed it had opened a probe into the affair and by mid-2022 it emerged that Murrell himself - party chief executive, remember - had made an undeclared loan to the party of around £100,000 (interest-free too - awfully nice of him). On resigning, Sturgeon did not openly blame the furore over the GRRB, but very obviously she was leaving at the height of it, as a martyr for ‘progressive nationalism’, wistfully reminiscing at the podium about everything she had managed to do for country, women and children. Suffice to say, there is more to her exit than the GRRB.


The three candidates in the contest are Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, with the surprising absence of party faithfuls Angus Robertson and John Swinney. As Regan is unlikely to win, I will not discuss her.

Yousaf is frequently described as the continuity candidate. Followers of Scottish politics will mostly know him as the first Muslim to enter the Scottish government, as well as from his shoddy record in his various posts - most recently, health secretary. As justice secretary (2018-21) he spearheaded the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill,5 which created a new offence of “stirring up hatred”6 against protected groups, with wider application than the Public Order Act 1986 on which it was based, and Yousaf has said he believed it should also apply in private dwellings. If he wins the leadership, I might be able to put this to the test and settle disputes over the dinner table with a secret recording device and a quick 999 call. Although as health secretary (during Covid) he urged people to “think twice” before calling 999 and asking for an ambulance, I trust he will support my approach to future dinner parties.

Forbes is in some ways the most interesting. A devout member of the Free Church of Scotland, following her parents, who were missionaries, she has conservative social politics. She is opposed to abortion, sex before marriage, gay marriage, trans rights, and so on. She is a proud neoliberal, having been a member of the Sustainable Growth Commission, which left supporters of independence often hold up as proof that the SNP wants an independent, neoliberal Scotland, whereas they want an independent, social democratic (‘socialist’) Scotland. Speaking to the Scottish TUC, she claimed to believe in “progressive income tax”, but then told the BBC she would rule out further income tax rises (no doubt a ‘speak left, act right’ habit has been ingrained in her, during her relatively short time in the SNP). One might assume that the views of a candidate like Forbes - with all the neoliberalism of SNP party orthodoxy (despite their ‘talking left’ on various issues), but none of their social liberalism - would be unpalatable to members: ie, all neoliberal stick, but no ‘social justice’ carrot. But not so.

According to a recent poll, Yousaf is currently sitting on 31% of first-preference votes, Regan on 11% and Forbes on 25%.7 If all of Regan’s second-preference votes went to Forbes, this would put Forbes on 36%. Because the remaining 32% of undecided members is a large proportion - a sign of membership dissatisfaction with their options - where they decide to place their vote will be critical. If you are a betting person, you should put your money on Yousaf: more conservative-leaning members are not stupid and will recognise that a Forbes first minister would alienate a lot of SNP supporters, so many will vote Yousaf to ‘maintain party unity’. But it is not impossible that Forbes could eke out a victory. Accounting for SNP membership opinion on independence (a surprisingly large minority would be fine with a ‘devolution max’ arrangement) would take more than I have space for here.

Left nationalists

The main representatives of the ‘leftwing’ case for independence are the Scottish Greens. The cooperation deal between the SNP and the Scottish Greens is likely to falter, especially now that Yousaf seems to be backing down on taking the UK government to court.8 Where the Scottish Greens have power locally, they have often betrayed their own left credentials by agreeing to neoliberal policies.9 Their behaviour in local and national government is exactly what the CPGB repeatedly warns against. If you take power in an institution or system which is decidedly moulded by the interests of capital, without a minimum programme to overthrow capital’s control, you will legislate in the interests of capital, whether you like it or not. Not that the Greens’ class base is particularly working class in the first place; their focus on environmental regulation and social politics will always be able to help them get by with their supporters.

As for the Scottish Socialist Party, its marginality and uninspiring policy commitments are barely worth remarking on. Suffice to say, they remain symbolic of what happens when you water down your politics - if they were not already watered down enough - in order to tail ‘progressive civic nationalism’. Somehow, no matter how many bins and lamp posts I walk past in Scotland plastered with a big SSP poster or sticker demanding a “National Care Service”, a “£10 minimum wage”, a “Scottish Green New Deal” or an “Independent Socialist Scotland”, I remain unconvinced.

The Radical Independence Campaign folded in 2021, but some local groups have continued holding the banner.10 Some pine after the glory days of 2014, where mass civil society campaigning and an inspiring wash of ideas were the order of the day. A revived grassroots independence campaign is needed, so it goes, leading to a constituent assembly. But - c’est la vie - wishful thinking, wistful longing, stunts and rallies alone cannot magic something into existence. The movement did not exist prior to David Cameron’s 2012 section 30 order and the birth of the diverse ‘yes’ movement for independence, and it will take a similarly dramatic turn of events to revive it. In the meantime, criticising the plans of the SNP and demanding a more radical, democratic alternative is the name of the game for the Radical Independence Campaign and groups like it. The failed ‘Rise - Scotland’s Left Alliance’ initiative in 2016 also lived in the shadow of the failures of the SSP, RIC and other groups to materialise as a significant oppositional left force inside of the struggle for independence.

As is the case with so many of the left’s errors, the tailing of nationalism has, at its root, a small handful of general sources, alongside the multitude of specific ones. The failure of the revolutionary left to unite behind the call for a Communist Party, its failure to orient around a minimum programme for working class sovereignty and a maximum programme for communism, its pessimism about the possibility of the working class transformation of society, and a genuine or opportunistic misunderstanding of the capitalist state and international state system and the need for working class internationalism. All of these issues are interrelated. Once you fully grok all of this, it also becomes quite obvious why socialism in one country cannot work either.


The prospects for independence via the SNP are now incredibly slim. In his parting statement, Peter Murrell said: “I do firmly believe that independence is now closer than ever”, while Regan seems to be deeply deluded on the de facto referendum and Forbes believes independence may just be years away.11 When assessing the purpose of an organisation, start not with what its members say its purpose is, but with what the organisation consistently does. We should thus judge the SNP’s purpose to be maintaining an illusion in its out-of-steam strategy for Scottish independence and, by doing so, staying in office nationally and locally across Scotland - on top of continuing to foster illusions in its left credentials, despite marginalising other approaches to politics, such as those based on class.

Without an alternative, just as Labourism would likely continue even absent Labour, SNPism - a ‘progressive civic nationalism’ with a gradualist and legal approach to seeking independence - would survive without the SNP. It will continue to define Scottish politics. But without clear options for strategy on the table, and with no extra-parliamentary movement for independence likely soon to appear, it is set to continue to decline and fracture, until the root causes of support for Scottish independence are undermined, either through a revived UK-wide working class movement or alternative constitutional arrangements like federalism or ever-greater devolution.

  1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-64975642.↩︎

  2. news.stv.tv/politics/ash-regan-its-hard-to-believe-nicola-sturgeon-didnt-know-about-snp-losing-30000-members.↩︎

  3. www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/mar/13/uk-government-poised-to-block-scottish-bottle-recycling-scheme.↩︎

  4. www.ft.com/content/2b52b813-2bc1-4b7c-a460-3b6d56fd8157.↩︎

  5. www.parliament.scot/bills-and-laws/bills/hate-crime-and-public-order-scotland-bill.↩︎

  6. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-53580326.↩︎

  7. savanta.com/knowledge-centre/published-polls/snp-members-poll-daily-telegraph-3-march-2023.↩︎

  8. www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/mar/21/humza-yousaf-seems-to-backtrack-over-fight-with-uk-government-on-gender-recognition-bill.↩︎

  9. tribunemag.co.uk/2022/04/scottish-green-party-snp-climate-crisis.↩︎

  10. ric.scot/local-groups.↩︎

  11. www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/mar/12/snps-kate-forbes-signals-scottish-independence-vote-could-be-years-away.↩︎