Nicola Sturgeon: should she go or should she stay?

Arrested development

Scott Evans looks at the paradox of continued support for independence and the revival of the Scottish Labour Party

The two most recent stories consuming Scottish politics stand in symbolically for the two great questions hanging over everything in Scotland. On the one hand, we saw the arrest of the former leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, who was subsequently released without charge. Then there was the (failed) attempt of the Scottish Tories to pass a vote of no confidence in the Green Party’s Lorna Slater - minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity in Scotland - for the decisions surrounding the so-far failing deposit return scheme (DRS).1

These represent, respectively, the vacuum of decisive and competent leadership in the organisational forefront of the Scottish independence movement, the SNP, and the case-by-case attack of the Tories on both the SNP specifically and Scottish devolution generally.

The arrest of Sturgeon was not particularly surprising, being the last of those major names listed on the various important documents implicated in the finances scandal, alongside Peter Murrell and Colin Beattie. Besides the coverage - mainly in the Tory press - of the potential of the “cash in envelopes” development in the finances scandal,2 there is not in my view a whole lot new to say about recent news relating to the investigation in general or Sturgeon in particular. Nevertheless, while Sturgeon’s eventual arrest was about as equally expected as the eventual death of Silvio Berlusconi, like his death it reignited a flurry of debate on the major topics of the day relating to the figure of concern: Sturgeon’s own career, the future of the SNP, the possibility of Scottish independence, the decision of current SNP leader and first minister Humza Yousaf to run as a “continuity candidate” (regretting that one perhaps?), and what exactly the obligations should be for a former leader accused of a crime in relation to her party.

If Sturgeon stays, she will be a ‘distraction’ from the SNP government agenda and the narrative they are trying to build around it. But, if she goes, she will be taking an action which in some ways announces a degree of non-innocence, and which sets a precedent which would allow ‘just asking questions’ police investigations to be used as political weapons in the future.


Alex Salmond, speaking on the podcast Holyrood Sources,3 was, as one would expect, fairly scathing about the state of the SNP. He said that it brings him no joy to see the party in disrepair, at the same time bemoaning the party’s transformation from a “volunteer party” with “inherent decency” and “very few careerists” to something approaching the opposite today. He also claimed that it has ceased to be a democratic party which can hold its leadership to account and where the rank and file can contribute to the direction of policy and strategy. While technically refusing to say whether he would support her suspension from the party, he did say that “Nicola Sturgeon would have suspended Nicola Sturgeon” - later claiming in an interview with Sky News that Sturgeon and her husband and ex-chief exec Peter Murrell “used to suspend people at the drop of a hat”.

But Salmond offers no explanation as to why the party has gone this way. In the story he would have us believe, it is as if everything has gone downhill since he himself resigned as leader and later exited the party in 2018. Perhaps he is fatalistic with respect to party politics in general and believes that one has to regularly spawn new organisations, as the old organisations begin to bureaucratise, in a phoenix-like cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

The development of the SNP is at least in part a result of its ‘professionalisation’ while in government, meaning the development of an eminently corruptible, bureaucratic layer trained in the daily business of government administration, wheeling and dealing, schmoozing, and so on; and also its broad-frontist strategy for carrying the independence movement to power with (for now) a technocratic, ‘civic nationalist’ wing in the driving seat.

Being the leader of his new party, Alba, which split from the SNP in 2021, Salmond has a personal interest in advocating a multi-party approach to securing independence, culminating either in something akin to a ‘de facto referendum’ or a multi-party ‘convention on independence’. Salmond has suggested that the SNP, Alba, the Scottish Greens and even the Scottish Socialist Party should be working together to secure independence, while maintaining organisational separation. The debate is reminiscent of those on the socialist/communist left around whether to organise into a single party or whether to organise as associations and networks of independent organisations working towards the same goal, with fundamentally different programmes and perhaps even mutually incompatible strategies for achieving that goal.

In terms of Salmond’s continued influence or not, he claims that Alba is the third largest party in Scotland by membership at around 8,000, despite its current status as an electoral near nonentity. But the Scottish Tories refuse to release membership figures and so it is hard to verify Salmond’s claim; in any case, Alba is certainly bigger by membership than the Scottish Liberal Democrats and very similar in number to the Scottish Greens (though one can never really trust formal membership numbers on their own).

Ironically, the Tories’ attacks on devolution may well provide something of an out for the SNP in terms of the current political impasse. In the mid-to-long term there is Yousaf’s push for 60% support for independence via a period of simple ‘good government’ (however unrealistic this is). In the short term there is the task of defending devolution, providing both an opportunity to look back on the history, as well as giving a disappointed, neglected and weary rank and file something ‘positive’ and immediate to fight for.4 As Yousaf has said, “we are facing a steady erosion of the powers of our parliament”. Meanwhile, the SNP will point to independence as the only act which can truly secure what has already been ‘gained’ by devolution, and more besides.


That brings us to the recent vote of no confidence in Green Skills etc minister, Scottish Greens co-Leader Lorna Slater, brought forward by the Scottish Tories. Besides one rebel SNP MSP, Fergus Ewing, the vote of no confidence in Slater fell precisely along party lines, with 68 voting against her removal and 55 for. Given it had little chance of passing, Slater is probably correct to label it a “shameless political stunt”, but to what end? Perhaps to add to the already present aura of chaos surrounding the Scottish parliament in recent months. Perhaps to try and drive at weaknesses in the two Green MSPs currently propping up the SNP government. Perhaps as a ‘distraction’ from Tory misrule in Westminster. Irrespective of why, it has triggered yet another round in the debates around devolution.

A deposit return scheme is not exactly the most exciting thing that has ever been covered in a communist newspaper, but a brief digression is necessary to explain the source of this vote. Essentially, a DRS adds an additional cost - in the Scottish case 20p (typical for these schemes in Europe generally, it seems) - on the price of single-use or low-reuse products which it covers. You can recover this cost by returning your plastic bottle, can or glass bottle either to a shop involved in the scheme or at any of the various local collection points. As someone who has attended music festivals implementing 10p schemes and witnessed some festival-goers carrying metres-tall stacks of plastic cups, I can say that it does work, at least on that scale.5

The ‘issue’ posed by Scotland’s scheme is the proposal to include glass. Though England is poised to introduce a similar scheme by 2025, it will not include glass, unlike proposals made also by Wales. This is said to risk raising de facto trade barriers between Scotland and Wales on the one side, and England on the other, making it fall foul of the Internal Markets Act (2020), so long as the Tories refuse to grant an exemption. Welsh first minister and Labour leader in Wales Mark Drakeford, when approached by the BBC for comment, said he would “dispute the use of the Internal Market Act for these purposes”.6

Whatever truth there is in the various causes offered for the failed roll-out of this scheme, whether it is down to small and large industry lobbyists, the Scottish government’s incompetence, the Tories’ so-called ‘11th hour intervention’ and general hostility, or all of the above, there can be no doubt that it has been yet another front on which the Tories have been hammering the SNP and devolution. We should expect to see more such cases, unless Keir Starmer’s Labour takes the reins and pursues a fundamentally different approach, come the next UK general election.


By far the most notable aspect of opinion polling has been the continued detachment between approval levels shown for the SNP and for Scottish independence. Independence has barely shifted at all in terms of historical averages, while support for the SNP has shrunk dramatically. The recent by-election win for Scottish Labour in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, cannot be used as anything like a bellwether for the SNP, as the incumbent, Jordan Linden, resigned due to sexual assault allegations, and the turnout was a mere 22.7%. Nevertheless, Scottish Labour has been predicted to take as many as 20 seats from the SNP at the next election.7 Starmer has claimed he wants a strong showing in Scotland for reasons of ‘legitimacy’, though one expects what he is really thinking is that he needs an actual majority in the House of Commons.

Polls are rarely used for much more than triggering talking points. More important is to look at relative polling, such as the detachment of support for independence and the SNP, and to try and explain - if the polling reflects reality - what causes may be behind it. Through attempting to understand the potential cause, one can gather a much deeper understanding of the political situation and plan accordingly. But I have to throw my hands up and say I do not know what will happen come election time, except the obvious in terms of some Labour wins.

Some who only vote SNP as the representatives of a ‘realistic vehicle’ for independence despite not sharing all or much of their politics may be convinced to hold on and vote SNP again in the face of the devolution threat posed by the Tories. Some current SNP supporters who presently find little hope for independence may turn to the Scottish Greens, but this will only be a small minority. Others will simply not vote, refusing to hand their vote to Labour even temporarily, having never forgiven them for their role in the ‘no’ campaign in the 2014 referendum. Others - perhaps the most significant contingent (combined with non-voters) if polling is to be believed - will temporarily hand their vote to Labour. What the long-term outcome of this will be is anyone’s guess, but I expect this will be more determined by broader tendencies in UK-wide politics if things are to change more permanently.

In the face of this desolate landscape, those on the Scottish left who continue to act like the only two options available are adopting left-Brexiteer arguments around ‘national sovereignty’, on the one hand, and socialistic versions of the technocratic transnationalism of institutions like the EU, on the other8 (ie, tailing trends on the left south of the border versus trailing the SNP), have forgotten one key alternative: working class internationalism aimed at a communist horizon of general emancipation. I am certain that those who ignore this option have not really forgotten. Rather, they see it as either a utopian demand of times past or as being premature in a time where ‘revolutionary crisis’ has not yet arrived.

If it seems ridiculous to them, it is because the left’s political horizons have shrunk, not because of any real change in society and future possibilities, but because of the legacy of historical defeats and failures.

  1. I briefly noted the scheme and the UK government’s intent to block it in ‘A fruitless crown’, Weekly Worker March 23 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1435/a-fruitless-crown).↩︎

  2. Eg, www.scottishdailyexpress.co.uk/news/politics/snp-cash-envelopes-claims-being-30261361.↩︎

  3. podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/exclusive-alex-salmond/id1673972192?i=1000616932159.↩︎

  4. See: www.thenational.scot/politics/23600122.scotlands-future-eroding-witness-erosion-devolution and some Tweets from the official SNP account: twitter.com/theSNP/status/1668918492576268289 and twitter.com/theSNP/status/1669397828957765641.↩︎

  5. .Recycling International’s numbers seem to support the claim that it works, and very well too, for what it is trying to achieve: recyclinginternational.com/technology/learning-from-the-worlds-best-deposit-return-systems/46477.↩︎

  6. Brief interview here: twitter.com/GlennBBC/status/1664339467392393218, similar to Slater’s intervention in the Scottish Parliament, a fragment of which can be viewed here: twitter.com/blairanderson35/status/1671160449583443973.↩︎

  7. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-65262880.↩︎

  8. www.conter.scot/2023/6/6/to-survive-scottish-independence-must-abandon-civic-nationalism.↩︎