Scottish independence at crossroads in SNP leadership race
LONDON — The Scottish National Party finds Nicola Sturgeon a tough act to follow.
Scotland’s ruling party is holding an acrimonious contest to replace Sturgeon, a leader who came to dominate Scottish politics but hit a dead end in her fight for independence from the UK and split the party with a transgender rights law.
Sturgeon, 52, announced his resignation in February after eight years as party leader and first minister of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government. Three members of the Scottish parliament are standing to replace her: Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, 32; Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, 37; and 49-year-old lawmaker Ash Regan. The winner of an SNP membership vote will be announced on March 27.
The campaign opened up cracks within the party over political strategy, social issues, and Sturgeon’s legacy.
Critics say a clique around the former prime minister wields too much power in the SNP. Those rivals scored a victory when party chief executive Peter Murrell – Sturgeon’s 58-year-old husband – resigned on Saturday over a boondoggle over the party’s declining membership.
The SNP had publicly denied a newspaper report that its membership had fallen from over 100,000 to just over 70,000 in the past year, before admitting it was true. Murrell accepted responsibility and resigned, saying “although there was no intent to mislead, I accept that was the result”.
Regan welcomed Murrell’s departure, saying it was “unacceptable to have the party leader’s husband as CEO”. Forbes said the party base felt powerless because “decisions within the SNP were made by too few people”.
Sturgeon’s resignation sparked a battle for the leadership of the SNP, which currently holds 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament and governs in coalition with the much smaller Greens.
In moody televised debates, Regan and Forbes attacked Yousaf – a Sturgeon ally widely seen as the frontrunner – as a candidate for continuity in a party badly in need of change.
“Right now we are at a crossroads,” Forbes told the BBC in an interview broadcast on Sunday, saying the Scottish government needed to do more to support an economy weakened by Russia’s war in Ukraine, COVID -19 and Brexit. “We have to take seriously what worked and what didn’t.”
Forbes’ message appeals to some in the party, who believe the SNP under Sturgeon has spent too much time focusing on divisive social issues rather than the economy and independence. Sturgeon’s departure was hastened by a backlash against legislation she championed to allow Scots to legally change their gender.
The Gender Recognition Bill has been hailed as landmark legislation by transgender rights campaigners, but has faced opposition from some SNP members who say it ignores the need to protect single-sex spaces for women, such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centres.
Both Forbes and Regan oppose the legislation, which was passed by the Scottish parliament but blocked by the UK government. Yousaf supports him and warns that the party could swing to the right if led by Forbes, a socially conservative Christian seen as his main rival.
Forbes, who belongs to the Evangelical Free Church of Scotland, has come under fire for saying her faith would have stopped her from voting in favor of marriage for same-sex couples. She was not yet a lawmaker when the Scottish Parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2014.
The leadership race has sent SNP polls plummeting – much to the delight of Labor and the Conservatives, who hope to win seats in Scotland in the next UK-wide election, due by the end of 2024.
The tense race also reflects frustrations within a party which, after 16 years in power in Edinburgh, has still not achieved its main ambition: independence.
Scots voted to stay in the UK in a 2014 referendum that was billed as a once-in-a-generation decision. The SNP want a new vote, but the central government has refused to allow one, and the UK Supreme Court has ruled Scotland cannot hold one without London’s consent.
Regan wants to sweep away these obstacles by treating Scotland’s upcoming election as a “trigger point” for independence, effectively challenging the British government not to recognize Scotland’s democratic choice to secede.
Forbes and Yousaf are more cautious. Forbes has called for more efforts to convince voters who want to stay in the UK, while Yousaf says he wants to build an “established and sustainable” majority for independence. Polls currently suggest Scottish voters are roughly evenly split on the issue.
Leading Scottish historian Tom Devine said that with independence receding as an immediate prospect, many voters had more pressing concerns – and that poses a risk for the SNP.
“The perception is that the mainstream of Scottish public opinion is primarily concerned with issues of the (healthcare system), education standards, transport infrastructure and the wider economy,” he said. he told the Scottish Herald newspaper. “Are parts of the electorate now beginning to feel left out and conclude that the SNP government has failed to answer these vital questions?”