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by Mandy Rhodes
12 March 2023
The SNP leadership contest has exposed a surprising level of political naivety and a party at war

The three leadership candidates at a hustings in Glenrothes | Pic: Alamy

The SNP leadership contest has exposed a surprising level of political naivety and a party at war

For a country so electorally literate, force-fed manifestoes, caught up in the whirl of constant election campaigns, engulfed by constitutional debates, and where calls for another referendum and shouts of “democracy denial” have become the soundtrack of our times, the contest to crown a new leader of the SNP, and our next first minister, has exposed a surprising level of political naivety and a party at war with itself.

And while it has been received wisdom that there was always going to be a bloody cleft in the SNP at some point, most people believed that would only come once independence had been won – not played out in real time when the stakes are still so high. 

The SNP is at a crossroads, self-evidently. The departure of both Nicola Sturgeon as first minister and John Swinney as her deputy marks the end of an era. And once the mourning was quickly dispensed with, the race to replace should have heralded the start of an energetic battle to win the hearts and minds of the membership, and then of the country.

A renewed approach to building the case for independence, which had stagnated under Sturgeon, and some soul searching to assess whether success in successive elections – “eight in eight” – was becoming the obstacle on that journey as their record in government became tested.

But with the tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifting so fast and with a backdrop of support for independence and for the party falling, the normally tight ship SNP has been plunged into a very public and bruising leadership contest which has given the opposition some great campaigning lines, even dragged God into it, and could yet lead to the final schism.

But how can it be in a country so electorally savvy, where the minutiae over what it even means to be progressive is scrapped over, and where the government of the last 16 years has had an uber-flexible ideology to issues of social justice and economics – that the fact the SNP is a broad political church, encompassing left, right, and all in between comes as a shock to anyone, not least its members? 

It is too simplistic to say that the party could lurch to the left or the right, depending on whether it is Humza Yousaf or Kate Forbes who wins the leadership [it could be Ash Regan, but at this stage, I’ll hazard a guess that she won’t]. Forbes clearly holds some socially conservative views shaped by her religious beliefs which, for many, are an anathema in 21st century Scotland but to cast her as some Tartan Tory is simply wrong.

Forbes grew up in India, the daughter of a missionary, and it is those formative years that have arguably shaped her world view on things, like the eradication of poverty and the redistribution of wealth, much more so than anything that comes straight from the pages of the Bible. She is economically literate, understands the importance of business to the economy, and is hardly likely to suggest her next budget be based on the doling out of loaves and fishes. 

The party’s deputy leader at Westminster, Mhairi Black, has warned that if Forbes, the current finance secretary, becomes the next first minister, it will risk splitting the SNP. She makes that incendiary claim based entirely on Forbes’s standing on particular social issues which, she says, have been “damaging for the party”.

The normally tight ship SNP has been plunged into a very public and bruising leadership contest which has given the opposition some great campaigning lines, even dragged God into it, and could yet lead to the final schism.

Forbes has said her faith would have precluded her from voting for equal marriage had she then been an MSP. Her answer revealed a disarming level of honesty which was, at best, poorly framed and has hurt many, for which she later apologised, but led to Black saying no members under 35 would get out campaigning for independence with Forbes as FM. 

It might be news to Black – who, after all, should, given her prominent leadership role, have her finger, if not on the political pulse of the country, then certainly of her party – but that split had already begun. Forbes didn’t create the fracture. Sturgeon did. And the party is as much that of Forbes’ as it is of Black’s. And if recent analysis is correct, it is a tiny minority of SNP members who fall into the demographic Black is using as her battering ram.

And while it’s no secret that Forbes and Black do not share the same attitudes on, for example, specific aspects of the reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, that is an issue that has not only created fissures in the party but also the country and was, arguably, a major contributor to Sturgeon standing down. 

The toxic debacle over the gender reforms and specifically, the contentious system of self-identification for transgender people, and the subsequent invoking of the never-before-used Section 35 of the Scotland Act – which allows for the UK Government to block devolved legislation where it believes there could be a risk to reserved matters, most notably, in this case, the Equality Act – coupled with the bizarre pledge by Sturgeon to count the next general election as a de facto referendum had already lost her support. Polls revealed how out of step she was with the country and with her party.

But with her gone, those two issues remain. And they have put clear blue water between Yousaf and Forbes. On the GRR and S35, Yousaf, the more honed politician, is up for the fight with Westminster, which could play well with members, while Forbes believes that Holyrood could find a solution to the problematic elements of the legislation which gives dignity to trans people while preserving the rights of women. She has said she will not go into a legal battle with the UK Government if she thinks Scotland could lose.

But it is on the approach to independence where Forbes and Yousaf meet. Basically, independence isn’t coming anytime soon. And while that might be an unpalatable message for SNP members to digest, it is one that Sturgeon should have been honest about. 

The next referendum is a long way off. Independence has been parked and whether the next leader is Yousaf or Forbes, this will need to be about getting back to a sense of competence in government and if that is a throwback to 2007 and operating as a minority government, then the lesson to take is that it worked for the SNP then.

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