Nicola Sturgeon's successor will take over at a time when a referendum feels more remote than ever
In the week after Nicola Sturgeon resigned as Scotland’s first minister, one opinion poll put support for independence at 46 per cent, roughly in line with where it sat in 2014 when she took office. According to the YouGov survey, around four in ten Scots think Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic is her biggest achievement compared with just six per cent who cited her success at furthering the cause for separation from the UK.
In truth, the SNP leader spent more time during these past eight years on process, on the mechanism for securing another referendum, than she did on making the case for why Scotland’s future is brighter outside of the UK.
Far from setting out a positive vision of independence, it has felt during these last few years like Sturgeon focused instead on harnessing negativity about events at Westminster, such as when Scotland was taken out of the European Union against its will or when those north of the border ended up with Boris Johnson as prime minister despite electing just a handful of Tory MPs.
A charitable analysis of her time in office is that best-laid plans got banjaxed first by Brexit, then Covid, and ultimately by an economic slowdown which has put a squeeze on household budgets and public finances alike. Less charitably, the SNP got high on hubris and mangled the old political maxim of under promising and over delivering.
Now it falls to a new leader to reunite a badly divided Yes movement and once again put forward a case for leaving the United Kingdom. But the new first minister inherits an in-tray of looming disasters, from the embattled deposit return scheme to the apparently universally unpopular National Care Service. And while Sturgeon leaves behind some apathetic polling, she also hands over the reigns at a time when a referendum looks further away than at any point since Britain’s vote to leave the EU in 2016.
With the legal route having run its course and the prospect of a de facto vote at the next general election now apparently dead, the party would perhaps be better served building popular support for the cause instead of dreaming up another wheeze to secure a referendum.
Humza Yousaf appears to have recognised this, telling party members at the first in a series of leadership hustings that he didn’t want to get “bogged down by process”. Paying tribute to Sturgeon as the “smartest person I know,” Yousaf said that had there been “a quick ruse, a quick way of getting our independence, trust me – Nicola would have found it…”
So far in the campaign, Yousaf has sought to distance himself from the de facto referendum plan, appearing instead to favour an ultra-gradualist approach aimed at building a sustained majority for independence. But his pledge to be not just first minister but “first activist” and his plan to hold campaign workshops and set up an “instant rebuttal unit” to counter anti-independence “misinformation” from the mainstream media is hardly going to set the heather alight.
For her part, Kate Forbes has also stressed the importance of building support by reaching out to those beyond the Yes movement. But she also wants to go into the next general election seeking a mandate to have the legal powers for holding a referendum transferred from Westminster to Holyrood within three months of the vote.
“In that election, we will put independence front and centre, and we will look for a mandate to ensure that the legal powers to hold a referendum be transferred within three months,” she told party members at a hustings.
Ash Regan favours what she calls the “voter empowerment mechanism” which would see the referendum route to independence ditched altogether to revert back to the SNP’s former position that a vote for the party is a vote for separation. Should a majority vote for that position at the next general election, she hopes it would bring sufficient pressure to bear on the UK Government that it would begin negotiations on breaking up the Union.
Robin McAlpine, who has been informally advising both Forbes’ and Regan’s campaigns, says the first priority for the new leader, whoever they are, is to reconcile the wider Yes movement after it has become increasingly fractured in recent years, particularly with the appearance of Alex Salmond’s Alba party in 2021.
“It won’t be seamless,” McAlpine says. “But those with daggers drawn are a much smaller group than it would appear. The ones that are actually in combat with one another are comparatively small.
“A SNP leader doesn’t have to have some big kiss and makeup with Alba, all they have to do is make it clear they want the guns put away.”
While much of that animus comes from the high-profile falling out between Salmond and his one-time deputy and political protégé, there is also considerable frustration at the SNP’s failure to secure a referendum under Sturgeon’s leadership.
It was against this rising tide of resentment that the first minister last year took the dramatic step of taking her case to the Supreme Court, seeking clarity on whether the Scottish Parliament could legislate for such a vote. For Sturgeon, a usually pragmatic and risk-averse politician, it was a considerable gamble and one that would ultimately not pay off.
Following the court’s unanimous decision that the matter of legislating for constitutional change is a matter for Westminster not Holyrood, Sturgeon was forced to revert to her plan B – the de facto referendum.
Writing in this magazine in January, Salmond criticised what he called the “extraordinary political ineptitude” of the SNP under his successor to push the UK Government on the issue of independence, saying that “zero political pressure” had been brought to bear on four successive prime ministers to accede to demands for another referendum.
Of the three candidates to be the next leader, Regan’s vision for independence comes closest to Salmond’s. She has committed to setting up a constitutional convention and believes a pro-independence majority at an election should be enough to trigger negotiations with Westminster.
Launching her campaign on a crisp February morning in the shadow of the Forth bridges, the former community safety minister, who resigned in protest over gender reform, was asked by journalists when she had last spoken to Salmond and whether she would have the former first minister back in the SNP. Her perceived proximity to the former leader has led one commentator to dub her “Salmond’s sock puppet”.
Indeed, Regan has already been in contact with disparate figures in the nationalist movement, including Tommy Sheridan and Colin Fox of the Scottish Socialist Party. Salmond responded to her call with a tweet, saying Alba would be “delighted” to participate in the proposed independence convention.
She has also been mocked for her suggestion that a “readiness thermometer” could be installed in a public place either in Edinburgh or Glasgow to gauge support for separation, and that an independent central bank could be set up ahead of Scotland becoming independent.
If Regan is Salmond’s horse in the race, then Yousaf is very much Sturgeon’s. Unapologetically the continuity candidate, the health secretary has the support of Cabinet members including John Swinney and Angus Robertson as well as SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn.
But Yousaf’s approach to independence looks cautious even by the standards of the current inhabitant of Bute House. He has admitted there is no “sustained majority” for independence, arguing that only when it becomes the clear “settled will” of the Scottish people, will it be possible to force the UK Government to accept the demand for another referendum.
“Anybody that comes to this campaign and has a ruse cooked up in the oven that suggests we can get independence tomorrow is, I’m afraid, not being honest with the party membership or the public,” he said in a TV interview.
Despite being the candidate most likely to continue with the bulk of Sturgeon’s policy agenda, even Yousaf has expressed reservations about the de facto referendum strategy, telling party members he’s not “wedded” to the idea.
For Forbes, whose early campaigning was dominated by comments she made on same-sex marriage, there is a need to “reset” the independence campaign. While she plans to go into the next general election seeking to devolve to Holyrood the power to call a referendum, she has also spoken of the need to listen to No voters, complaining that the “conversation has become so embroiled in discussions about process that we’ve given up on actually trying to persuade people”.
During the first in a series of TV debates, the finance secretary gave a damning, at times brutal, appraisal of her own government’s record. Asked if she would find a place in her Cabinet for Yousaf should she become first minister, she said: “There is room for Humza Yousaf – maybe not in health…”
Whatever their position on a referendum and their determination to put independence at the front and centre of their campaigns, all three candidates know there is not likely to be a vote on Scotland leaving the UK anytime soon. The government at Westminster will likely continue to refuse to a grant a section 30 order to allow for a referendum regardless of whether the prime minister is Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer.
The next first minister will encounter the same problem as their predecessor – an impatient membership clamouring for change coming up against a government at Westminster which is unlikely to budge. If there was a strategy under Sturgeon, then that strategy looks to be dead.
With around a fortnight of the leadership campaign left, it’s clear the party’s brand – its reputation for unity and discipline – will be significantly damaged. Whoever replaces Sturgeon inherits a situation where much of her legacy will need unpicked, not only the deposit return scheme and the National Care Service, but potentially the timetable to dual the A9, the need for a legal challenge on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill and the de facto referendum. And all that will need to be done without John Swinney, the deputy first minister widely seen as a steadying hand in the government, who is also stepping down.
After nearly nine years of stability and electoral success under Sturgeon, her successor must chart their own path. Whether they can bring the party and the wider independence movement with them remains to be seen.