20 March 2023

A chaotic leadership contest has erased the SNP’s sheen of invincibility


It’s not the fact that Nicola Sturgeon has handed in her notice as First Minister of Scotland or that her husband has belatedly resigned as the SNP’s chief executive that is surprising. It’s the swiftness of recent events that bedazzles, it is the total collapse of the SNP’s façade of seriousness, discipline and unity in the space of a few weeks that has provided Scots with jaw-dropping headlines.

It might even be a tribute to the nationalist movement that its fiercest opponents are themselves astounded by recent events, hence revealing themselves to have bought into the notion that the SNP was an invincible political monolith that would be with us always.

It is far too soon to write off the SNP, however, and it’s heartening to speak to certain Scottish Labour people who concede this is the case. After a decade or more of being kicked around by the electorate, Labour is understandably keen to dampen down expectations of the kind of revival that would see its parliamentary representation return to pre-2015 levels. 

Recent polls suggest that despite everything, the SNP remain Scotland’s most popular party. That will remain the case after its new leader is chosen, for the short term at least. Even the most optimistic Labour supporters hope that the party might succeed in winning perhaps up to a dozen parliamentary seats at the next UK general election. The fate of the Scottish Conservatives’ half dozen seats will depend more on how popular the UK government is than how the SNP is doing.

It might be too much to hope that the chaos of the last month will continue long after the new SNP leader is announced; it is possible that the new First Minister will impress, that his or her party will rally around, forget the divisions of the leadership contest and take the fight to their opponents once more.

But looking at the field of candidates in contention, it’s difficult to see such an outcome. The front runner is assumed to be Humza Yousaf, the health secretary. I say ‘assumed’ because the whole process is incredibly opaque and it is almost impossible to get a reading on what SNP members, as opposed to ordinary voters, are thinking. But let’s assume that the endorsements of most of the SNP establishment, including the presumed support of the outgoing First Minister herself, is enough to secure victory for the Glasgow MSP.

This, in fact, is viewed as the best outcome by most Unionist observers. Yousaf is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a political lightweight, prone to gaffes and with a reputation for not being across the many remits he has been asked to cover as a minister. His record of delivery, whether at justice, transport or health, is unimpressive. But he has a gift for the well-honed sound bite which will see him through the majority of interviews. How well he would perform at First Minister’s Questions, when he will have to think on his feet in the face of a barrage of hostile questions from the opposition, is another matter. We shall see.

Then there is the candidate seen as his chief rival: Kate Forbes, the finance secretary and, until she publicly admitted she would not have voted for same-sex marriage had she been an MSP at the time, the early favourite in the race. Her personal faith (she’s a member of the Free Presbyterian Church) has continued to dog her campaign, overshadowing her impressive grasp of policy detail and her confident speaking style. This is the candidate Unionists are most worried about because they can see in Forbes qualities that might attract former No voters.

However, it’s hard to see the party acquiescing easily to a Forbes leadership, and there have already been grumblings about a second leadership contest in the near future if Forbes wins, à la Truss. The fact is that although independence remains the single most important policy in the SNP manifesto, it has in recent years, thanks largely to Nicola Sturgeon, attracted a large quantity of Alphabet People as members – LGBTQIA+ activists who are appalled at the very notion that a social conservative might replace Sturgeon. Expect a reasonably large exodus from the party of rainbow flag-wavers in those circumstances.

One almost inevitable consequence of a Forbes victory would be the dismantling of the agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, whose overriding priority is trans rights and pronouns. That would leave Forbes without a majority at Holyrood, but minority government is nothing new to the party and that would make little difference to day-to-day proceedings. In fact there are a fair number in the SNP itself who would shed no tears for the loss of their former allies.

And then there’s Ash Regan, who came to prominence when she became the first SNP minister ever to resign on principle – in opposition to Sturgeon’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill. Regan is on the fundamentalist wing of the party and is thought to be close to Alex Salmond, who now leads the rival nationalist outfit, Alba.

She has, however, an understanding of the intricacies surrounding the launch of an independent Scottish currency that has (shall we say) raised a few eyebrows. It is Regan who wants not just the next general election, but every election at every level in the future, to be seen as a “de facto” referendum on independence, a notion that is taken seriously only by the sort of people who stay awake at night getting angry at the prospect of the Stone of Scone being removed from Scotland for King Charles’s coronation.

One way or another, the prospects for the SNP are less rosy than they were a month ago. Their opinion poll lead remains defiantly large, certainly large enough to guarantee its continued dominance of Scottish politics. For now, at least. But as the last four weeks have shown, things can change in a very short period of time.

The chaos that has surrounded this leadership contest, with an unexpected line-up of candidates, vicious political and personal attacks and public expressions of doubt about the democratic integrity of the vote itself, could all have been avoided. All it would have taken was for Nicola Sturgeon, whose control of every level of the party was absolute for almost a decade, to loosen her grip a bit and at least allow others to prepare for a dignified and orderly change at the top of the party. Instead the First Minister’s strategy was to insist that such a change would never happen. 

And as the SNP is now finding out, if you don’t bend, you break.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessaily reflect the views of CapX.