What the SNP leadership race says about the party’s post-Sturgeon future
With the candidates officially announced, culture wars and the road to independence are set to be key battlegrounds
Over the past 33 years, the SNP has had just three leaders, Alex Salmond, John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon. All three – who between 2007 and 2014 ran Scotland as first minister, finance minister and deputy first minister – are from the party’s centre-left and its gradualist wing.
This once-troika took the party from a fringe group with three MPs and 27 local councillors to the most consistently electorally successful progressive party in Europe. Its handover to the next generation was always going to be a dramatic moment.
“Nicola resigning caught everyone by surprise,” says Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard over lunch in his office, a five-minute walk from my flat. “She’s known for keeping her own counsel and she did so to the very end,” he adds with a laugh.
Perhaps just as significant is that this will be the first contested SNP leadership election since 2004, and therefore since the party’s membership surged by 100,000 amid the independence referendum of 2014. Today, there are still more than 100,000 members, meaning around one in 40 Scottish adults will have a vote on the party’s leader and Scotland’s first minister, a proportion unprecedented in British party politics.
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If this vast membership has one defining characteristic, it is loyalty to its leadership in general, and to Sturgeon in particular. In deputy leadership elections and candidate selections, whoever is seen as her preferred candidate has usually won.
If it has a second, it is that it is broadly left-leaning; the defeats the party highhiedyins have had at conferences and internal elections over the past decade have been from the left. Or, at least, people framing themselves as left.
The deadline for meeting the 100 nominations from party members required to stand for the leadership passed today, on 24 February, and it has since been confirmed that there will be three candidates in the race in the race to be party leader, Scotland's first minister and de-facto leader of the indepedence movement: Ash Regan, Kate Forbes, and Humza Yusaf.
Ash Regan: Distinguishing herself from Sturgeon
Regan is a former public relations manager who got involved with politics through the independence movement in 2014.
She is also my MSP. Local activists tell me she isn’t very popular with her constituency party. As one put it: “When she stood for selection, she was keen to play up her left credentials… But it hasn’t really turned out like that, has it?”
In fact, if Regan is known among the electorate, it’s for sending her kids to private school and opposing trans rights.
Since launching her campaign, she has tried to distinguish herself from the Sturgeon regime in three key ways, each of which reveals something about who she is trying to appeal to.
First, and this is likely the reason she is running, she opposes reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, and last year resigned as a government minister to do so. The laws – equivalents of which have been passed across northern Europe without much faff – have become the focus of a culture war over trans rights in Scotland, whipping up all kinds of nastiness.
Regan is arguably best known for sending her kids to private school and opposing trans rights
Second, Regan has adopted an anti-environmental position on North Sea oil, saying she will “not support an accelerated net-zero path which sees us turn off the North Sea taps” and that her “#1 infrastructure priority” would be building roads. For some old-school nationalists, the discovery of the oil in the late 1960s and its extraction from the 1970s was a foundational moment, summed up in the long-defunct SNP slogan, “It’s Scotland’s oil”. These members view Sturgeon’s efforts to tentatively move the party towards a more climate-aware position as blasphemous.
But finally, and perhaps most tellingly, is Regan’s slogan: “Independence – nothing less”, and commitment to a multi-party independence convention. This seems to aim to tap into frustration at what some see as Sturgeon’s failure to make progress towards an independent Scotland in the near decade since the 2014 referendum, which connects with a justifiable frustration at her managerialism, and failure to unleash the power of the party's now vast membership.
Historically, SNP leadership candidates would have been placed on a spectrum from gradualists to fundamentalists, with the former supporting the devolution process while the latter saw it as a dangerous sop. The 2014 referendum resolved many of these tensions, showing a clear process through which independence could be achieved.
The intransigence of Westminster in recent years seems to be resurrecting this current, which Salmond has sought to represent in his new party, Alba. But if it was a significant strand of Scottish thought outside nationalist activism, you’d expect Alba to have performed better in its two elections so far.
Regan secured just one endorsement from a fellow parliamentarian and is generally considered an outsider in the race, though the anti-trans online army has been boosting her standing in various internet polls doing the rounds.
Kate Forbes: Values at odds with Scotland’s
Although some of her positions might align with Regan’s – certainly on trans rights, possibly also on oil – Kate Forbes represents a different tradition in the SNP: the right of the party.
There hasn’t really been a left/right barney in the SNP since 1979, when the results of a devolution referendum surprised the tweedy academics and lawyers who made up most of the party. Working-class areas voted Yes, wealthier areas, No. Scotland’s middle classes had been sufficiently bound into the British project that, unlike in most countries, the road to self-determination ran not through bourgeois nationalism, but through the working classes. A group of younger, more progressive members subsequently led the party to the centre-left where it has largely remained.
Centre-right figures didn’t go away, though, and SNP cabinets since the party took power in 2007 have tended to balance both sides, though they have – often under pressure from the Scottish Greens – been fairly clearly centre-left. Increased devolution on tax and benefits since 2016 has been used to redistribute from richer to poorer, to the point that the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that the poorest families with children in Scotland are £2,000 a year better off than those in England.
If anything, Sturgeon’s last year in government accentuated this trend: she used her alliance with the Greens to move the SNP to the left. The Scottish budget, which quietly passed this week, included tax rises for anyone earning more than £43,000 to fund a billion-pound boost for health and social care.
But at the same time, the party – a bit like New Labour – has a pathetic habit of kowtowing to big business. It is, for example, teaming up with the Tories at Westminster to launch low-tax, low-regulation ‘free ports’ in the Firth of Forth and the Cromarty Firth, which, despite attempts to dress them up in green clothing, are reheated versions of the ‘enterprise zones’ that were disasters of the Thatcher and Cameron years.
Forbes has certainly demonstrated competence as finance minister since 2020. Ideology, though, is harder to decipher, particularly since SNP MSPs tend to be pretty loyal and she got onto the ministerial ladder just two years after being elected in 2016.
This means it’s hard to be sure about Forbes’ differences with Sturgeon, other than on big social issues. But as one party activist put it to me, “Well, she’s not on the left, is she?” This week, Forbes has made headlines for saying would have voted against same-sex marriage had she been an MSP in 2014, implying she opposes abortion rights, and saying “sex is for marriage”.
It’s easy to dismiss these views as old-fashioned, but this is a politician who was born in 1990, speaking for a particular strand of very modern religious conservatism, which has gained significant power across much of the world.
A leader who doesn’t share the values on which the case for independence has been built would undermine the SNP
Her beliefs are, though, actively opposed to the consensus values of modern Scotland. Between 2014 and 2021, more than 14,000 people in the country had a same-sex marriage – a statistic that multiplies up to a significant percentage having loved ones in same-sex marriages. The most recent poll I can find on same-sex marriage in Scotland is from shortly before the first weddings took place in December 2014. 68% were in favour, just 17% against. Demographics have since shifted by a decade. It’s reasonable to assume attitudes have become even more positive.
Defending her beliefs, Forbes said opposition to same-sex marriage is a shared “Christian, Jewish and Muslim” position – a line imported from the US, where it’s arguably true. But it is certainly not in Scotland. The Church of Scotland, by far the biggest religious community, allows its ministers to conduct same-sex weddings, as does the Episcopalian church – the Anglican communion in Scotland.
Similarly, most babies born in Scotland are to couples who aren’t married. Unlike in England, Scots law had a long-standing tradition of granting cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples, a history that interacts with the fact that it’s one of the most secular countries on Earth to mean that marriage is even less the default than in England.
Forbes might say she celebrates every baby “irrespective of their parents”, but my daughter was born before my partner and I married, and I can tell her that parents don’t want a first minister who thinks of their children as the products of sin. She could simply have replied to questions about sex before marriage by saying "my sex life is none of your business, yours is none of mine". Whether she chose not to because of political incompetence or a proselytising urge isn't good either way around.
Similarly, Forbes’ allies claim her personal views aren’t relevant if she doesn’t plan to actually roll back anyone’s rights. But in a world where evangelical fundamentalism is on a roll, where Christian right campaign groups will rush into any crack they can find, LGBTIQ+ people and the women’s rights movement must be able to demand more from their leaders than that they put aside their deeply held beliefs. They deserve leaders who are on their side.
Some things are so obvious that you shouldn’t have to say them, and when it turns out that you do, a little part of your hope in humanity is diminished. As commentators rush to defend Forbes from a supposed ‘cancel culture’, I am forced to say one of those things: most voters don’t want people they disagree with on major political issues to be their leaders.
Perhaps even more fundamentally for the SNP, independence is increasingly seen as a route to achieving the social democratic and socially liberal aspirations of a significant majority of Scottish people. It’s hard to think of anything that would undermine the SNP’s vote more profoundly than appointing a first minister who so clearly doesn’t share the progressive values on which the case for independence has been built, and who could much more reasonably be attacked, if not as a ‘Tartan Tory’, then certainly as a ‘Caledonian conservative’.
Humza Yousaf: A sensible path to independence?
Since Forbes fessed up to her views, four of the parliamentarians who had endorsed her have withdrawn, leaving her with the backing of just eight colleagues out of a potential 106.
Health secretary Humza Yousaf, on the other hand, has 27 endorsements so far. If he represents a strand of Scottish politics, it’s the millennials who swung behind the SNP when Labour took the country into the Iraq war, and the Scots-Asians who did the same.
In many ways, Yousaf is a fairly traditional left-wing politician. I first came across him when he was involved in student politics at Glasgow University in the 2000s – just as Sturgeon had been before him. After graduating, he got jobs with Basheer Ahmed – the first Scots Asian MSP – and then Sturgeon and Salmond. Yousaf was elected in 2011, shortly after his 26th birthday and within a year had been promoted to a junior ministerial post, from which he climbed the ladder.
This means it isn’t possible to meaningfully distinguish his politics from those of Sturgeon, whose agenda he has always been loyal to. There is a bit of a brouhaha about the fact he missed the final vote on marriage equality in 2014 – he says he was on vital ministerial business, others say the business was scheduled so he could avoid more criticism from fellow Muslims for voting for the legislation, after he was attacked for supporting it on its first pass through Parliament. Whatever the truth, Yousaf was helping campaigns for equal marriage long before the vote, and has continued to vote and argue for pro-equality measures since, including recently backing Gender Recognition Act reform.
Where you see criticism of him, it tends to focus more on his competence: the Tories were already rounding on his record as health secretary before Sturgeon resigned and while he was transport secretary, he was fined for driving a friend’s car without insurance.
To put it another way, there was always going to be a candidate – and probably only one – from the mainstream, centre-left of the SNP, and whoever that was was always going to be the favourite. It’s him, and he is.
The party that has the most to win or lose from Sturgeon’s resignation is the Scottish Greens
For Tommy Sheppard, Yousaf offers a sensible path to independence. Sturgeon’s proposal to use the next Westminster election as a de-facto referendum was, Sheppard says, “uncharacteristically without caution. It was quite strident, it was high risk, it was not long considered”. It is also, he added, “dead in the water” – having the support of neither his Westminster colleagues nor branches across his constituency or, he suspects, the country.
A Scottish government that wins the next Holyrood election on a promise to negotiate for independence would, he argues, be in a much stronger position than if the mandate came from a group of MPs with few resources and little capacity to reach out to international partners.
“One of the reasons I’m backing Humza is that he’s more likely to create the space to discuss this than either of the other two would be,” he says. More generally, he believes a Yousaf-led government would be more collective and open than Sturgeon’s, which was very much led from the front.
If, as seems likely, it is Yousaf, then the governments of Britain, Ireland, London, and Scotland will all be led by men of South Asian descent.
The SNP after Nicola Sturgeon
The London media thinks the past decade or so has been an anomaly and that sooner or later Scotland will default back to a version of the Westminster system, and to Labour. But history rarely moves backwards.
It is true that Labour is likely to do well in the next round of Scottish elections – largely because the collapsing Tory vote will make them, once more, the default party of unionism. But there isn’t much sign that a big swing from the SNP to Labour is in the works.
The party that has the most to win or lose from Sturgeon’s resignation is the Scottish Greens (of which I’m a member). When the Greens signed up to work in government with the SNP in 2021, there were two significant risks. The first, like the Lib Dems signing up with the Tories, is that the party would be seen to sell out – although, unlike the Lib Dems, not because of the decision to collaborate in the first place. Most Green voters quite like the SNP, particularly under Sturgeon. But rather, due to decisions made over years in power, particularly at a time of constrained budgets and rising prices.
The second risk is what happened to the Portuguese Greens, who were wiped out in last year’s elections after one term in a coalition government. This wasn’t because they were unpopular, but because they helped improve the reputation of their centre-left coalition partners, who then hoovered up their votes and won a majority in their own right. By going into coalition with Sturgeon, the risk was Green voters being encouraged to think of the government as representing them, and then voting for its main party, which will always have more muscle in an election.
If Forbes or Regan win, it’s hard to see how the Greens can stay in power – apart from anything else, both candidates have promised to go back on a key strand of the partnership agreement in the form of GRA reform. There’s every reason to believe they would take a large chunk of the electorate with them. And if – as seems most likely – Yousaf wins, and doesn’t manage to inspire in the way Sturgeon did, then the most obvious place for the left, pro-independence voters to go is the Greens.
Much of the coverage of Sturgeon’s resignation seems to have been based on the assumption that she and Salmond cast some kind of magic spell over the people of Scotland, and that her departure is a disaster for the independence movement. But, while she certainly is an impressive politician and it’s hard to see her departure as anything other than bad for the SNP, the primary force driving support for independence is revulsion at the British state. And that feeling isn’t likely to go away.
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