Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has announced her resignation. Her move is an immense shock to the national political scene — and will have ramifications for years to come.
Sturgeon’s ascent to the peak of Scottish politics in 2014 was driven by that year’s independence movement. The referendum ended in a narrow 55-45 vote to remain in the United Kingdom, but the energies of the independence campaign swept aside Scottish Labour hegemony and blandished her government with antiestablishment credentials. These would carry her SNP to five successive victories, in both elections to the Scottish Parliament and Scotland’s part of British general elections. For eight years, Sturgeon has been the Caesar of Scottish politics, peerless within her own party and facing little meaningful opposition from parliamentary benches.
Already, admirers and hangers-on in Scotland’s stuffy public scene are making eulogies to a modernizing, compassionate, and progressive leader. But Sturgeon represents, above all, the stifling of the democratic energies that brought her to power. Her exit, after months of mounting difficulties, threatens the complacency of Scottish institutions at a time of hardship for millions, as the economy shrinks and working-class incomes tumble.
Why is she going now? Controversies, both in her party and in the country, were rapidly mounting against her.
Much of the SNP’s enduring strength derives from popular attraction to the independence cause. It had long been marginal to Scottish political life. When the SNP won its first Scottish election in 2007, the Scottish Centre for Social Research placed support for independence at just 23 percent.
Party leader Alex Salmond’s long-term strategy was to present the SNP as a social democratic force, filling a void left by New Labour. Careful pitches defending universalism and opposing the Iraq War allowed the SNP to nudge ahead of a complacent Labour establishment. The 2008 financial crisis and the rise of David Cameron’s austerian Tories completed the effect, and the SNP won a majority of seats at the 2011 Scottish elections, mandating an independence referendum.
The big shift came with the independence movement between 2012 and 2014. Salmond launched an initially uninspiring official Yes campaign that was seized by popular energies seeking an alternative to the Westminster austerity consensus and pro-US foreign policy. Dozens of local Yes groups and alternative organizations like the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) rapidly sprang up around the country. This Yes movement spread into working-class constituencies abandoned by the mainstream parties over decades. When the votes were counted in 2014, Yes had surged to 45 percent, but lost to the establishment No campaign. Importantly though, working-class and traditionally Labour strongholds like Glasgow and Dundee had voted majority Yes.
The movement was part of the wave of “populist” shocks that struck political establishments around the world. Defeat proved a boon for the SNP, which experienced a surge in members and voters, clearing a path for Sturgeon’s dramatic rise to power.
But even at her peak in late 2014, Sturgeon’s deep ambiguity to the independence movement was on show. She organized the unveiling of her leadership to take place in the Glasgow Hydro — a fourteen-thousand-seat stadium right next door to and on the very same day as a pre-planned three-thousand-strong Radical Independence Conference. This sent a signal: there was to be no challenge to her leadership, especially from the Left of the independence movement.
The years between 2016 and the COVID-19 pandemic saw dozens of major demonstrations all over Scotland, many in the tens of thousands, demanding the right to self-determination against an intransigent Westminster. Sturgeon attended not one. She ignored protests outside the door of her official residence in Edinburgh — but did fly to London to take part in the British establishment “People’s Vote” movement to overturn the 2016 Brexit referendum.
This choice of street movements says much about Sturgeon’s political profile. Generally hostile to real popular mobilizations, she has always signaled fidelity to the foreign capital that dominates the Scottish economy, and to the EU, United States, NATO, and the British state as guardians of the international order.
For years, independence was taken out of the hat at election times and waved before an increasingly frustrated party and voting base. As demoralization and schisms set in, Sturgeon would increasingly centralize her party, right down to its atomic core — herself and her husband, party chief executive Peter Murrell. Party conferences were increasingly managed to restrain democracy. Popular initiative was ignored or denounced, critics smeared by a patronage network extending from the Scottish government into the media, arts, and NGO sector. Loyal politicians jumped on transatlantic anti-Russia sentiment after the election of Donald Trump and warned of Russian meddling in Scottish affairs, and specifically in the independence movement.
The strategy of harvesting votes and money from the independence movement whilst simultaneously repressing its development speaks to the class contradictions on which Sturgeon’s power rested. She needed both a popular base and good terms with national and transnational power brokers to maintain office. For years, the projection of frustrated antiestablishment feeling onto Sturgeon’s increasingly illusory struggle with Westminster created stability in Scottish politics. But in recent months, this contradiction had begun to erode Sturgeon’s grip on power.
Plans for a Scottish-organized independence referendum, not authorized by Westminster, were rebuffed by the UK Supreme Court late in 2022. A forthcoming emergency SNP conference to debate Sturgeon’s plan for a “de facto” referendum, which would see the party stand on an independence ticket without any other manifesto at the next general election, looked set to break the long-standing tradition of stage-managed conferences with predetermined outcomes.
Sturgeon’s case for independence has been hemorrhaging credibility for years. It too has been infected by the class contradictions of Sturgeon’s project, becoming a muddle of mutually contradictory policies, tying Scotland to the institutions of transnational capitalism and threatening to denude any independent state of sovereignty. The business lobbyists she put in charge of the blueprint for independence mandated “Sterlingization” — continued use of the pound through the Bank of England, without access to monetary powers. This, however, also jarred with the SNP policy of automatic membership of the European Union upon independence. The antiestablishment messaging of the independence movement in 2014 has been culled in favor of a conservatism which satisfies few parts of the actual establishment.
The party was also starving of funds. The SNP faces, again, a class problem when it comes to financing its election campaigns and routine work. It is neither an old-school social democratic party with access to union support, nor a traditional center-right outfit with many large business donors. The modern party is a product of a populist wave, and these small donors became its main financial resource. This necessitated a strategy of diminishing returns based on milking pro-independence sentiment.
In 2017, something called Ref.scot appeared. It presented itself as a campaigning hub for an independence referendum campaign. Close inspection found it to be an SNP venture. It gathered data and funds from independence supporters, before abruptly shutting down just months later.
With members leaving and local branches dying, desperation for funds grew. In 2019, another funding and data-mining campaign was launched, again on the false pretense of an independence campaign. This time, the deception was even more callous. The new website was called “Yes” — an obvious attempt to stoke nostalgia for 2014. Though the small print informed the careful reader that this too was an SNP front (“you are donating to a political party”), everything about the website was designed to give the impression that it was the resurrection of the 2014, cross-party Yes campaign, a huge, decentralized movement with great emotional resonance for tens of thousands of people.
Some £600,000 was raised between these two cynical ventures. The monies disappeared into the SNP cash flow, and up to £500,000 remains unaccounted for to this day.
After complaints from members of the public, a Police Scotland investigation began. With no solution to the party’s money problems in sight, Murrell — Sturgeon’s husband and the leading officer of the SNP — made a personal loan of £107,000. Sturgeon denies any knowledge of when this loan was made, and two days before the press conference announcing her departure, reports speculated that the police investigation had spread to Murrell’s loan. Sturgeon adamantly refused to answer questions on party finances as she left the podium.
With the prospect of an independence referendum rapidly diminishing, the appalling failures of Sturgeon’s time in office are becoming harder to obscure. The policy record of her government is a scene of desolation: local authorities starved of funds, public services in meltdown, workers on strike against falling pay, a country for sale to international monopolies.
As head of a devolved national parliament, Sturgeon struggled with shrinking budgets from Westminster. But she made little effort to challenge the parameters of her power. Unjust taxes dating to the Tory John Major government of the 1990s went unreformed, despite frequent promises to introduce a progressive alternative. Radical policies were often announced, then quietly abandoned or dramatically downscaled. A National Energy Company, which could have aided many Scots through spiking energy prices, was ditched. A National Care Service turns out to be another boon to private corporations. A National Investment Bank, specifically envisaged by campaigners as something that could buck the market domination of devolved structures, has gone the same way. Even a bottle and can recycling scheme has gone south.
A spring 2022 budget from Sturgeon’s finance minister, Kate Forbes, declared war on the public sector — threatening to significantly shrink its overall size and massacre between thirty and forty thousand jobs. Pay cuts quickly followed, leading Sturgeon into conflict with teachers and low-paid local government workers.
The integration of the Scottish Greens into a “co-operation”-based government from 2021 was a cosmetic procedure to cover for a fire sale of Scottish national assets to multinational corporations, which culminated in the obscene auction of leases to develop Scottish seabeds to British Petroleum, Shell, and a host of other giants, ostensibly to develop offshore wind power. The ScotWind project offered these ten-year leases at knock-down prices and little in return for local communities or industries. It was an object lesson in the economic vassalage to which Sturgeon has helped reduce the country.
The SNP in Danger
The professional- and managerial-class voters Sturgeon courted through these conservative policies, and by embracing an ultra pro-EU and pro-NATO attitude, have proved fair-weather friends. She leaves office with her own approval ratings dipping, and with support for independence on the slide.
Her ultracentralized leadership style means she has no clear successor. Indeed, the country appears to have little idea who her key ministers and the candidates for future first minister even are. A recent Sunday Times poll places “don’t know” ahead of the pack with a massive 69 percent, with austerity enthusiast Forbes a distant second with 7 percent, and another figure on the right of the party, Angus Robertson, at 5 percent.
Schisms in the party have been widening in recent months. Late in 2022, Stephen Flynn MP displaced Sturgeon’s placemen in the party’s Westminster parliamentary group. In Edinburgh, a record number of members of the Scottish parliament rebelled against Sturgeon’s Gender Recognition Reforms on transgender rights. Recent weeks have seen the party leadership continue to be dogged by the controversy, which has bedded into party ranks, the wider independence movement, and Scottish society. The UK government has blocked the reforms, alleging a breach of devolution rules. Sturgeon quitting now means she flees the gauntlets thrown down by the UK government and the Supreme Court.
This is, then, a disorderly route. Sturgeon is nothing if not a methodical and calculating politician — skills that have served her well for years. Her sudden abandonment of composure, and with it any real succession plan or care for legacy, implies that some convergence of events has compelled her to jump now. Coming days may cast light on exactly what has happened. For now, those in Scotland who desire independence from a faltering British state must regroup and reflect on the disasters of the SNP leadership.
All those determined to halt the miserable decline of Scottish society, must repudiate the myth of her enlightened leadership. Sturgeon presided over this decline and worked to undermine the mass movement that rose to resist it. This is how she must be remembered.