Throughout her eight and a half years in charge at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon was often accused of running a PR department with a government bolted on at the side. In the five weeks since Sturgeon announced her decision to resign as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish first minister, that accusation has felt more like a statement of fact than a partisan slight.
Sturgeon’s departure has exposed some deep-rooted problems and divisions concerning the SNP’s organizational culture, its political orientation, and its strategy for achieving Scottish statehood. Unless those problems are addressed, Sturgeon’s leadership may prove to be the party’s high watermark.
In February, Murray Foote, one of Sturgeon’s chief media adjuncts, dismissed as “drivel” a report by a major Scottish newspaper that the SNP was hemorrhaging members at the grassroots level. On March 16, after days of intense media scrutiny, the party finally admitted that its registered activist base had slumped from a peak of 125,000 at the end of 2019 to 72,000 at the start of this year.
On March 18, Foote — himself a former journalist — resigned as the head of communications for Sturgeon’s Holyrood caucus. Twenty-four hours after that, Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell — for two decades, the SNP’s immensely powerful chief executive — revealed that he, too, was heading for the political exit door. It was Murrell, apparently, who supplied Foote with a misleading assessment of the party’s size. Foote then dutifully passed on the defective figures to the press.
The controversy might have been survivable if it hadn’t arrived in the middle of a leadership race marked by rising volumes of bitterness, paranoia, and farce. Last week, two of the three candidates vying to replace Sturgeon — Ash Regan and Kate Forbes — made a series of essentially baseless claims regarding the integrity of the SNP’s in-house voting system.
Regan even threatened to stage a Stop the Steal–style press conference outside Holyrood in an effort to expose the alleged “secrecy” of the party’s electoral process — although she has since dropped her core demand for all votes cast thus far to be recalled and recounted.
A Moment for Renewal?
Needless to say, this is not how Sturgeon’s reign was meant to end. In an interview with Sky News on Monday, Scotland’s outgoing first minister insisted that, while the succession battle had been “less than edifying” as a political spectacle, her party would nonetheless emerge from it stronger than before:
This is a moment for refresh, renewal, change. What I’d say to all of those standing to succeed me is . . . remember that I am standing down from a party that hasn’t lost an election since 2010.
On the latter point, Sturgeon is undoubtedly correct. Under her watch, the SNP has won one election after another — eight, in total — and established itself as perhaps the most dominant political vehicle in Western Europe. It is just possible, too, that the party’s descent into conspiracy and recrimination reflects the unusual stability of its leadership structure over the past two decades.
The SNP hasn’t directly elected a national convener since 2004, when Alex Salmond returned from Westminster to guide the nationalists into government for the first time at Holyrood. Sturgeon succeeded Salmond ten years later by acclamation in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum. The last SNP leadership election was held nineteen years ago, the party’s acting national executive Mike Russell noted on March 20 — “and it shows.”
But the idea that Sturgeon leaves Scottish politics with the SNP primed for future, or ongoing, electoral success simply isn’t credible. As Murrell’s botched attempt to hide the party’s collapsing membership numbers affirms, Scottish nationalism is struggling under the weight of an elite mismanagement problem.
Sturgeon was notorious for her insular administrative style. In her government, decision-making power was concentrated in the hands of a small clique of ultraloyal advisers, Murrell foremost among them. This approach generated an aura of competence and discipline around Sturgeon that amplified the party’s electoral appeal. But it also demoralized rank-and-file activists who felt they had no control over how the party operated or the policies it pursued in office.
With Sturgeon’s resignation, the lynchpin of the SNP’s authority has been pulled and the party stands hollowed from the inside out. Sturgeon admitted as much in her interview with Sky News. “I kind of dominate” Scottish political life in a way that is “not always healthy,” she told the presenter Beth Rigby. “For any organization, you cannot be overly dependent on one individual. We need to be able to move [beyond that].”
How the SNP moves on from Sturgeon, and what it moves on to, are the central questions now facing Scotland’s independence campaigners. The leadership contest has revealed deep fissures inside the party previously concealed by the glare of Sturgeon’s electoral accomplishments.
Regan — a former junior minister who quit Sturgeon’s government over plans to simplify Scotland’s gender recognition laws and who is close to the more primal elements of the independence movement — almost certainly won’t be Scotland’s next first minister. But Forbes, Sturgeon’s energetic thirty-two-year-old finance secretary, might be. Standing in her way is Humza Yousaf, the favored candidate of the party hierarchy.
There is an existential dimension to the stand-off between Forbes and Yousaf. Yousaf is a Glasgow politician who has hinted at a return to the more assertive center-left policies that characterized the early, insurgent years of Sturgeon’s tenure. If he wins, he has pledged to advance the “progressive agenda” established by Sturgeon — which means pursuing a raft of vaguely redistributive economic reforms coupled with a superficial emphasis on social “inclusion” and sustainable development.
A win for Forbes, on the other hand, would signal the end of the social democratic political strategy the party has pursued — with considerable success — over recent decades. Forbes is unapologetically Blairite in her economics and conservative in her social politics. In fact, she is a member of the Free Church of Scotland, a small evangelical Protestant denomination rooted in the country’s Highland communities that disapproves of gay marriage and abortion and regards sex outside marriage as a sin.
Change and Continuity
Where Yousaf is popular with younger, more liberal SNP activists, Forbes draws the bulk of her support from the pro-business right of the party and from a growing chorus of unionist commentators who see her as a neoliberal cypher ready to demolish the perceived “statism” of the Sturgeon era.
Forbes has been clear that her goal as first minister will be to win over right-wing voters naturally opposed to independence. She will do this, she says, through “prudent” management of Scotland’s economic resources and by “liberating” the Scottish business sector.
Forbes has an advantage over Yousaf in that she is by far the more assured media performer. Far from being a political hindrance, she presents her religious convictions as a badge of integrity in an age of woke liberal intolerance. She has also astutely marketed herself as the candidate of “change” in the race to replace Sturgeon, while Yousaf has lashed his campaign to Sturgeon’s increasingly chaotic and disputed legacy and missed the chance to carve out his own distinctive ideological identity.
The result of the election will likely be decided by two factors: the extent to which the SNP’s 72,000 members remain loyal to Sturgeon, and the distribution of those members throughout the country. If the party is predominantly urban and Sturgeonite, Yousaf stands the better chance of winning. If it is geographically diffuse and disillusioned with Sturgeon or otherwise angry at the manner of her exit, Forbes may edge Yousaf — who has amassed endorsements from the SNP top brass — out.
A Party at Odds With Itself
The consequences of a Forbes victory would be profound for the SNP. Depending on how far she drifts to the right as first minister, the party’s entire cultural bearing could shift from the industrial central belt to Scotland’s rural towns and villages, and from left-leaning Scots to more conservative constituencies instinctively hostile toward constitutional change.
Forbes argues that she would widen the political bandwidth of independence, drawing in voters from historically anti-nationalist areas. But she could just as easily destroy the SNP’s hard-won footholds in what was once considered traditional Labour territory.
Ironically, the party’s shrinking membership rate — perhaps the most striking symptom of its decline under Sturgeon — could work to Yousaf’s benefit. By whittling down the remaining SNP base to those most enthusiastic about the current leadership, the exodus of party activists over the past three years may guarantee Sturgeonism’s continuity. One theory behind the SNP’s internal slump is that reactionary older nationalists have peeled off to join Salmond’s gender-critical Alba splinter group — or simply dropped out of politics altogether.
Whoever emerges as the next SNP chief will inherit a party painfully at odds with itself and weighed down by sixteen years of incumbency. The party’s independence lodestar is no closer today than it was when Sturgeon first assumed the reins in November 2014, seven years and a half years after Salmond was sworn in as Scotland’s first nationalist first minister.
From Salmond — himself a conspicuously uncompromising leader — Sturgeon learned to govern the independence movement from the top down, with a relentless focus on her own personality as a centralized source of inspiration and appeal. If nothing else, her successor, whether Yousaf or Forbes, should understand the limits of that strategy.