A Second Scottish Independence Referendum Isn’t Going to Happen

The arrest of former Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s husband has dealt another blow to her political legacy. She has left her Scottish National Party greatly weakened — and with its plans for independence in tatters.

Nicola Sturgeon speaks to the media at her home following the resignation of her husband, Peter Murrell, on March 18, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

Scotland has long been an outlier in European politics. In many countries, the economic crisis of neoliberalism brought electoral turbulence; Scotland, by contrast, has experienced a peculiar, punctuated political stability as nationalists supplanted Labour as the natural governing class.

Under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership the Scottish National Party (SNP) won eight consecutive elections. It was helped, variously, by the lingering left-populist energies of the 2014 independence referendum, the backlash against Brexit, and Sturgeon’s popular profile as SNP leader.

Despite the party enduring multiple scandals, Sturgeon outlasted four prime ministers in London. She was the greatest beneficiary, politically, of the persistent mood of emergency that has surrounded the British state: around it, the SNP has successively mobilized, demobilized, then remobilized again in predictable cycles, promising independence referendums that never actually occurred. This formula secured the SNP a lasting electoral advantage, as the national question became the main issue polarizing Scottish society.

But February saw Sturgeon’s shock resignation. A bitterly fratricidal leadership contest ensued, which culminated in the near meltdown of the party apparatus. After four angry, chaotic, resignation-strewn weeks, the SNP elected Sturgeon’s successor. Humza Yousaf, the party establishment’s overwhelming choice, beat his insurgent, socially conservative, center-right opponent, Kate Forbes, by a narrow 52 to 48 percent margin, after second preference votes were reallocated.

An initial pretense of party unity lasted barely twenty-four hours, before Forbes, having been handed a major demotion, resigned from the government. Yousaf — Scotland’s first leader from an ethnic minority background — was forced to form a cabinet from the rubble, with almost every recognizable face and experienced head having now resigned, whether in disgrace or in high dudgeon.

Now, any lingering impression of stability has vanished. Sturgeon’s husband, the SNP’s former CEO, Peter Murrell, has been arrested on allegations of financial impropriety in the party. Images of their marital home surrounded by a forensic tent, and police vans outside the party headquarters, dominate mainstream news. What precipitated the meltdown of one of Europe’s most centralized and established political leaderships?


The SNP’s new leadership is itself a testament to the mood of confusion. Under normal circumstances, Yousaf would never have been considered as Sturgeon’s successor. His candidature was unexpected: many dismissed him as too hapless for leadership. While undoubtedly experienced, he had presided over a succession of failed briefs and unpopular policies in a checkered ministerial career. Most recently, he has overseen a devastating crisis in the Scottish National Health Service (NHS), leading Scottish Labour opponents to dub him “the worst health secretary in the history of devolution.”

If he commands little crossbench respect, he is also far from a unifier internally, as the narrow margin of victory suggests. During the campaign, his rivals relentlessly mocked his record as health secretary. Yousaf, a quintessential insider and career politician, also commands nothing by way of a popular base: Forbes, despite her unconventional and retrograde views on equal marriage and sex before marriage, polled far better with the voting public. Yousaf has become synonymous with the SNP’s failures in office. He has certainly not been granted the cushion of a new leader “bounce”: a mere 4 percent of Scottish voters are “very confident” in his leadership.

His emergence thus testifies to confusion and an absence of planning, exposed by Sturgeon’s sudden and still mysterious resignation. Having run arguably the most centralized party in Europe, Sturgeon had starved her cabinet of critical or autonomous intellects to ensure that her authority was never questioned. This helped build the SNP’s aura of invulnerability. But it also introduced an underlying brittleness, as proven by the extraordinary internal collapse that ensued after her resignation.

The election campaign itself was dominated by claims that the party establishment, led by Murrell, had rigged the election on Yousaf’s behalf. Much of that was rightly dismissed as a “Trumpian” conspiracy theory. But there were irregularities, and those did indeed advantage Yousaf, and the party establishment made little secret of their own preferences. The leadership did not help itself by acting like it had something to hide. It withheld standard information from the leadership candidates: most importantly, data on the size and nature of their electorate, the SNP’s membership.

When the numbers were (reluctantly) handed over, they showed a precipitous decline in the SNP ranks. From a peak of 125,000, the numbers had fallen to 72,000. That was shocking enough, especially given the SNP’s financial dependence on a mass membership. However, the catalyst for the internal meltdown was not the decline itself, but what it suggested: that a narrow clique around Sturgeon had been outright lying to the press and asking their senior officials to do the same.

Within days, a wave of resignations ensued. There was Sturgeon’s most loyal lieutenant, Chief of Staff Liz Lloyd; the party’s media chief, Murray Foote; and most importantly Murrell, the long-standing CEO and Sturgeon’s husband. Previously seen as the party’s untouchable overlord, Murrell resigned with immediate effect after an ultimatum from the party’s National Executive Committee, plunging the election itself into doubt.

Although the contest did go ahead, and with the expected outcome, Yousaf’s victory was much narrower than predicted. His chief opponent, Forbes, was dismissed as a crackpot conservative, standing to the right not just of the party but of mainstream Scottish opinion. SNP members were left in no doubt that voting for Forbes would have consequences: the SNP’s coalition partners, the Scottish Greens, pledged to dissolve the partnership; and leading SNP politicians promised to sabotage her leadership. Despite the threats, nearly half of SNP members expressed their disaffection by voting for Yousaf’s opponent.

Sturgeon has thus bequeathed to Yousaf a party wracked by upheaval: a precipitous decline in membership, financial problems, police investigations, ideological divisions, and a proposed pathway to Scottish independence that is now taken seriously by nobody. He must also reckon with the likely stabilization of the British regime if Labour’s Keir Starmer, as expected, vanquishes the Conservatives at the next general election. There is a marked contrast with what Sturgeon herself inherited: a party that was gaining a hundred thousand new recruits, basking in the glow of a populist social movement, and benefitting from an unholy crisis of the British state over Brexit. And few, least of all Yousaf himself, would deny that Sturgeon is the more capable politician.

Too Little Scrutiny

The mystery of Sturgeon’s sudden, shock resignation has thus taken on new dimensions. Social and mainstream media has been awash in speculation, much of it centering on the fact of Sturgeon’s relationship with Murrell. Aside from the ongoing police investigation, there have been numerous alleged cover-ups of sexual impropriety and abuse. There are questions about Sturgeon and Murrell’s links to criminal justice, many dating back to the trial of her predecessor Alex Salmond.

The SNP has also been embroiled in divisive cultural battles. Efforts to advance transgender rights through the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill (GRR) triggered the largest ever rebellion within the SNP’s parliamentary ranks. While the GRR did pass parliament, it was soon consumed by controversy surrounding a matter formally unconnected with the bill itself: the fate of violent prisoners who identify as transgender women. The bill was blocked by the UK Conservative government — but no nationalist backlash followed. Indeed, polls suggest, on this very specific matter, that many SNP voters and members (and a majority of the public) back Westminster. Sturgeon’s failure to carry this debate was another key issue in the leadership election.

Somewhere among these scandals and controversies may lie the proximate causes of this crisis. However, they do not adequately explain it, even in the unlikely case that all the insinuations and conspiracy theories are well founded.

After all, the SNP’s troubles are hardly unique. They are standard to parties who have governed too long with too little scrutiny: the UK Conservative Party, in power since 2010, is a parallel and more extreme case. The real question, then, is why the SNP survived so long with the appearance of unity and success. That puzzle is especially acute, because the SNP’s Clintonite brand of social and economic liberalism has proved so fallible elsewhere.

Crises of the British State

The SNP emerged as a serious electoral force in the 1970s, amid the breakdown of postwar social democracy and the discovery of North Sea oil. But the party experienced a sharp decline after 1979, a year that saw both a failed referendum of Scottish devolution and the election of Margaret Thatcher.

Scotland got a second crack at devolution under New Labour, and a Scottish Parliament was formed in 1999. The SNP began as the official opposition to the dominant Scottish Labour Party and would supplant them in government — albeit without a full working majority — by 2007. However, their new respectability had little to do with mass consent for the breakup of Britain, with support for independence polling as low as 23 percent. Perhaps more importantly, constitutional issues consistently ranked among the lowest of public priorities.

By contrast, since 2014, support for independence has ranged between 45 and 55 percent of Scottish opinion. It may not rank consistently as voters’ highest priority, but independence has nonetheless proved electorally decisive, particularly given its overlap with a broader sense of democratic deficit. Poll support for independence has thus roughly mapped onto the SNP’s numbers in elections, proving more than sufficient for a procession of victories.

How did independence turn from an electoral liability into a source of near invincibility? Most obviously, the roots lie in the endemic crises of the British state: a passage that leads from the financial crisis of 2008 to austerity, Brexit, and the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. British elites have made disastrous decisions before — indeed, the most morally disgraceful acts, like the Iraq invasion, date to the New Labour era. However, prior to 2008, blunders by Westminster elites rarely impacted everyday life in Scotland. Having led the world in neoliberal modernization, Britain experienced the traumas of a collapsing debt economy even more acutely than rival nations. Conservative rule, since 2010, has seen the stagnation if not the outright decline of voters’ incomes and opportunities.

Scotland’s independence movement of 2014 was the first serious blow against the neoliberal center-ground of British politics. While heavily mythologized today, as the foundation of Sturgeon and Murrell’s subsequent dominance, the social movement for independence was among the biggest and most relentless grassroots rebellions in Scottish history. Tariq Ali counted it alongside Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain as one of the three most serious left-wing anti-austerity rebellions in the aftermath of 2008.

The old Scottish establishment, led by Labour and ensconced in the No campaign, knew they needed to impose a “crushing defeat” of independence — in their own estimate, above 60 percent — to achieve the referendum’s purpose of trouncing and humiliating the SNP, thereby achieving a settled will for the Union. But by the closing weeks, Westminster elites were seriously contemplating the breakup of Britain. There was more than a whiff of panic. For Scottish voters, accustomed to decades of dreary, pointless Labour voting, it left a lasting sense of empowerment.

Mass Party

While Scottish unionism would prevail in the referendum, any jubilation soon soured. Labour’s capacity to stand for the Scottish interest had been destroyed forever: in the 2015 general election, they lost thirty-nine Scottish seats to the SNP, everything except a solitary red dot in upper-middle-class Edinburgh South. The parallels with the Brexit “red wall” collapse are clear enough. Across Britain, the geography and social composition of Labour voting has shifted under the pressure of one crisis of capitalism and two referendums on the future of the British state. In all three cases, the party had defended the status quo and underestimated the complex grievances of its working-class electorate.

Many observed, at the time, the mass migration of working-class support away from Scottish Labourism. And the demographics of the referendum vote do partially bear this out: 65 percent of voters in the most deprived neighborhoods voted Yes. Labour suffered their most severe losses in what were dubbed their “heartlands”: depressed, postindustrial areas of central Scotland. Coincidently or not, those areas had been targeted by left-wing Yes campaigners seeking to inspire a democratic rebellion against the Westminster austerity regime.

The movement of 2014 can be regarded as a left-leaning parallel to Brexit: a desperate gamble to achieve political agency among those who experienced the worst disappointments of New Labour’s convergent post-Thatcherite governance. In the words of one Labour official, the flight of working-class voters to the SNP was “like a flock of starlings changing direction.” That layer of support has remained solid — certainly, it has not returned to Labour — but its moment of agency quickly passed. It has grown increasingly passive and its proclivity to vote has declined.

Meanwhile, with less fanfare, other social layers migrated from Labourism to the Nationalists. But their motives were quite distinct. Especially under Sturgeon, the SNP would be ensconced as the governing class of Scotland. Some were drawn to its aura of stability and order, against the unruly elements of Westminster. Others were drawn to Sturgeon’s mood music of liberal-feminist managerial competence. Finally, in what passes for the Scottish state, the new SNP leadership would hold court to peddlers and flatterers seeking sinecures. Career-minded young professionals; grant-dependent entities; and a raft of intellectual and cultural influencers began to orbit the new Edinburgh establishment.

Adding to this were the new complexities of running a mass party. The SNP accumulated approximately one hundred thousand new members following the 2014 referendum. It could have been an exciting experiment in mass democracy: momentarily, the SNP seemed to bely the common notion of declining party-political organization, as suggested by thinkers like Peter Mair. Instead, the influx facilitated extreme centralization, allowing a narrow clique of insiders — and by narrow, it arguably numbered on one hand — to override internal checks and balances.

Yet the party membership were not merely passive spectators. Above all, the leadership was financially dependent on their enthusiasm: the SNP has few big business and no trade union funders; it relies on rallying and mobilizing to secure its bloated apparatus. They were helped, above all, by the endemic crises of British governance after Brexit. There was a legitimate sense, shared across much of Scottish and British commentary, that the UK state was too brittle to survive such a succession of shocks.

However, pursuing independence from an advanced capitalist Western European state is a complex question. There are no helpful precedents to draw upon. And the SNP’s case was badly inconsistent, due in part to its divided social base, and in part to its reliance on formulas for capitalist growth rooted in the neoliberal delusions of the 1990s. Some assumed that, given time, when politics stabilized, Sturgeon would unveil some master plan, a hidden blueprint to solve the glaring contradictions. Her resignation has proved the foolhardiness of those hopes. Yousaf faces the monumental task of mobilizing this unwieldy and unruly coalition, with none of the goodwill or political capital invested in Sturgeon.

Running on Vibes

Yousaf’s first task will be survival. The prospect of imminent collapse continues to haunt Scottish nationalism: much of the forced optimism surrounding Yousaf is a product of those fears. The SNP faces a plethora of investigations and allegations surrounding internal conduct and finances. Onetime insiders are being cast into the wilderness nursing their grudges; collectively, they could become a potent political force. And decades of Tory rule in Westminster will likely end at the next election, taking the sting out of many Scottish grievances and perhaps spawning a Labour revival.

The more likely trajectory is stagnation, punctuated by moments of illusory optimism when Westminster enters one of its customary crises. Scotland’s political imagination remains autonomous from the rhythms of London-centric British nationalism: unionist opponents remain ill-adapted to the qualitative divide introduced by the 2014 referendum. Many continue, understandably, to hold Scottish Labour in contempt, given their arrogant and brazen refusal to admit the failings that led to their 2015 collapse.

As a legacy of 2014, much of Scottish leftism continues to orbit the SNP, lending it legitimacy and political cover. Above all, the Scottish Greens have followed continental counterparts in becoming complicit partners in governments administering botched privatizations, crumbling services, and morally indefensible failures (Scotland, for instance, has the highest rate of drug-related deaths per capita in Europe).

But the Greens are hardly alone in their culpability. Scottish intellectuals have continued, effectively on autopilot, to burnish the progressive credentials of the SNP’s scandal-ridden leadership. Oddly, the fact that Sturgeon’s leadership incubated Forbes, an outright social conservative, has only reinforced delusions about the governing coalition’s “progressive” character.

A whole industry of commentary is invested in sustaining Scotland’s new mythologies. The wider left-liberal world loves a positive story about plucky, progressive Scotland holding its own against Brexiteer Westminster. Scottish intellectuals and commentators have been only too happy to indulge these desires. And the layers they represent, Scotland’s professional-managerial networking circles, experience a peculiar patriotic joy at the newfound respectability of their nationalist leadership. After all, not so long ago, fashionable London commentators had condemned the SNP as representative of the “death of the liberal Enlightenment”; Sturgeon’s projection of nationalism as boutique progressivism has transformed the image of Scotland itself.

However, this is a cycle of narcissism was built largely on “vibes” alone. If Brexit has moved the cause of Scottish independence from margins to mainstream, it has also exposed its programmatic inconsistencies. With the SNP riding high on fumes, glaring intellectual holes have been exposed on questions of borders and markets.

Nobody has yet explained how their proposed currency policy — unilateral use of UK sterling — would square with the rules of EU membership. Or how membership of the EU Single Market squares with open borders with England, by far Scotland’s biggest trading partner. Perhaps answers exist. But they have not been forthcoming. The SNP have been the biggest victors, electorally, of the crisis of neoliberal globalization; equally, this era of “polycrisis” has also exposed Scotland’s collective intellectual limitations and capacities for self-delusion.

Scotland experienced an authentically fascinating and, in global terms, underappreciated moment of social movement mobilization in 2014. It left a long, indelible imprint on popular consciousness. However, at some stage it will be necessary to accept that this moment will end without a firm political conclusion. In truth, it probably ended some time ago. That fact may be tragic. But failure to accept defeat will only postpone a long overdue reckoning with the contradictions of sovereignty and independence in crisis-ridden twenty-first-century capitalism.