The next chapter begins in Scotland’s long campaign for independence

Nicola Sturgeon leaves with her reputation intact but her party’s future less certain

February 16, 2023
Nicola Sturgeon leaves a press conference in Bute House in Edinburgh after  announcing her intention to stand down as first minister. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Nicola Sturgeon leaves a press conference in Bute House in Edinburgh after announcing her intention to stand down as first minister. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

We’re so used to politicians being pushed out of office in the UK that, on the rare occasion one chooses to stand down—as Nicola Sturgeon did yesterday—we habitually start trawling the news for an answer. Surely there must be something; what was the final straw? What done her in?

Amid current events, you could say there is plenty to pick over. There is the recent debacle over Westminster’s decision to block Holyrood’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, with a legal challenge looming. There is the ongoing police investigation into the way finances were used by the SNP machine—a machine run by Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband and party chair. There had also been growing impatience within the SNP ranks about Sturgeon’s strategy of shying away from a unilateral independence referendum in favour of running the next general election as a de-facto ballot on the question. Then there are the independence polls showing that—beyond an established bedrock—support for the cause among voters remains fickle and contingent on short-term fortunes.

Taking the long view of the modern Scottish independence campaign, which has gone on for more than a century already, we have to regard these recent events in their proper context. All the same, they matter in a different way. Where, in the here and now, do they leave the Scottish independence campaign? For Sturgeon the individual, it is hard to deny that in recent months her ability to mitigate her party’s political problems through the strength of her own personal virtues had started to wane. Better to leave on her own terms then, and give the SNP an opportunity to reset.

Yet this will be a reset the likes of which the SNP has not experienced for a very long time, or ever, at least procedurally. With Sturgeon having taken the leadership unchallenged in 2014, this will be the first time the party looks set to stage a genuine leadership race since 2004, when it had less than 10,000 members and sat as the opposition in Holyrood. Now its membership sits at over 100,000 and it has spent 16 years in government. And even then, the outcome of that last race—victory for Alex Salmond—was merely a retaking of the reins after the relatively brief tenure of John Swinney. This means that, in effect, the next SNP leader will be the first individual not to be Salmond or a “Salmondite” since 1990. (One of the current potentials to take the helm, the finance minister Kate Forbes, was five months old when Salmond first became leader.)

We forget that Sturgeon is cut from the same political cloth as her predecessor; he once referred to their relationship as “umbilical”. The party may well have outgrown the man, and rightly, but his footprints are not so easy to wash away.

Although originally founded to push the party in favour of a socialist republican Scotland, it was the 79 Group (led by Salmond and fellow nationalist stalwarts Margo MacDonald and Stephen Maxwell, and named for the year it was founded) that bestowed the SNP with its now unifying rallying cry: “Independence in Europe”. And it was that aspiration—even as the 79 Group disbanded and the SNP’s socialist identity fell into the periphery—that rescued it from decades in the political wilderness and transformed it into the force it is now. From the vantage point of today, with the “European question” shaping the last seven years of politics in the UK, that shift now looks like a lucky break of prophetic proportions. But it has also become something of a straitjacket.

It may well be that the outcome of this rather exceptional leadership race is a very unexceptional leader

Regardless of who leads the party next, it is hard to imagine anyone shifting the SNP away from the cosy and vague “European-style” social democratic consensus that has brought it so much success at Holyrood and Westminster. At present there remains little real dissent from this approach, or any desire to bring detail to the picture. You could say that lack of dissent shows unity of purpose; you could also say it suggests a lack of new ideas. It may well be that the outcome of this rather exceptional leadership race is a very unexceptional leader, tackling the same problems in the same way, and all without moving the dial on support for independence an inch.

And that, really, is the only thing that matters for the next first minister. Under the logic of parliamentary sovereignty, there is no legal mechanism on the planet that can coerce Westminster into allowing a second referendum—other than a huge groundswell of political pressure that cannot be ignored. And herein lies the paradox for the SNP: it was only a sustained referendum campaign that brought levels of support for independence to where they sit now. To push them even higher, but without any clear endgame, will be immensely difficult. In the meantime, Westminster governments of all stripes will hope that, if the SNP is left stewing in its own juices for long enough, it will sink into irrelevance.

Westminster may be proved right, if the SNP fails to navigate what is now a much more liquid political climate, with no guarantees—not even of Westminster’s respect for the devolution settlement. In equal measure, that liquidity could also be a moment of opportunity.

In an address to members of the SNP in 1999, on its 70th anniversary, the late great Tom Nairn remarked on the party’s extraordinary transformation from a “tiny sect” to a serious political movement. “Everyone can see how under Alex Salmond’s leadership things have changed”, he said, adding: “But have they had a chance to change enough?” Now might be the time for the SNP to ask that question again.