Scotland’s independence movement faces a fresh start as Nicola Sturgeon retires
Announcing her resignation as Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National party, Nicola Sturgeon insisted she will step down with her nation at the “final stage” of the journey to end its three-century-old union with England.
“I firmly believe that my successor, whoever he or she may be, will lead Scotland to independence,” Sturgeon told journalists Wednesday, who were seated in their elegant 18th-century Edinburgh official residence.
Sturgeon, by far Scotland’s most popular female leader, cited the SNP’s continued dominance of the country’s politics as the reason for her confidence.
But analysts said their quest for independence was effectively blocked by the UK government’s staunch refusal to allow a repeat of the 2014 referendum in which Scots backed 55-45 per cent to remain in the union.
Mark Diffley, a political polls expert in Scotland, said there was no prospect of another referendum in the short term and that Sturgeon’s “Plan B” strategy of treating the next UK general election as a de facto independence vote was both on unpopular with Scots as well as with large sections of Scots the SNP itself.
“It’s hard to see where the independence movement will go in the immediate future,” he added.
Sturgeon suggested she would have been wrong to rush a special SNP conference scheduled for next month to adopt her Plan B, as she would not be around to push it through.
That stance will leave it to her successor to find a way to reconcile the party’s commitment to legal and consensual constitutional changes with its more fundamentalist members’ hunger for urgent action.
Sturgeon’s successor also has to grapple with the crumbling unity of an SNP which, since 2007, has put impressive internal discipline at the heart of its success as Scotland’s ruling party.
In addition to tensions over the independence strategy, senior members of the SNP are divided over their government’s attempts to ease the official recognition of gender reassignment surgery.
Some in the party saw Sturgeon’s determination to push through gender legislation despite signs of public concern as a sign she was losing her political touch, a view reinforced by news last month that a double rapist was sent to a Scottish jail was brought only for women.
She was also the target of growing criticism of the SNP’s record during her time as Deputy First Minister from 2007 to 2014 and First Minister since. Escalating public sector strikes, the NHS’ winter woes and business doubts about flagship plans for a recycling scheme have all eroded the SNP’s claim to power to govern.
Sturgeon has also been subjected to an intensified scrutiny of the handling of SNP affairs after it was revealed that her husband, the party’s longtime chief executive Peter Murrell, had given her a £107,620 loan that the Election Commission had only given for more than a year later reported — a violation of election finance regulations.
Separately, the Herald newspaper reported this week that police had begun taking substantive statements from witnesses in an inquiry into SNP finances, which followed claims the party had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on other things for a future independence referendum.
The SNP has said it will fully cooperate with any investigation. When asked after her press conference at Bute House on Wednesday whether she had been interviewed or was expected, Sturgeon said she “won’t discuss any ongoing police investigations.”
The First Minister has already insisted that recent difficulties were not the reason for her decision to step down, attributing this more generally to the pressures of the office and a considered assessment that stepping down would be good for her, her party and her nation .
It’s certainly been a grueling few years for the woman, who has risen from a shy but politically committed working-class teenager in south-west Ayrshire to Scotland’s highest office.
Sturgeon was widely recognized as coping better with the coronavirus pandemic than then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but said the experience was “the hardest thing I’ve done”.
Perhaps even more painful was a bitter rift with her predecessor and mentor Alex Salmond, following sexual harassment complaints against the former SNP leader and first minister by two officials in 2018. At a criminal trial in 2020, Salmond was acquitted of all 13 sex offense charges against him. He later accused his former protégé of presiding over “failures” in national leadership and formed the breakaway Alba party.
While Sturgeon’s personal ratings have been falling of late, the departure of a figure that even opponents recognize as one of the most formidable politicians of her generation is widely seen as an opportunity for pro-union parties.
Scottish Labour, which has dominated the country for decades but has been largely sidelined by the SNP for the past 15 years, is particularly hoping for a revival.
Jim Murphy, a former Labor UK cabinet minister and former leader of the Scottish party, said Sturgeon has been the “glue” that has held the “nationalist coalition” together in recent years.
Murphy predicted her departure would help Labor take power in the next UK general election by allowing her to take votes away from the SNP in Scotland. “It’s going to be a lot easier with a giant jump,” he added.
With the SNP and pro-independence efforts temporarily “leaderless”, Labor may have a chance to grab voters’ attention, Diffley said. “With a political vacuum, there is room for others to try to take advantage and reset,” he added.
But Michael Keating, professor emeritus at Aberdeen University and a specialist on constitutional issues, said UK parties were still struggling to articulate a vision for the union that would increase support for them.
Demographics appear to favor Scotland’s independence, with support for keeping Britain among younger Scots a stance that has so far been maintained as people age, he added.
Rather, Sturgeon’s departure may be an opportunity for the SNP and the independence movement to “take stock and seek a fresh approach,” Keating said.
The party could now drop the idea of a de facto referendum at the next UK general election and start drafting a proper pro-independence prospectus that would address the thorny issues of whether a new currency would be created and how with a new one Border with England should be bypassed, he added.
“If they’re serious about independence, that homework needs to be done,” Keating said.
Much will depend on the caliber of the SNP politician who succeeds Sturgeon. Many in the party say it has failed to cultivate strong candidates.
In 2020, Derek Mackay, then Scottish Finance Minister and then favorite to succeed Sturgeon, resigned after it was discovered he had sent hundreds of social media messages to a 16-year-old.
A poll of Scottish voters conducted by Panelbase for The Times this month found current Finance Secretary Kate Forbes to be the most popular choice for the post of next First Minister. But only 7 percent of people supported them, while 69 percent of those polled said they didn’t know who they would support.
On Wednesday, Sturgeon acknowledged that in a party with “dominant figures” others could be eclipsed – but insisted it would not be a lasting problem. “The SNP is full of talented individuals,” she said.
https://www.ft.com/content/bbc13407-6286-43e5-9d22-6dc296c7aa9a Scotland’s independence movement faces a fresh start as Nicola Sturgeon retires