What’s happening in Scotland? | Robin McAlpine

To outside eyes it may not be immediately clear what is happening in Scottish politics just now. Since the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) there has been unprecedented turmoil in the party, the parliament and in national politics. What is going on?

Nicola Sturgeon resigned a month ago (though she remains in the Scottish Parliament – for now). This was entirely unexpected; it was clear her tenure was coming to an end but the suddenness of the resignation caught almost everyone by surprise, not least potential candidates to become her successor.

Why did Sturgeon go just now? Her given reason was being worn-out by the role and because she had become divisive. Few really think those are the real reasons however. Her government has been presiding over a series of very major disasters and these were not only getting worse but were not coming to an end. There was little good news ahead.

But one disaster among many probably did most to hasten her departure – the issue of transwomen and prisons. In December the Scottish Government had forced through legislation which would have allowed trans people to self-identify with no form of check or safeguarding. This issue has been deeply divisive in the party, leading to splits and an unprecedented rebellion by some of her parliamentarians.

Then in January the UK Government blocked the legislation claiming it was illegal because it sought to supersede UK-wide equalities legislation (most legal commentators have concurred with this view though the Scottish Government challenges it). This opened the problem up again – and it was about to get much worse.

Because later in January a person who had raped two women while identifying as a man but then who, after his arrest, began identifying as a woman, was sent to a women-only prison based on government policy. This was incredibly unpopular with the public and put Sturgeon in an unusual position – unable to give a polished media performance when asked whether the person concerned was a man or a woman. This contravened promises made to sceptical parliamentarians in return for their votes and a very big U-turn was the inevitable result.

This was simply not supported by senior figures in her party and in another unprecedented display of disloyalty they started saying so in the media.

On top of that Sturgeon had really backed herself into a corner on independence strategy. For six years she continually promised her party members that a second independence referendum was around the corner. This was never really the case and in November the UK Supreme Court confirmed that the means she was proposing for holding one was illegal.

Her solution was to claim that a general election would act as a ‘de facto’ referendum instead, a strategy she had previously dismissed. This was simply not supported by senior figures in her party and in another unprecedented display of disloyalty they started saying so in the media. This position was not going to survive a party conference scheduled for March, once again an unprecedented problem for Sturgeon.

And lying behind all of this, the week before her resignation the chief police officer in Scotland visited Sturgeon to inform her that a police investigation into fraud on the part of her husband (who is the Chief Executive of the SNP) was being escalated and that he would soon be interviewed ‘under caution’ (that is, on the basis that criminal charges may follow).

Put very simply, massive problems were mounting up at such a rate over January and early February that the pressure seems to have become too much and a desire just to get out as quickly as possible took over.

That in itself created major problems for the SNP. Sturgeon was renowned for running a government and a party that was very centrally controlled. In her eight years as First Minister there were really no parliamentarians who developed the kind of visibility, status or experience to be a compelling leadership candidate.

There were potential candidates, but they were at Westminster in London rather than Holyrood in Edinburgh. And a few years earlier the governing body of the SNP (a majority of which is all but hand-picked by Sturgeon herself after sweeping reforms to party democracy) introduced some fairly unjustifiable rules solely designed to keep a potential challenger to Sturgeon from gaining a seat in Scotland.

So who are the candidates? There are three, with fairly straightforward stances

Since this election is for both leader and First Minister (effectively) it was difficult for someone not in the Scottish Parliament to stand. It is generally agreed that this means that none of the candidates that came forward were really ready or of a high enough quality to take on the role.

So who are the candidates? There are three, with fairly straightforward stances. Humza Yousaf is the continuity candidate, widely believed to have been chosen by the Sturgeon team to ensure as little change in the party as possible. But while Humza is well-liked in the party he is not highly rated in the party. There is little enthusiasm for his campaign.

Kate Forbes is the current Finance Secretary in the Scottish Government (though she has been off on maternity leave for six months). She is more reform-minded than Yousaf and is opposed by the party hierarchy, but well regarded for what is her perceived competence and business acumen.

The reason for the animosity is that she is a member of a Scottish church which has pretty extreme views – she opposes abortion, gay marriage and self identification for trans people and believes that having children out of wedlock is morally wrong. That is a very long way away from the views of the party as a whole.

But she has promised to ‘quarantine’ these beliefs and stand as a pro-business candidate. This didn’t work well at first – she gained a number of endorsements but when her religious views were exposed most of these dropped their endorsement and criticised her. Forbes is bright but she’s young (33-years-old) and much less experienced than many think.

The third candidate is Ash Regan. She is ‘gender critical’ – although she has a strong progressive record on issues like gay marriage she was opposed to self-identification of trans women based on the lack of safeguarding in the legislation for women-only spaces. She rebelled from a Ministerial post over it, drawing the wrath of Sturgeon and her supporters.

She is standing as an out-and-out reform candidate and on a primarily independence-first platform. She wants to reform party democracy, replace the Chief Executive of the party (Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell) and close down the ongoing feud between the SNP and Alex Salmond’s Alba Party.

Her independence focus, unity approach and democratic reforms are popular with many in the party, but she is a very inexperienced media performer and her early media appearance in this campaign were somewhere between not good and really bad. She has improved significantly but is pretty universally seen as ‘not First Ministerial’.

So the party has to choose between three pretty weak candidates. This has been made worse by a cynical attempt by SNP headquarters (remember, that is run by Sturgeon’s husband who is under investigation for fraud) to favour Yousaf’s candidature. The candidates (with no notice) had one week to gain nominations and then were given only three weeks to campaign (having had no preparation) with a budget limit of £5,000 for the whole campaign.

This has led to pretty widespread allegations that the process is not being run fairly and that the machinery of the party is effectively working for Yousaf when it should be behaving neutrally. That has created animosities.

But that is nothing compared to the wider animosities being played out. For Sturgeon’s eight years as leader she ruthlessly suppressed internal debate and ruled in a presidential manner. She moved the party’s position quite substantially in a number of ways and not all of it was popular with members. Members remained disciplined, but all these problems have been festering away under the surface.

Meanwhile another feature of Sturgeon’s eight-year reign has been the very significant expansion of the ‘payroll’. Having been a smaller, insurgent party for much of its history the SNP now offers lots and lots of paid roles, from local politician to researcher, office manager to government adviser. This group of people have gained great power in the party, mostly without having been elected.

The payroll vote has almost all supported Yousaf, the assumption being that he will keep everyone in their jobs. But in that process some really very personal attacks were made on the other candidates (especially Forbes over her religions views) and what might have been festering frustrations have burst into public as rather unpleasant feuds – a lot of them.

Forbes responded in a TV debate with a rather brutal (though hard to disagree with) attack on Yousaf’s record in government. This drew gasps – the SNP’s famous unity (which wasn’t really unity so much as discipline) was evaporating on national television.

And that is where things now stand. Voting has opened and the whole process will be completed next week. In the process the SNP has stupidly tried to compress important debates it has suppressed for a decade into three weeks. That has created a complete mess which has been opened in public – but not resolved. The risk of ongoing open warfare is sadly quite high.

Who will win? Almost all the evidence points to Kate Forbes winning. She is one of the two reform candidates and since the election involves the lowest placed candidate dropping out in the first round and the second preference votes of those voters being transferred to the other candidates, few expect many second-preference votes of change candidates going to the continuity candidate.

Or put simply, Ash is likely to come bottom in the first round and drop out and her votes will almost all go to Kate Forbes (who is widely believed to be in the lead anyway). That would make it almost impossible for Yousaf to beat her.

And then? God knows. The only reliable prediction I can make is that the SNP which is emerging will look very different from the SNP Sturgeon presided over – for good and for bad.

Robin McAlpine
Founder, the Common Weal think tank

Full Disclosure

For reasons of full disclosure it is worth noting that I have been a strong critic of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership and have been in contact with two of the candidates’ campaigns to feed in policy ideas. In addition Ash Regan used to work at Common Weal and is a friend. I am therefore not a neutral observer but have sought to be as even-handed as possible in this analysis.

Robin Lindsay McAlpine.  Ekintzaile eskoziarra, Common Weal aditu taldeko zuzendaria izan zen 2014tik 2021era. Aurretik kazetari gisa lan egin zuen eta Jimmy Reid Fundazioko lehen zuzendaria izan zen.
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