“A Tremendous Mess”: On the SNP Leadership Contest

Nicola Sturgeon held the SNP together, and her departure has exposed the deep contradictions within the party. If forces are to realign, Scottish socialists must develop an alternative.

9 min read

Last Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon took to the podium for her final First Minister Questions. Amidst the cross-party tributes paid to Sturgeon’s public service and love of country, speakers of every stripe acknowledged that the First Minister’s departure marked the end of an era. However, to those who kept a keen eye on the contest to elect Sturgeon’s successor, it’s clear that the political consensus she built is already unravelling.

The result of that leadership election was close. While Humza Yousaf emerged victorious, with 52% of the vote, this was only after second preferences had been counted. In the short-term, the SNP may well stabilise as the party coalesces around its new leader. However, Yousaf will face structurally-determined challenges that will, sooner or later, prove difficult to manage—perhaps even more so, given the tight nature of the result. The task of this article is not to interrogate Sturgeon’s time in office (for that, see my piece for Progressive International), or the incoming First Minister, but to ask what insights are offered by the leadership contest as to what may come next.

In the short-term, the SNP may well stabilise as the party coalesces around its new leader. However, Yousaf will face structurally-determined challenges that will, sooner or later, prove difficult to manage.

A far cry from the discipline which has characterised the SNP post-2014, the abrupt end to the Sturgeon era has exposed deep divisions in Scotland’s governing class. While acutely managed by the former FM, these cracks will prove difficult for her successor to paper over.

In the words of the SNP President, a “tremendous mess” has engulfed the Party in the short period since Sturgeon’s resignation. The last month has seen the SNP itself become the leading story. Headlines about membership numbers and criminal investigations have, at times, overshadowed the leadership contest. Candidates have savaged one another’s records live on TV. Peter Murrell has been forced to resign as Chief Executive. SNP HQ has even attempted to block journalists from entering local hustings. Dormant layers of the SNP, such as the NEC, have now awoken, after years of passivity during Sturgeon’s tenure.

For a party at pains to present itself as professional—one reliant on reputation rather than record—the last few weeks have indicative of something far deeper than mere incompetence or factionalism. During Sturgeon’s time in office, the lines between government and party were blurred: it was not always clear where one stopped and the other began. After all, for nearly a decade, both were run from the same household. The issue, however, went far deeper. As the SNP was almost fused into the architecture of the Scottish state, internal party structures or factions became unnecessary, replaced by the trappings of government, and cemented by one election landslide after another. The consequence was a general depoliticisation, which in turn saw the rise of a politics dominated by reports and consultations as opposed to delivery. Having been defanged by managerialism, the SNP has now been forced, by Sturgeon’s resignation, back to reality. This is unfamiliar terrain for a party which last held a contested leadership election 23 years ago.

As the SNP was almost fused into the architecture of the Scottish state, internal party structures or factions became unnecessary, replaced by the trappings of government, and cemented by one election landslide after another.

Within the party, Sturgeon’s hegemony was secured through more than just her success at the ballot box. By acting as the arbiter for the interests of other internal forces, and doing what she could to avoid confrontation, Sturgeon succeeded in securing the development of her own agenda with the consent of these now allied forces. In this sense, aided by the support of the state, Sturgeon was sometimes almost independent of the party, certainly in the eyes of the public. In the 2021 Holyrood election, for example, she asked for a personal mandate to lead Scotland’s COVID-19 recovery, in a campaign that was less about the SNP than it was about re-electing the First Minister. Sturgeon’s hegemony was achieved both through pacifying the party and, when necessary, being seen to act almost independently of it. One consequence of this can be seen, perhaps, in the more than 20,000 SNP members who did not vote in this leadership election.

Dismissed by Sturgeon as “growing pains”, the series of unfortunate events surrounding the leadership contest stands in sharp contrast to her own tenure. Where Sturgeon prized slick and professional public relations, Humza Yousaf launched his campaign standing under an exit sign. Meanwhile, Ash Regan’s press appearances were a difficult watch, and Kate Forbes’ religious conservatism marred her campaign and, consequently, became a dividing line in the contest.

In spite of this dividing line, Sturgeon’s shadow was cast over the election. No candidate seriously threatened to break with the Scottish Government’s economic approach. Yousaf expressed his wish to “move beyond” the idea of a Scottish national energy company, whereas Forbes was more brazen, committing to “make breathing room for business”. Different shades, perhaps, but no candidate challenged the key tenets of neoliberalism. On the constitution too, even those candidates who suggested the SNP’s strategy needed to be “reset” remain convinced that independence should be central to the next general election. In his resignation letter, Peter Murrell concluded by restating his belief that “independence is closer than ever.” This is the myth, fundamental to Sturgeon’s tenure, that each candidate, to some extent, perpetuated. Indeed, within hours of taking his place as leader of the SNP, Yousaf announced he would seek a section 30 “right away”.

The myth that “independence is closer than ever” was fundamental to Sturgeon's tenure, and each candidate perpetuated it.

Whilst the candidates on the ballot represented a range of views, what was on offer from the frontrunners was, in many ways, rather narrow. Internally, Kate Forbes’ social conservatism and Humza Yousaf’s ministerial record did not cause a stir while Sturgeon was in post. Both were allowed to rise through the Party’s ranks whilst managing their portfolios. It is only following Sturgeon’s resignation that these have become serious problems meriting factional disagreement. If people were able to overlook these things before, why has the SNP been thrown into such turmoil now?

The answer to this question has a lot to do with quite how peculiar the SNP is as a political force. With Scottish independence its central issue, the party has, in the years since 2015 (ie. post-IndyRef), won eight elections in as many years and, in doing so, relied on a broad class base. The SNP win in Labour’s former industrial heartlands, just as they do in rural Perthshire. Working class Scots turn out to vote for them just as the professional middle class does.

These contradictions have been managed in the only way they can be, with class neutrality, which finds its form in Sturgeon’s leadership, standing above all class antagonisms. What might otherwise have become a difficult balancing act has in fact presented little problem. This is partly because, while disparate, the SNP’s base is united by its belief in independence. More than that, though, and returning to my earlier point about depoliticisation, the Scottish political sphere has been carefully managed. The SNP has quietly and consistently advanced the interests of capital, while making hay from small adjustments to the status quo—an arrangement that was clear to see in Sturgeon’s last Holyrood appearance. Defending her record, she focused consistently on achievements like the ‘baby box’, while struggling to refute allegations of falling standards in health and education from opposition parties.

While the class alliance has been well managed, the SNP’s prevailing, hegemonic liberalism has evidently favoured one side more than the other. This is perhaps because, in assembling administrations based on PR potential and passivity, the Scottish Government finds itself outsourcing the delivery of key projects to the private sector as an alternative. The design of the National Care Service was outsourced to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Woodland restoration required the enlistment of Palladium and Hampden & Co. Offshore wind was entrusted to BP and Shell.

Sturgeon held the SNP together; it will be difficult for Humza Yousaf to do the same. Central to ‘Sturgeonism’ was the suggestion that Scottish independence lay just over the hill. It was this myth that, in mobilising the independence movement, propelled the Party to victory again and again.

In many ways, something like Raymond Williams’s analysis of the Labour Party applies here, with the prospect of independence tending to stand in for the prospect of parliamentary power as something which

leads regularly to a muting of necessary arguments, and the needs of the Party, in parliamentary and electoral terms, are given a quite frequent priority over political principle. The prospect of power, in this constitutional way, leads to a strengthening of those already large elements in the Party who broadly accept the existing political and economic system and who, apart from substituting themselves for Conservatives as ministers, wish to make only comparatively minor reforms.1

The SNP leadership contest, while light on serious critical analyses of the last 8 years, has seen some of these necessary arguments begin to percolate, which has strained Sturgeon’s alliance.

But even for a politician as capable as Nicola Sturgeon, this trick could only work so many times. The political framework to which she was so central could only last so long—eight years, as it turns out. Having neutered the insurgent independence movement of 2014 by deploying it only at election time, in the last year Sturgeon has lost the battle in the Supreme Court, and watched her ‘de facto’ referendum proposal unravel. As a strategy, it was always time-limited, and the game was up.

This is the SNP’s real crisis and it runs far deeper than the leadership contest. If the myth that independence (or a second referendum) is achievable in the short-term begins to fade, the SNP will likely struggle to keep its broad social base together. Kate Forbes, for example, promised “good governance” and an overtly neoliberal economic agenda. Couple this with her personal views and it was difficult to see how, with reality setting in regarding independence, she could have mobilised Sturgeon’s electoral coalition. The new First Minister, backed overwhelmingly by Sturgeon’s allies, is more likely to be successful in this regard. Yousaf did, however, promise to “spread power throughout the cabinet” in order to fill his predecessor’s shoes. With SNP Ministers now writing that the independence campaign must go “down a gear”, Sturgeon’s departure and the ensuing crisis offers the opportunity to escape the stalemate which has dominated Scottish politics since 2014. In this context, one of the primary tasks for the left, both pro and anti-independence, must be to raise the level of public debate surrounding the Scottish Government.

If the myth that independence, or a second referendum, is achievable in the short-term fades, the SNP is likely to struggle to keep its broad social base together.

The SNP survives on its progressive reputation and, with such uncertainty about the future, it is likely to become even more dependent on it. Socialists must unite to expose their neoliberal agenda by presenting an alternative. Building on mass support for public ownership of energy, we must popularise the ScotWind Scandal. Working in tandem with the climate movement, we should talk about the privatisation of Scotland’s trees. With huge support for striking workers, let’s point to how the Scottish Government could, with political will, fund fair pay rises. Put simply, as the SNP’s crisis leads many to the conclusion that independence is not closer than ever, we have to make the arguments and build support for them.

However, we should recognise the danger of politics returning to its bubble. The last year has been dominated as much by popular struggle as it has any developments within the Scottish political class. With key industrial disputes coming to an end, and the momentum of last year’s wave of protest beginning to ebb, it is imperative that the agency expressed by workers over the last year does not dissipate while the political class is at a crossroads. The left must not become embroiled in high politics at the expense of building on recent organising efforts. The consequence of doing so would be to neglect the development of an alternative, and cede fertile ground to Keir Starmer’s insipid liberalism.

As Humza Yousaf becomes First Minister over the next few weeks, the ship is likely to steady as the larty unites behind ‘Team SNP’. But, however slowly, the reality of the inherent contradictions faced by the party are bound to reappear. In her last Holyrood appearance, Sturgeon advised her successor that “it’s always better to aim high and fall short, than not try at all.” Long before lofty aspirations however, Humza Yousaf will have to attempt to resolve the problems that the last few weeks have exposed. While he is unlikely to succeed in doing so as Sturgeon did, socialists and trade unionists must attempt to ensure that, if forces are to realign, it is in the spirit of the last 12 months rather than the last eight years.

  1. Raymond Williams. [1965]. 1989. “The British Left”, in Resources of Hope. p. 167 


Coll McCail (@MccailColl)

Coll McCail is a Scottish activist. He writes for the Progressive International and represents young members on Scottish Labour’s executive committee.