After Sturgeon, Scottish independence warriors have 1 last shot

After Sturgeon, Scottish independence warriors have 1 last shot
Опубликовано: Thursday, 16 February 2023 16:45

Whoever succeeds Sturgeon as Scottish National Party leader will face the same fundamental challenge in trying to take the country out of the UK.

LONDON — “The dream shall never die” was once the signature promise of the most passionate advocates of Scottish independence.

With the dramatic departure of Nicola Sturgeon from the top of British politics, those pushing for a breakaway may be running out of chances to keep that vision alive.

The Scottish first minister’s announcement that she is quitting — a closely guarded secret until the last moment — sent immediate shockwaves through the movement to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

And as the news sank in with the pro-independence faithful, the mood was bleak.

“Absolutely gutted,” was the heartfelt reaction of one Scottish National Party (SNP) MP in the minutes afterward. They had, they said, looked up to Sturgeon — a dominant force in Scottish politics for more than a decade — from an early age.

Another SNP MP — not a dyed-in-the-wool Sturgeon backer — was succinct when asked if the party could survive without her. “I doubt it.”

Things fall apart

For almost 20 years, the SNP marched gradually upwards in elections at both Westminster and the devolved Scottish parliament at Holyrood. It did so under the command of two charismatic and dominant leaders: Alex Salmond and Sturgeon.

That same period was characterized by a striking degree of unity and message discipline compared with Britain’s other main political parties.

Even as the pro-independence campaign lost 2014’s referendum on a breakaway, Salmond and Sturgeon remained twin forces to be reckoned with.

Under Sturgeon, the party won a record number of House of Commons seats in 2015. Her appeal shone through in poll ratings most Westminster politicians could only dream of.

Jemma Conner, political research manager at YouGov, points out that Sturgeon has enjoyed net positive job performance ratings throughout her eight-year span as first minister. Even when those scores dipped between spring 2017 and 2019 “opinion was evenly divided rather than there being a huge shift to negative job performance.”

However, as the unifying force of the referendum and 2015 election began to fade, cracks opened in the SNP ranks — and look set to now deepen as Sturgeon departs.

The SNP faced domestic criticism over education and health service performance. Salmond, Sturgeon’s political mentor and former boss, resigned from the party over sexual misconduct allegations.

The pair were pitted against each other in the criminal trial that followed. Salmond was cleared of all charges, but key figures in the party increasingly began to choose sides. Salmond even formed his own political party, Alba.

Bitter divisions also opened over Sturgeon’s support for reforming gender recognition laws — and SNP top brass continue to face uncomfortable questions over party finances.

Joanna Cherry, a prominent SNP MP loyal to Salmond and who opposed Sturgeon on gender reform, was booted off the party’s front bench in what was widely interpreted as a reassertion of power from the top. More recently, the pendulum has swung the other way, with Sturgeon loyalist Ian Blackford stepping down as the party’s leader at Westminster.

Sturgeon insisted Wednesday that her decision to step down was not a reaction to immediate pressures. But the backlash to her gender reforms, and a row over the housing of a transgender rapist in a women’s jail, led even her supporters to question what had happened to her finely-tuned political antennae.

‘Ship without a sail’

Nicola Sturgeon has faced a chorus of criticism over her strategy for securing the SNP’s bigger prize: Scottish independence | Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

If the political factors which led to Sturgeon’s exit are plain to see, it is still hard to overstate the impact her decision to walk is likely to have on Scottish politics.

Luke Graham, a former Conservative MP and ex-adviser to No.10 Downing Street on the Union, said the SNP had “lost its most effective campaigner” and “independence is now a ship without a main sail.” Labour, hoping to make a comeback in a Scotland it used to dominate, appeared jubilant. “Politics is about seizing your breakthrough moments,” said one senior Labour official. “We intend to seize this.”

Many expect the different wings of the party jostling for position over the past few years to now break into open warfare. An SNP official predicted: “This will be the beginning of a bitter civil war and factional splits on the next level.”

Others think the SNP has been led by acclamation for too long. Kevin Pringle, a former special adviser to the Scottish government, said it would be “healthy” to hold an open contest now to decide the future of the party, rather than simply passing the baton, as happened when Sturgeon followed Salmond.

An uncertain road

While Sturgeon’s exit robs the party of a proven election winner, she has faced a chorus of criticism over her strategy for securing the SNP’s bigger prize: Scottish independence.

After the U.K.’s top court unanimously ruled last year that the Scottish government cannot hold an independence referendum without Westminster’s permission, Sturgeon pinned her hopes on a new strategy.

She is among those in the party who have called for Westminster’s next general election to be treated as a de facto referendum on Scottish independence, arguing that if pro-independence parties win 50 percent or more of the vote in Scotland it would signal a clear mandate for independence.

Other senior figures, including MP Stewart McDonald — a Sturgeon ally who paid fulsome tribute to her Wednesday — have criticized the plan. The party’s former head of communications Fergus Mutch told POLITICO in an interview at the end of last year that he believed the strategy was “pretty rushed.”

“The ‘Yes’ [to independence] side gets one more shot at it really, so it should be prepared to do it right,” Mutch said.

The thinking in the upper echelons of the SNP was that the bold move would create momentum for independence that the U.K. government — which ultimately holds the constitutional levers — could no longer ignore.

No easy way out

That is yet to happen. POLITICO’s poll of polls shows that opinion on Scottish independence remains almost evenly split, with opponents of the drive currently edging ahead.

Allies used to Sturgeon’s reputation for caution and patience were left surprised by her embrace of a risky approach previously only advocated by the party’s most hardcore. An SNP veteran said at the time it was announced that it was “much more like the type of thing Alex [Salmond] would have done.”

With Sturgeon gone, her grand plan could also be destined for the door.

Her grumbling party is due to meet for a “special conference” in March to iron out its position on the de facto referendum, though some senior figures have already said this should be postponed.

Freed from her shadow, the party can — as Sturgeon said in her speech — “choose the path it believes to be the right one, without worrying about what it means for perceptions of my leadership.”

Yet whoever follows Sturgeon will face the same fundamental pressures she did, both from those who doubt the current strategy and those impatient for some sign of progress on independence.

“I’m yet to hear a convincing plan — even from Nicola — on how we deliver a referendum,” one former SNP adviser said. “That’s the problem that doesn’t become any easier to answer just because Nicola is gone.”

Ailbhe Rea and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

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