Week-in-Review: SNP internal warfare points to broader struggle over party identity

The race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader entered a new brutal phase this week as claimants to the Bute House throne battled for position. 

Taking to our TV screens for the first time, the disputable heirs health secretary Humza Yousaf, finance secretary Kate Forbes and former minister Ash Regan upped the ante — and yellow-on-yellow blitz — drastically.

It is no secret that Nicola Sturgeon’s abrupt departure in February has instituted a deep sense of derailment within SNP ranks. “Continuity candidate” or not, a rueful sense of “back to the drawing board” on party strategy has enveloped affairs. 

The frostiness, the bad-tempered debates, the side-swiping — it amounts to a significant breach of the SNP’s internal norms. Not two months ago, few would have wagered positively that Sturgeon’s end was nigh. Now, in the race to succeed her, candidates eye political progress in the rubbishing of her record.

The scenario presents something of a paradox. On the surface, the Sturgeon regime was one of the most successful in recent British history. It won eight elections in eight years without any signal of capitulation to internal or external pressures. It is counterintuitive that such a strong and seemingly stable regime could transpose into a succession crisis characterised by open hostility. 

In some senses, the outbreak of disarray is a consequence of the dramatic suddenness of Sturgeon’s departure. Her resignation, briefed only to a tight inner circle the night before (including Yousaf), created an immediate power vacuum, allowing inter-party tensions to come to the fore.  

Equally, the tenor of the debate reflects the inherent restlessness of the SNP’s political predisposition. It is a state-seeking separatist party — political developments are interpreted through a lens of “setback” or “progress” as allied to the assumed teleology of independence. When it comes to single-issue nationalisms, every point of departure becomes existential.

The arc of post-Sturgeon instability reached its apex during the first TV debate hosted by STV. Civility was quickly cast aside as the candidates limbered up; Forbes, especially, did not pull her punches. 

“More of the same”, Forbes pronounced during her introductory speech on Tuesday, “is not a manifesto. It’s an acceptance of mediocrity. We can do better”. When presented with the opportunity to cross-examine her rival, Forbes went one further:

Well, Humza, you’ve had a number of jobs in government. When you were a transport minister, the trains were never on time. When you were justice minister, the police were strained to breaking point. And now as health minister, we’ve got record high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?

Yousaf tried his best to bat back the criticism, but the episode dominated the post-debate coverage. It was not lost on anyone that while this was an attack on Yousaf’s record, it was equally Sturgeon’s government, the much-eulogised ancien régime, that bore the biggest brunt.  

The latest televised Nat-off came two days later courtesy of Channel 4. Forbes had notably tuned down the bombast, perhaps haunted by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross’ decision to deploy her attacks at Holyrood. She even clarified that it was a “privilege to serve” alongside Yousaf in government.

But Forbes had already shown her hand. It is clear her strategy is to tie Yousaf to the party’s perceived failures in government and put herself forward as a candidate both for change and delivery. It is a pitch that has clear ideological implications. 

Forbes wants to remould the SNP as an ideologically “lite” party and appeal across the classes and sectional interests within Scotland. The reemphasising of the party’s secessionist objectives would, for Forbes, come at the expense of its social democratic profile. 

The leftward shift of the SNP was instituted under the guiding hand of Alex Salmond through the 1980s and 90s. But Forbes figures that the bolstering of the SNP’s left-wing profile under Sturgeon has alienated indy-curious voters. 

The pitch means Forbes’ elected entourage is rather small when compared to Yousaf’s. According to politics.co.uk’s latest count, Yousaf already has just under half (46) of the SNP’s MSPs and MPs backing him, with 48 (just over half) yet to endorse any candidate. This ultimately reinforces Yousaf’s positioning not only as the “continuity candidate”, but also the “establishment candidate”. 

Indeed, Yousaf has expressed no qualms with his party’s left-wing drift under Sturgeon.

Equally essential to Forbes’ political positioning is that only she can “reach out to No voters and persuade [them] to vote Yes”. She argues that Yousaf’s “more of the same” approach would restrict rather than expand the SNP electoral coalition, having problematic consequences for the independence cause.

Gradualism triumphs?

It is a curious feature of this leadership contest that, despite the mud-slinging on each candidate’s ability to build support for independence, both Forbes and Yousaf share a broadly similar strategical approach. 

In consecutive debates, Yousaf has argued that independence must be the “sustained, settled will” or a “consistent, sustained majority” of the Scottish people before another referendum could be held. Equally, Forbes has deployed the phrase “sustained majority” to describe the necessary political conditions for “IndyRef2”.

It is a tacit admission that Sturgeon’s attempt to straddle the divide between “gradualism” and “fundamentalism” on independence was ultimately unsustainable.

By way of a summary: under Sturgeon, the SNP’s 2015 election manifesto proposed a referendum be held by the end of 2017. This was later scrapped in favour of a “common sense” vote in the autumn of 2018. When this approach was found wanting, Sturgeon talked up a new “referendum bill” which would see IndyRef2 held before the end of the Scottish parliamentary session in May 2021. And finally, Sturgeon took the independence case to the UK Supreme Court in a bid to force through a referendum in late 2023. 

This final push was ultimately one failure too many for the first minister. The Supreme Court judged that Holyrood did not have the competency to legislate for a second independence referendum — it led the first minister to pursue “plan B” and a new strategical gambit: treating the next general election as a “de facto” referendum.

It is telling that Sturgeon’s most likely successors have been so keen to ditch this approach. Put simply: they both recognise that the auld cycle of expectation-creation turn crippling climbdown could revolve no longer.

However, it is worth notable that Ash Regan, the outsider candidate in the race, has stuck to a firmly “fundamentalist” platform. In an attempt to raise the independence standard and rally the grassroots gantry, Regan has expressed support variously for a “voter empowerment mechanism”, an “independence readiness thermometer” and a summit of separatist parties. 

But the gut nationalist rhetoric and glib policy belie a dearth in independence strategy from Regan. She is yet to meaningfully lay out how she will win a referendum for Scotland as first minister. As Sturgeon knew only too well, the UK government can simply say “No”.

Still, that Regan sits at around 10-11 per cent in leadership polls shows there is space for her argument within the party faithful.

Her uncompromising campaign may ultimately be the natural consequence of the tyranny of expectations created within party ranks by Sturgeon’s strategical missteps. 

In fact, the internecine conflict of the present leadership contest shows that under Sturgeon the SNP never fully resolved the tensions between left and right or the debate between gradualism and fundamentalism. In the wake of her departure, it has meant such tensions have burst forward decisively. 

Right now, the SNP is undergoing an extended process of introspection, both ideological and strategical. The problem for the next leader is that, upon their elevation, the SNP may remain unsettled on what kind of party it wants to be.