For those in the know, Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as Scotland’s first minister and leader of the SNP has been on the cards for some time. Among party hierarchy, it’s been a topic of open discussion. Media circles and the networks of patronage that orbit the Scottish governing class have long speculated about life after Sturgeon.
But while rumours of her departure had intensified this month, leading to public rebuttals, now proved false, no one expected her announcement to come with such haste. It will take some time to bed in, but this is a defining moment in Scottish politics, with consequences for the whole architecture of the Scottish polity.
Sturgeon is, regardless of how you view her politics, a remarkable politician. She has lived and breathed the SNP from the age of 16. While she is known for achieving great political success at the expense of her many contenders, it was not always like this. She stood and lost in elections several times before making a breakthrough. Indeed, she joined the SNP at a time when the party was distant from power. Working alongside a now fragmented and divided cadre of nationalist politicians, she cut her political teeth as an outsider. En route to her eventual leadership of the party and the nation, she drew upon a range of talents and abilities. She became the most popular leader of the devolution era.
She developed a reputation – since somewhat tarnished thanks to a litany of policy failures – for being a “detail” politician. A tight-knit team of special advisors, obsessed with public relations and media management, curated a carefully crafted image of the party leader. Indeed, notions of “life after politics” were carefully drip-fed last year, including in an exclusive interview with Vogue magazine and a discussion with a sympathetic Iain Dale at the Edinburgh Book festival. Perhaps that is why the nature of her resignation feels somewhat jarring. There is no discernible handover plan, no obvious platform around her legacy and a sense of what can only be described as disarray in the SNP ranks. In short, it feels chaotic.
There are, of course, proximate political difficulties. The flagship national care service bill is falling apart. The deposit return scheme – where an extra fee is added to the price of drinks packaged in certain single-use containers, with consumers reimbursed if they recycle them – is a source of embarrassment, even drawing the ire of SNP MSPs. The Ferries scandal brews away in the background. The loss of potentially tens of billions to the Scottish purse as a result of ScotWind privatisation is front-page news. Key infrastructure projects, like the duelling of the A9, have hit the rocks. Pledges around council tax, land reform, and the Scottish national energy company have all fallen to the wayside. Massive cuts to the public sector are on the way, generating conflict between local and national government, and the educational attainment gap – which Sturgeon promised she’d close – is growing. Frankly, it is difficult to see where anything is going well.
Meanwhile, the fallout from Westminster’s blocking of the gender recognition reform bill ushered in perhaps the most testing period of the first minister’s tenure. Internal divisions came out into the open, and polling appeared to take a hit. Doubtless, some opponents of the policy will seek to make that the defining issue when it comes to the first minister’s political demise. But the reality is far more complex. The once iron grip exerted by the SNP leadership over party and movement slowly evaporated as a result of underlying strategic problems around the national question itself.
The supreme court misadventure made it clear that a referendum would not be forthcoming without Westminster’s consent. This served to disrupt the holding pattern which had served the SNP so well. The promise of a referendum on the horizon masked domestic failings and became a highly effective electoral tool. But this winning formula was severely weakened in the aftermath of the verdict. While Sturgeon had been arguing for an ill-conceived “de facto referendum” at the coming general election as a fallback plan, this again split the party, with MPs and members alike arguing different positions. Now, polls show a decrease in support for independence, while even 40% of the 2014 cohort of ‘Yes’ voters are not in favour of a hypothetical referendum in the next year.
The momentum of independence, rather than growing in the wake of the denial of Scottish democracy, has gone into retreat. Underlying this is the failure to prosecute the intellectual case for independence over the years, which has been left to wither on the vine, relying on public revulsion at the Tory party and sloganeering around Brexit. This, combined with the absence of a coherent independence strategy, has fatally wounded the SNP and the national movement.
In Sturgeon’s resignation speech, she claimed one reason she was announcing her departure now was so that the party was not beholden to automatically backing the de facto referendum plan, on the basis of not wanting to undermine her authority. But the abrupt nature of the announcement means the SNP’s special independence conference to debate that idea, scheduled for March, is now mired in further disorientation and factional intrigue as a succession contest gets underway.
Independence supporters must now face the reality of the strategic failures which nest behind the surface popularity of the erstwhile SNP leadership. Either the mistakes will be properly scrutinised, and a long-term plan developed for the resuscitation of the project, or the same errors and misjudgements will be repeated going forward.
In the meantime, there is no obvious candidate waiting in the wings to replace Sturgeon. While the SNP remains in poll position, the party now faces its gravest period in decades. The future direction it takes will determine the trajectory of the independence cause. The first minister’s departure from frontline politics will take some time to work its way through the body politic. The shift in the Scottish political landscape is tectonic; it shows just how towering a figure Sturgeon has been. But it also illustrates the need for serious democratic renewal and a break from the insipid and sycophantic culture which has come to pervade Scottish public life.
The post-2014 political cycle has now come to an end. The various forms of self-delusion around independence as an immediate, or indeed inevitable prospect, are now being put out to pasture. That will be a difficult experience for many. But it is a necessary one. The future will be shaped by those willing and able to articulate a critical account of the last nine years – one that goes beyond the forceful personality of the first minister and into the substance and meaning of her leadership.
Jonathon Shafi is a columnist for Novara Media and socialist campaigner, based in Glasgow. He writes the weekly newsletter ‘Independence Captured’.