Scottish independence at crossroads in tight SNP leadership race

LONDON – The Scottish National Party finds Nicola Sturgeon a tough act to follow.

Scotland’s ruling party is waging a bitter battle to replace Sturgeon, a leader who has come to dominate Scottish politics but is deadlocked in her battle for independence from Great Britainand divided the party over transgender rights legislation.

Sturgeon, 52, announced her resignation in February after eight years as party leader and first minister of the semi-autonomous Scottish government. Three members of the Scottish Parliament Candidates for her place are: Minister of Finance Kate Forbes, 32; Health Minister Humza Yousaf, 37; and MP Ash Regan, 49. The winner of the vote of SNP members will be announced on March 27.

The campaign exposed fissures in the party over political strategy, social issues and Sturgeon’s legacy.

Critics say the clique around the former first minister wields too much power in the SNP. Those rivals scored a victory when party chief executive Peter Murrell — Sturgeon’s husband of 58 years — resigned on Saturday amid a row over declining party membership.

The SNP publicly denied a newspaper report that membership had fallen from more than 100,000 to just over 70,000 in the past year, before admitting it was true. Murrell accepted responsibility and resigned, saying that “while there was no intent to mislead, I accept that was the result.”

Regan welcomed Morell’s departure, saying it was “unacceptable to have the husband of a party leader as CEO”. Forbes said the party’s grassroots felt disempowered because “decisions within the SNP were being made by too few people”.

Sturgeon’s resignation sparked a leadership struggle for the SNP, which currently holds 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament and governs in coalition with the much smaller Green Party.

In a vicious televised debate, Regan and Forbes attacked Yussoff — a Sturgeon ally who is widely seen as the favorite — as a succession candidate in a party in dire need of change.

“We are now at a crossroads,” Forbes told the BBC on Sunday, arguing that the Scottish government must do more to support an economy weakened Russia’s war in Ukraine, COVID-19 and Brexit. “We need to get serious about what worked and what didn’t work.”

Forbes’ message resonates with some in the party who believe the SNP under Sturgeon has spent too much time focusing on divisive social issues rather than the economy and independence. Sturgeon’s exit was precipitated by backlash over legislation she championed to make it easier for people in Scotland to legally change their gender.

The gender recognition bill was hailed as landmark legislation by transgender rights activists, but faced opposition from some SNP members who said it ignored the need to protect separate spaces for women, such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centres.

Forbes and Regan oppose the law, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament but blocked by the UK government. Youssef supports this and warns that the party could tilt to the right if it is led by Forbes, a socially conservative Christian who is considered his main rival.

Forbes, who belongs to the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, has been criticized for saying her faith would prevent her from voting to allow same-sex couples to marry. She was not yet a lawmaker when the Scottish Parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2014.

The leadership contest has seen the SNP’s ratings plummet, much to the delight of Labor and the Conservatives, who are hoping to pick up seats in Scotland at the next UK election, which is due in late 2024.

The tight race also reflects frustration within the party, which after 16 years in power in Edinburgh has yet to achieve its main goal: independence.

In a 2014 referendum, the people of Scotland voted to remain part of the UK. The SNP wants a new vote, but the central government has refused to grant it ruled by the Supreme Court of Great Britain that Scotland cannot hold it without the consent of London.

Regan wants to remove these obstacles by treating the next Scottish election as a “trigger moment” for independence, effectively forcing the UK government not to recognize Scotland’s democratic choice to secede.

Forbes and Joseph are more cautious. Forbes has called for more efforts to woo Remain voters, with Youssef saying he wants to build a “stable, sustainable” majority for independence. Polls currently show Scottish voters roughly evenly split on the issue.

Leading Scottish historian Tom Devine said that with the retreat of independence as an imminent prospect, many voters had more pressing concerns – and this posed a risk to the SNP.

“The perception is that the mainstream of Scottish public opinion is mainly concerned about issues (of the health system), education standards, transport infrastructure and the economy as a whole,” he told Scotland’s Herald newspaper. “Are parts of the electorate now beginning to feel left out and concluding that the SNP government has failed to deliver on these vital issues?”

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