Nicola Sturgeon’s Departure Doesn’t Solve Scotland’s ProblemsThe SNP has been a victim of its own success. Scotland’s route to independence is now anyone’s guess.
This article was originally published on opendemocracy.net.
The shock resignation today of Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves Scottish politics in disarray and has wider ramifications for the UK’s ongoing constitutional crisis.
Sturgeon’s legacy over eight and a half years in office is a hotly disputed one, both in terms of domestic policy and the wider strategy for gaining independence. But she can rightly claim to have eviscerated her opponents and defeated a succession of Labour and Conservative leaders. Perhaps it is fair to say that she is far more successful as an electoral politician than a transformational one.
Sturgeon’s government has been endlessly caught between the triangulation of popular politics and the need to create an insurgent independence movement. But other factors have contributed to her being at the epicenter of a series of critical questions that have proved unsustainable. She has been exposed and divided on three critical fronts: she has been unable to navigate a path through the constitutional crisis, hemmed in by Westminster intransigence and suppression of democracy; she has been at the centre of the culture wars in Scotland, as she championed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill; and, thirdly, she has been the focus of the hostility of everyone who opposed independence (and many who support it).
In a sense, the party is a victim of its own success. There is no prospect of any other political party gaining power in Scotland. The media and the wider society do not discuss Labour policy or the Scottish Conservatives’ political ideas, not just because they are thin on the ground but just because there is zero possibility of them seeing the light of day. This has led to a relentless grind of a negative focus on Nicola Sturgeon herself. This is partly the fault of the SNP itself, which mimicked the New Labour template of promoting everything though the cult of a leader. This is a highly successful electoral ploy, but it does leave a political party an emptied out entity.
Scottish political and media culture is now highly toxic and concentrated solely on one woman (and there is certainly a gender aspect to this phenomenon). While Nicola Sturgeon must be taken to task for her political failings and her policy legacy, we must also reflect on the types of cultures and forums we create to do our politics. Equally, we now have a situation where any and every criticism of the SNP and the Scottish government is conceived and rejected as an ‘attack on Scotland’ by independence supporters. This is not a good state for a healthy democracy to be in. The idea that Sturgeon was ‘hounded out of office’ is true—but so too is the principle that politicians must be held accountable by the media. These are issues that Scotland needs to grapple with, somehow beyond the binary dynamic that we exist in.
While Sturgeon’s resignation is a shock, it tellingly does not resolve any of the major problems she leaves to her successor and to the wider country. The problems at the heart of Scotland’s constitutional and social crisis are systemic. They are not about one individual and will not be solved by removing and replacing that individual. There is no magic solution to the muscular unionism of the Westminster parties—despite the froth and fury of the more enraged wing of the independence movement. Neither do the opposition parties in Scotland have any credible prospectus for office. They do not and cannot inspire support and are widely perceived to be one-dimensional and wholly negative actors operating in bad faith every day. Therefore the idea being put forward immediately today that Sturgeon’s removal suddenly creates huge opportunity for Labour (for example) is completely misguided.
What is at stake, and what may well change, is the idea of making the next UK general election into a de facto second independence referendum—which was Nicola Sturgeon’s preferred option. This tactic was to have been the subject of a special party conference next month to discuss and agree a way forward. That’s all up in the air now and may be postponed in the aftermath of Sturgeon’s resignation. But it won’t go away. The idea had always had an air of desperation about it as options for strategies to gain independence—or a referendum on independence—narrowed and closed. While previous Conservative governments were open at least to the option of a referendum, the governments of May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak have all been resolutely opposed, not least because the campaigning on such a referendum would start with support for independence at around 50%.
But the alternatives for the SNP and the wider independence movement aren’t clear. Stewart McDonald’s paper ‘A Scotland That Can Vote Yes’ is the only published coherent alternative, but it hardly sets the heather alight. It basically states that the de facto tactic is risky and likely to fail. His alternative: “I believe [SNP] members should embrace a strategy that will drive up support for independence, reinforce the mandate for a referendum and maintain our commitment to a legitimate process underpinned by democracy and law. This is what the public will expect of us.”
The idea of a de facto referendum at Holyrood has the advantage of a wider, deeper electorate, one that includes 16- and 17-year-olds (who are overwhelmingly pro-Yes). But it has the disadvantage of a potentially messier outcome as a result of its proportional structure. The routes forward are unclear. They may involve mass civil disobedience; a withdrawal from Westminster of the party’s cohort; the creation of a dual-power assembly in Edinburgh; or other options. But the reality is that there isn’t a clear successor—as there was after Salmond’s departure—with a clear alternative plan. To repeat: this isn’t about individuals.
As the parade of opposition MSPs and media commentators praise Sturgeon with all the sincerity they can muster, they will have forgotten how they pursued her with a relentless and toxic negativity. Some of the media’s coverage has been obsessive, highly personal and more than a little laced with misogyny.
Now what? The politicians spoken of to replace Sturgeon all have their own political baggage. Kate Forbes is too young, too inexperienced and doesn’t have the ‘heft’ required to unite a party in the wake of such a traumatic event as this. Joanna Cherry is a highly divisive figure. Angus Robertson and John Swinney are likely candidates, as are Stephen Flynn and Mhairi Black. It’s early days, but none at this moment have an articulated position or strategy that would unite a party or a movement around an alternative way forward. ‘Not being Nicola Sturgeon’ isn’t a game-changer. Whoever replaces her will have to have fresh ideas and energy and realize that electoral success is not enough.
The experience of living under the British state, under perpetual Tory rule, requires transformative politics, and that will require risk and insurgency. If and only if these lessons can be learned, then a renewed prospectus for independence can be built and won—because the case for self-determination is not and was never about one individual alone.Wait, before you go…
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