Nicola Sturgeon resigns: How the SNP can remain Scotland's dominant party without her – Joyce McMillan

Long ago, and what now seems many worlds away, I remember travelling around the north-east of Scotland on a tiny battle-bus with a memorably mixed group of devolution supporters – musicians, singers, poets, political debaters – all contributing to various campaign events along the way.

Many were SNP folk who saw devolution as a staging-post on the march to independence; some – like me – were ardent UK reformers. By and large, though, our differences had been set aside in the big push for a devolution Yes vote, come September 1997; and the nearest we came to an argument, on the bus, was when I casually remarked that what would happen to the Union, after devolution, would depend as ever on the quality of government at Westminster. One SNP supporter flew into a rage, roaring “Why does it always have to depend on them?” – a question which I thought suggested a few fairly obvious answers.

It’s an argument, though, that continues to run through the independence movement to this day, dividing those who think the need for Scottish independence is in some way natural and absolute, from those who simply see it as a better practical path to a sustainable social democratic future, through the complicated politics of these islands. And I thought of this divide again, as Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation this week; not least because she herself – a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat – has always spoken eloquently about how it was her rejection of the policies of Thatcherism that drove her into SNP politics, rather than some belief in nationalism as an ideology.

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Right from the start of her political career, in other words, Nicola Sturgeon has been a keen observer of Westminster politics, strongly aware of the extent to which Westminster makes the political weather within which the SNP operates. And although the reasons why she chose to depart at this moment are doubtless many and complex – ranging from the vile and extraordinary bitterness of the gender recognition debate, to her shrewd observation that, after eight years as First Minister, she has probably reached the limit of her capacity to persuade new supporters, since everyone now has such polarised opinions about her – it seems to me that the deeper reason for her departure is that she can see the current political era at Westminster coming to an end; and knows that that shift in the Westminster weather will require a complete new strategy and response from the SNP, developed on a time scale which would take her far beyond any reasonable term as leader.

In the aftermath of Nicola Sturgeon’s departure, the SNP will therefore have to find a leader or leadership group capable of doing three or four very different things, and doing them well. In the first place, the new leadership will have to do what Nicola Sturgeon could never quite do, in painting a persuasive and credible positive vision of what an independent Scotland might look like, ten years down the road; a vision backed by an updated version of the 2014 Scotland’s Future manifesto, which for all its flaws helped to shape the agenda for the referendum debate, and to create a real sense of excitement about a different possible future. That manifesto should be created over a year or two, not by Scottish Government civil servants, but by the whole independence movement, using all the talents from various existing policy groups and think tanks; and there should be someone in the new leadership of the SNP creative and dynamic enough to convene that process, and to help lead it.

Secondly, the new SNP leader will need to acknowledge that the UK shift from Conservative to Labour is significant, and that an incoming Labour government with a promised programme of constitutional reform may well be attractive to that large group of Scottish voters who are always just looking for the speediest route towards a viable social democratic future, and who moved from Labour to the SNP over the last 20 years for that reason. The political cycle at Westminster will sooner or later bring another moment of disillusion, as the difficulty of tackling Britain’s profound socio-economic problems takes the shine off a Starmer government committed to avoiding radicalism at all costs; but the task of leading the SNP through that period, and ensuring that it remains close to the centre of gravity of Scottish opinion rather than retreating into anti-Labour tribalism, will pose huge psychological and political challenges to any new leadership.

Then finally, the new leader or leadership will have to match and improve on Nicola Sturgeon’s record of reasonably competent government; a record certainly not as impressive as she would have wished in areas from carbon reduction targets to the educational attainment gap, but also not nearly as poor as some assessments this week have suggested. Only last week, the Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that the Scottish Government was now redistributing wealth towards poorer families more effectively than any other UK government, or any devolved government since 1999; and that is a political achievement of which Nicola Sturgeon and her party can be justly proud.

There is no doubt, though, that whoever emerges as Scotland’s next First Minister will also face a groaning in-tray of unfinished business and tricky policy problems which, if poorly handled, could see the party’s reputation for relatively steady government evaporate within months. The challenge is formidable, in other words. And my guess is that the SNP will survive this period of transition, and remain Scotland’s dominant party, only if it now finds its way towards a more collegiate leadership model; one that can share the burden of these complex and conflicting tasks, and also rebuild relations with the rest of the independence movement – above all with those whose progressive and innovative ideas will be essential, in plotting a credible path towards independence, through troubled and traumatic times.



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