The Scottish National Party (SNP) has dominated Scotland for over a decade. They were the first party to win a majority of seats in a Scottish Parliamentary election. The SNP has achieved success in large part because of their strong leaders like Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. However, with Sturgeon’s resignation, the future of the party is up for grabs.
Nicola Sturgeon has won every single election she has ever faced, by either majority or plurality, and in 2021 was pretty close to getting an outright majority in the Scottish election. In the end, the SNP had to settle for a coalition with the other pro-independence party, the Scottish Green Party, in order to push through their agenda. This played into her campaign for independence. The SNP argued that the pro-independence parties had a majority in the Scottish Parliament, and therefore there was legitimacy for another question on the constitution of Scottish unionism. Since the 2016 European Independence referendum, this had been a constant issue that the SNP would focus on, as they deemed leaving the EU a sufficient cause for Scotland to leave the UK and rejoin the EU. However, all Prime Ministers since this time have blocked any chance of this happening.
Sturgeon has always been very popular, but she has not been shy of scandal. Issues over the handling of Alex Salmond’s personal accusations showed potential for her character to be in question, though despite this, she did of course win a plurality of seats in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. That does not mean there have not been detractors, however; there appeared to be some wavering support in Westminster after Stephen Flynn was elected as the Westminster leader. This was seen as a negative for Sturgeon, as Flynn is generally seen as an anti-Sturgeon candidate, and could’ve possibly developed cracks between the Holyrood and Westminster SNP elected officials.
But the nail in the coffin, rather unexpectedly, was the SNP policy on transgender issues. Though they seemed to have gotten a win to begin with by passing the Gender Reform Act, which would have meant that people at the age of 16 and over would be able to get a gender recognition certificate, this was blocked by Rishi Sunak’s government. Initially, it seemed as if they had given her a perfect way to show why independence was so needed, as the values of Scotland and the rest of Britain seemed so far apart on this. However, the bill was quickly put into question as a transgender prisoner, convicted of rape as a man, was imprisoned in an all-female jail. As a result of the outrage, the decision was changed. Shortly after, Sturgeon unexpectedly resigned.
Humza Yousaf is the frontrunner in this campaign. As someone who is most recognised by most non-Scottish audiences, as someone who goes on BBC election programmes for the SNP, he is probably someone who automatically has a face that most know, for better or worse. He certainly is the continuation candidate for the SNP, as someone who has served in the Scottish government for Transport, Justice, and for Health since 2021. As someone on the left flank of the SNP, he is someone who likely stands for the ideals most promoted by Sturgeon.
He also has experience, having served years in the Scottish government. His campaign is based on the desire to unify the party, protect democracy, empower people to stand up for independence, build a strong economy, and most importantly, deliver independence.
However, he has many controversies. During his tenure as Transport Secretary, he was faced with a fine and six penalty points for being caught by police for driving a friend’s car without insurance. Healthcare under him has not improved. This is an area which the SNP has struggled in the past, but he raised concern in 2021 after saying that people should only call an ambulance if “absolutely critical” as ambulance waiting times increased. This is something that shows an issue in regard to competency, something which he has been accused of before with his time in all his jobs since going into government, especially Transport.
His main controversy during the campaign was over his opponent Kate Forbes. Without going into too much detail over her issues, he came out in favour of same-sex marriage. He stated that he voted for it in stage one and more, but abstained in the final vote. Though he stated that it was because of an international issue that he had to deal with, leader at the time Alex Salmond stated that it was because of “religious pressure”. This we could probably take with a pinch of salt as Salmond is now leader of rival party Alba, however these claims were backed up by Alex Neil suggesting backing up Salmond’s claim. The significance of this comes from Forbes’s over views stemming from faith.
If I were honest, I think that Yousaf is someone of optics. He looks good for the SNP. He would be the first leader of Pakistani heritage, and the first leader of Muslim faith to be leader of a government in the UK. Moreover, it would of course reaffirm the SNP identity as a progressive party, as he is someone who is of the left. However, wherever he has gone, controversy has risen.
Kate Forbes is the other frontrunner, and is certainly the underdog. She is someone who previous to this had a lower profile. She was first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016, five years after Yousaf. In 2020 she became a cabinet secretary for Finance and the Economy, having been Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy for the two years prior. She is someone who is looking for economic development for Scotland, with a pro-growth agenda reminiscent of Liz Truss. She appears to come the right-wing of the party.
Her main controversy however stems from her faith. She has said that, for religious reasons, she would would not have voted for same-sex marriage. She is also against the Gender Recognition Act. This is despite the fact she voted for the act as a result of cabinet collective responsibility. Those who agree with her on this point say she could have resigned. This though puts her against many people in her party, and in Holyrood. It is likely that with her in power, the Scottish Green Party would remove their support from the coalition, due to their firm stance in favour of transgender rights. This would be a problem for the SNP, which would no longer have a governing coalition.
But let’s look at this from a different perspective: how much of her views on this are actually compatible with the majority of Scotland and SNP voters? Though not many polls have been commissioned on same sex marriage support, back when it was an issue, A YouGov poll shows 56% of Scots support the legislation going through Holyrood. Moreover, The 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes survey has revealed that 68% of people in Scotland now agree in same-sex marriage. Though there is no detail I can find on party breakdown, it would be supposed that a party which has seen most of its success on the left, would be more likely to disagree with her. It should be stated that she has claimed she would not revoke same sex marriage, if this becomes an issue, which I believe it will do, it is likely that she will lose support from the people who want progressive policies in Scotland.
I believe Kate Forbes likely would be a more competent leader, but her views on same-sex marriage would tarnish her, as even the Deputy leader of the SNP in Weminster, Mhairi Black has firmly come out against her as a result of these views. Forbes is trying to frame this as having religious rights to hold a view, but I cannot see her overcoming his hurdle. Her only alternative is to talk about the economy, which is an issue as she risks sounding too much like Liz Truss, whose record breaking short tenure as Prime Minister has certainly created scepticism to people whose prominent political program is a ‘pro-growth economy’.
Scottish politics is certainly becoming a political theatre after the single-party stability that we have seen in the last decade. Labour have been seen to close in on the SNP in many polls, and this may help them consolidate power in the future if any of the analysis of these candidates comes to fruition. There are of course advantages and disadvantages to both candidates, but really it comes down to how much faith the people have in their leaders once the slick ability of Sturgeon is no longer leading the charge in an election campaign. This is a time of uncertainty for the SNP, and its going to be exciting for political neutrals like myself to delve into the depths of the drama to unfold.