POLITICO, March 2021
Nicola Sturgeon’s position is safe – for now.
A tumultuous week in the long-running feud with her predecessor as Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, has left Sturgeon more secure in her job. Yet splits in the movement for Scottish independence remain, and crucial Scottish elections could still determine whether the cause founders.
On Monday, Scotland’s First Minister was cleared by independent investigator James Hamilton of breaching the country’s ministerial code following her government’s botched handling of sexual harassment allegations leveled against Salmond in 2018.
Twenty-four hours later, a separate investigation, conducted by a committee of Scottish parliamentarians, found that Sturgeon did potentially break the ministerial code – although its findings were dismissed by the Scottish government as partisan and incomplete.
Sturgeon then survived a vote of no confidence brought by Conservative MSPs in the Holyrood chamber, Scotland’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh.
Sturgeon leads the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), and, while Salmond looks set to keep making noise — he said he would take the Scottish government to court again on Wednesday — senior nationalists are elated with the Hamilton ruling. They acknowledge that, had the verdict been different, Sturgeon would have been forced to resign.
“We’d gamed it on the basis of what the various outcomes might be,” one high-ranking party official said. “This was at the top end of what we expected.”
Yet the fallout from the Salmond affair may not end here. More than two years of bitter infighting between the pair – historically Scottish nationalism’s two most dominant figureheads – have exposed sharp divisions in the independence movement.
Anger over Sturgeon’s strategy for securing a second independence referendum, her bunkered approach to policy-making and her centrist economic platform is visible among a once tightly unified nationalist base.
These tensions are heightened by the fact that the country is only weeks away from a pivotal national election that could determine whether or not Scots get to vote again on their independence from the U.K.
The margins are agonizingly tight. Surveys suggest the SNP is either on course for an outright victory on 6 May — or could fall just short of winning an absolute majority of Holyrood seats.
The first result would bolster Sturgeon’s political authority and ratchet up pressure on U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grant Scotland a second referendum. Yet the latter could drain momentum from nationalist politics and further unsettle the SNP internally.
At the heart of the Salmond controversy lies the former first minister’s insistence that a close-knit team at the top of the Scottish government conspired against him after the accusations of sexual misconduct first came to light. Sturgeon denies this claim and, for the most part, SNP voters agree with her.
In February, a poll conducted by YouGov found that 49 per cent of Scots who support the SNP believe Sturgeon’s version of events, compared to just 13 per cent who don’t.
Those numbers were almost exactly reversed for Salmond. Likewise, according to party insiders, no more than a fifth of the SNP’s 100,000 plus members subscribe to Salmond’s belief that Sturgeon sought to “drive” him from Scottish public life.
But the Salmond-Sturgeon rift has mapped on to broader ideological fault lines.
Fundamentalists vs. gradualists
Traditionally, the most enduring political divide within the SNP has been between nationalist ‘fundamentalists’ – those who believe independence should be the party’s sole campaigning focus – and ‘gradualists’ – those who believe independence will only be won after a long march through the U.K.’s devolved institutions.
Sturgeon is an arch-gradualist. She wants any future independence vote to be legally and democratically water-tight from both a domestic and international perspective.
That means securing a clear political agreement with Johnson in advance of a new vote and building strong ‘para-diplomatic’ ties to the EU and Washington.
Westminster MPs such as Joanna Cherry, Angus Brendan MacNeil, and Kenny MacAskill, however, are not convinced that Johnson will agree to a second independence poll and want the SNP to pursue more adversarial routes to Scottish self-government, including by testing the legality of a non-sanctioned referendum in court.
“Underpinning all the discontent has been a growing despair at the failure of SNP HQ to prepare for Indyref2,” MacAskill, who served as justice secretary in Salmond’s cabinet, wrote in September 2020.
The failure to develop a so-called ‘Plan B’ for independence was “not just negligent but criminal,” he argued.
Despite the fact that Salmond himself shares Sturgeon’s gradualist instincts, the fundamentalist wing of the party has grown close to the ex-SNP leader over the course of his stand-off with Sturgeon.
Since 2018, it has also seized on other contentious political issues — including, notably, transgender rights and the reform of Scotland’s gender recognition laws — as a way of amplifying internal opposition to her leadership.
Alyn Smith, the SNP MP for Stirling and a strong Sturgeon ally, sees this grouping as a “Trumpian” faction inside the party determined to dislodge the current leadership structure, even if it means undermining the wider credibility of the nationalist movement.
“It’s legitimate to ask questions but when the questions are answered, move on,” Smith told POLITICO. “The ‘Plan B’ stuff was never about ‘Plan B’, and it’s the same with the gender recognition stuff. They were cyphers [to get at Sturgeon].”
Another major fissure within the SNP is Sturgeon’s perceived lack of economic radicalism.
In 2016, Sturgeon appointed Andrew Wilson, a corporate lobbyist and former PR man for the Scottish financial sector, to draw up a new economic blueprint for independence.
Wilson’s ‘Sustainable Growth Commission’ report was published two years later. The Growth Commission recommended a decade of spending constraints after a ‘Yes’ vote for independence. It argued that Scotland should continue using Britain’s pound sterling in the absence of a formal currency union with London, and instead of establishing a separate Scottish central bank and currency.
These proposals provoked fury among activists on the nationalist left — including those associated with the SNP Common Weal Group (CWG), an influential internal party faction that believes Wilson’s plan would impose severe constraints on Scotland’s economic sovereignty.
Rory Steel is the National Secretary of the CWG and a Glasgow-based SNP member. He views Sturgeon’s decision to outsource the party’s economic policy as indicative of her technocratic leadership style. And he highlights what her regards as a reluctance among party chiefs to engage with basic rank-and-file demands.
“Even people who you would call Sturgeon loyalists, when you speak to them privately, are critical of the way party is governed,” Steel said. “All the internal democratic mechanisms are completely shut off.”
The COVID effect
Yet, even after the bruising and divisive experience of the Salmond affair, the bulk of the SNP remains committed to Sturgeon and the ultra-cautious direction she has taken the party in.
This culture of loyalty encompasses both the MSPs group at Holyrood – Sturgeon’s de-facto power base – and the MPs group at Westminster.
The party’s leader in the UK parliament, Ian Blackford, is a staunch Sturgeon supporter, as is Scotland’s deputy first minister John Swinney and the SNP’s deputy leader Keith Brown.
Most SNP activists see the first minister as a hugely effective political leader who has presided over a period of unprecedented electoral success for Scottish nationalism and who is slowly but surely coaxing the country towards the U.K. exit door, said Mhairi Hunter, a Glasgow city councillor who has known Sturgeon since the 1990s.
Hunter attributes at least some of the simmering frustration among competing nationalist groups to the claustrophobic impact of the COVID crisis, which has made it impossible for SNP members to push the case for independence on the doorsteps.
“You can’t understand what’s been going without taking into account the past year of political inaction,” she said. “It has had a weird effect in terms of party activity, because there hasn’t been any.”
Sturgeon will likely hold the confidence of the SNP base for as long as she keeps winning elections and pressing Westminster for another independence referendum.
The relentless stress and pressure of the Salmond feud is now – largely – in the rearview mirror, but the May election is a short distance down the road.
“If you want to remove me from office as first minister, do it in an election,” Sturgeon told opposition politicians in the Holyrood parliament Tuesday afternoon.
As the last 14 years of Scottish nationalist dominance have shown, that may be easier said than done.
Opposition to Nicola Sturgeon within the SNP is diffuse but shallow. The majority of party members and office bearers support Sturgeon, share her vision of Scotland as a liberal, independent nation-state inside the EU, and believe the first minister has run Scotland competently throughout her six-and-a-half years at the head of the devolved Scottish government. Having been cleared of breaking the ministerial code by James Hamilton, Sturgeon’s future now rests on the outcome of the Scottish election on 6 May – and the perception, among grassroots nationalists, that Scotland is making steady progress towards independence.
High profile fundamentalists within the SNP include senior MPs like Joanna Cherry and Kenny MacAskill. They want Sturgeon to set out a roadmap to independence that doesn’t rely on the largesse of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in London. Of all Sturgeon’s internal critics, they are most likely to have sided with Salmond during the inquiry process. Some Sturgeon supporters have privately mooted expelling hardline fundamentalists from the party – a proposal rejected by Sturgeon’s team.
The SNP casts itself as a social democratic party. Under the leadership both of Salmond and Sturgeon, however, it has pursued a moderate economic strategy. The left of the party, centred around the influential ex-MP George Kerevan and the SNP Common Weal Group (CWG), an internal party faction, believe Sturgeon is too close to private sector interests and has failed to live up to her early radical promise. Left nationalists are critical of Sturgeon’s leadership, but not necessarily aligned with Salmond.
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