On May 6, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) came within 2,000 votes of winning an outright majority at Holyrood, the country’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh. Holyrood’s proportional voting system was designed to discourage majority results. Sturgeon has won every election she has fought as SNP leader – six in seven years. By the time the next Scottish election takes place in 2026, the SNP will have held power at Holyrood for 19 years, more than two-thirds of the total lifespan of the parliament itself. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, Scottish nationalism has become virtually hegemonic. The SNP has no serious electoral rivals; the party draws support from a sizeable cross-section of demographic groups.

Sturgeon is the lynchpin of this success. She has been a member of the Holyrood chamber since it was created, or ‘reconvened’, by the House of Commons, in 1999. She became (de facto) leader of the opposition at the age of 34, deputy first minister and health secretary at 36, and first minister at 44. Journalists have spent the last few months poring over the breakdown of Sturgeon’s relationship with her bitterly estranged former boss and mentor, Alex Salmond. Increasingly, however, Salmond – who ran the Scottish government with Sturgeon as his deputy between 2007 and 2014 – looks like a supporting act in the history of modern Scottish nationalism. His newly established party, Alba, took less than 2 per cent of the vote on May 6.

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After 14 years in power – and one earth-shatteringly unpleasant internal party split – the SNP has secured a fourth consecutive election victory at Holyrood. The votes are still being tallied; an outright majority may have just slipped beyond the grasp of the nationalists. 

And yet, next week, Nicola Sturgeon will still be first minister – and the question of independence will still lie at the heart of Scottish political debate. If, as looks likely, the SNP doesn’t reach that all-important 65-seat threshold, Green MSPs will make up the numbers. Both parties favour another referendum on self-government once the worst of the COVID pandemic has subsided, with 2023 mooted as one potential staging point for a fresh vote. 

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GLASGOW, Scotland—Now 14 years in power in Edinburgh’s devolved Parliament, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is polling ahead of its nearest rivals by at least 25 percentage points as elections approach on May 6. The party’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, remains the country’s most popular and trusted politician. Her steady handling of the coronavirus pandemic has garnered praise, bolstering the feeling that Scotland could thrive on its own—cut loose from the legislative ties of the United Kingdom.

Sturgeon’s SNP will win the elections. The only question is, on whose terms? A slight shift in the polls could mean the difference between an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament or another five years of rancorous minority coalition rule. If her party wins the majority, Sturgeon has pledged to call another independence referendum by the end of 2023. She remains locked in a high-stakes standoff with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has said he will block Scotland from voting again on the question of leaving the United Kingdom.

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On 26 February, Alex Salmond appeared before a Holyrood committee inquiry investigating how and why complaints of sexual misconduct made against him in 2018 had been mishandled by Scotland’s devolved government in Edinburgh – the devolved government that he used to run. The allegations were false, the former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader said. (Salmond was acquitted of 13 sexual assault charges in an Edinburgh courtroom last Spring.) There had been a ‘malicious plot’ in the higher reaches of Scottish civil society to press ahead with them anyway. The plot had spiralled out of control. Information had been suppressed. Key pieces of evidence were ignored. And those involved had tried to cover their tracks. ‘Scotland hasn’t failed,’ Salmond declared in his opening statement; its leadership, from the Crown Office to the cabinet, has. 

Five days later, on 3 March, Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as Scottish first minister and SNP leader, sat in front of the same committee inquiry. There was no plot, she said. Several women had come forward with serious allegations regarding Salmond’s behaviour. The Scottish government had botched its response to those allegations. But procedure, not conspiracy, was to blame for the flawed investigative process. ‘I had no motive, intention, or desire to “get” Alex Salmond’, Sturgeon stated. Indeed, until recently, Salmond – sixteen years Sturgeon’s senior – had been one of her closest friends and political confidants. The first minister’s marathon eight-hour evidence session marked the apex of a drama that has gripped Scottish politics for months. Between them, Salmond and Sturgeon have run Holyrood for almost a decade-and-a-half. In September 2014, at the head of the campaign for Scottish independence, they came close to dissolving the United Kingdom itself. 

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In case it wasn’t already clear: Alex Salmond wants to end Nicola Sturgeon’s political career. 

This week, as part of a Holyrood committee inquiry into the alleged mishandling of sexual assault allegations against Scotland’s former first minister, Salmond accused people close to Sturgeon – his one-time friend and colleague, and Scotland’s current first minister – of maliciously conspiring to “remove” him from public life. 

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A prediction: after 2021, Nicola Sturgeon won’t fight another devolved election as SNP leader. The first minister’s future hinges on the outcome of next May’s crucial Holyrood vote and the UK government’s response to nationalist demands for a second independence referendum. 

If the SNP manages to secure and then win that referendum, Scots will go on to elect a sovereign, independent parliament, most likely with Sturgeon at its helm. If the nationalists lose, however, Sturgeon will have little choice but to resign, much as Alex Salmond and David Cameron did following their respective referendum defeats in 2014 and 2016.

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Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. Since then, he has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. The most recent of these, announced on Nov. 18., is intended to “boost the social and cultural case” for Britain following a “series of missteps” by the Conservative leader, according to the Financial Times

On Nov 17., Johnson reportedly told a group of Tory MPs that the transfer of partial legislative powers to Scotland from London in 1999 had been a “disaster north of the border.” His remark was clearly not meant for a Scottish audience: two decades after its creation, the Scottish Parliament remains hugely popular with Scottish voters. Opposition to devolution, on the other hand, is a fringe pursuit.

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Ten months after Boris Johnson led his Conservative Party to an epic election victory in the United Kingdom, surveys are showing an increase in support for Scottish independence — literally, the break-up of the British state.

Enthusiasm for ending Scotland’s 313-year-old union with England has spiked in the past, notably in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, when it looked, briefly, like the Scots were going to vote in favor of leaving the UK. (The final result was 55 percent to 45 percent against.)

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Nationalists have long believed in the inevitability of Scottish independence; now unionists are beginning to believe in it, too. “It’s over,” one former Better Together figurehead told The Spectator, anonymously, in July. “The horse has bolted.”

The recent string of opinion polls showing, for the first time, sustained majority support for separation has spooked the British political class. Boris Johnson’s panicked sojourns north of the border, and the hastily-arranged decapitation of Jackson Carlaw as Scots Tory leader, suggest unionism is a cause in search of a strategy – a point underlined by the absurd idea, floated last week by the FT’s Sebastian Payne, that Britain’s future rests exclusively on the shoulders of Richard Leonard.

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Modern Scottish nationalism was born in the pages of the New Left Review, sometime in the mid-1960s.

That’s the bold claim at the heart of Ben Jackson’s excellent new book, which traces the intellectual origins of contemporary nationalist politics through the work of writers like Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson, George Kerevan, Isobel Lindsay, and my own late dad, Stephen Maxwell. 

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