A few weeks ago, Nicola Sturgeon announced that she would be stepping down as First Minister. For the past 15 years, the SNP has been Scotland’s party of choice and Sturgeon has led for eight years. When she took on the role in November 2014 after Alex Salmond’s failed bid for independence, she became the first female and has since become the longest-serving First Minister of Scotland. Sturgeon has been a formidable character in politics; a strong orator with a commanding presence who has rallied the people of Scotland and caused quite a few headaches in Westminster throughout her time in parliament. She has become the face of Scottish politics over the last eight years and we must ask ourselves, what will happen to the SNP and Scotland when she is no longer in control?
Politics is never plain sailing, but Nicola Sturgeon faced some extreme turbulence during her time captaining the SNP. During her time in charge, Scotland was dragged out of the EU, she led the country through the Covid-19 pandemic, and she faced off against five Prime Ministers, all of them Tories. She provided stability at a time of great uncertainty in the world and became a strong constant in Scottish politics when Number 10 Downing Street wasn’t so dependable and whose residents seemed to be changing every few weeks. Whether you love her or hate her, it seems hard to deny the significance of her presence in Scotland in politics, in the news and everyday conversations; she has become synonymous with Scottish Independence and the figurehead of Scottish politics.
Throughout her time as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon seemed confident and assured about her policies, but she began to falter when it came to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. This bill set out to make it easier for people to legally affirm their gender by removing the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and instead requiring individuals to confirm that they had been living in their desired gender for at least three months (for sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, it was for six months). This was due to be the first law of its kind in the UK and make Scotland a leading nation for trans-inclusive, gender-affirming legislation. But it soon became clear it wasn’t that simple; only 20% of Scots backed the new legislation and a previously unflappable Sturgeon was left hesitant and flustered when the topic of transgender prisoners came up. Unfortunately, she was unable to recover from the mess that followed and this triggered her stepping down as First Minister.
Sturgeon’s new inclusive legislation was largely unpopular with the Scottish public, and it didn’t get unanimous support from her party as nine SNP MSPs voted against its introduction. This showed the beginning of cracks in the Scottish National Party that have only grown in the weeks following Sturgeon’s resignation as the candidates for her position have emerged. The three candidates, Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan, have widely different views and show that the only unifying factor among the SNP is their desire to break up the union. Humza Yousaf seems like the likely choice on paper. He took on many key posts during Sturgeon’s time as leader and has endorsements from almost half of Sturgeon’s ministers and a third of all SNP MSPs.
If elected, he is likely to follow in Sturgeon’s footsteps in policy and practice. Kate Forbes, the other strong contender, is quite the opposite. A devoted member of the Calvinist Free Church, Forbes lost significant support for her campaign after it emerged that she disagreed with same-sex marriage, having children outside of marriage and the self-identification legislation for transgender individuals that Yousaf backed. The fact that one of these two is likely to become the leader of the Scottish National Party when they both have such differing views on so much, shows the disconnect and confusion within the party and means the future doesn’t look bright.
Sturgeon’s time as First Minister has been extremely eventful, but what has she achieved? A recent YouGov survey showed that 44% of Scots felt she had performed well and 48% said she was doing badly, and this seems like a fair representation of her time as leader. When she was sworn in, Nicola Sturgeon told us to judge her on her progress in eliminating the attainment gap between the most and least deprived pupils in Scotland. While the SNP reached their target of 16% of new entrants to university coming from the 20% of most deprived communities early, there is a 20% gap in children’s literacy and numeracy skills between the most and least deprived communities, the same as it was in 2016.
As for healthcare, Scotland saw fewer Covid-19 deaths per population than England and Wales, but A&E target wait times have only been achieved for 19 out of her 99 months as First Minister, and this reached an all-time low in December. Scotland had a drug-death problem when Sturgeon first stepped up as First Minister and things have only worsened on her watch, with drug-related deaths more than doubling and record-breaking numbers for 7 out of her 8 years on the job. Scotland is still part of the union, and Westminster doesn’t seem to show signs of allowing this to be challenged any time soon. The country is perhaps more divided than it was before she took the reins, and although there have been improvements in some areas, on the whole Sturgeon seems to have left it in more of a mess than she found it in.
Nicola Sturgeon has truly become the figurehead of Scottish politics. She has been a constant in politics for the last eight years and is synonymous with independence and the SNP. She seemed to be the future of her party too and we must now question what will happen next. The candidates to replace her have shown just how deeply divided the Scottish National Party are and support for Labour has been steadily rising. If the SNP don’t figure out a direction that pleases the Scottish people, and each other, perhaps the cries for independence will die down and Labour’s red wall will return, this time north of the border.