The contest for Scotland’s next First Minister and SNP leader is well underway, with three candidates vying for the top spot. Voting opened earlier this week, on Monday, with the winner set to be announced on 27 March.
Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation has left the party unprepared, however, with no obvious successor lined up to replace her. Nor is there much enthusiasm amongst workers and youth for any of those who have stepped forward to fill her shoes.
There has been no seamless changing of the guard, as there was from Salmond to Sturgeon. Instead, a vacuum has opened up.
This has left many SNP members desperate to hear serious proposals for the future of the party, and for the independence movement. In early polls, over two-thirds of SNP supporters were undecided about who should take over.
From the outset, the various leadership campaigns have been a disappointment, to say the least. At first, the race was dominated by the controversy surrounding initial frontrunner Kate Forbes, the Scottish Finance Secretary.
MSPs who had endorsed Forbes rapidly withdrew their support, after she stated that – given the opportunity – she would have voted against gay marriage legislation owing to her Christian beliefs. Forbes also opposes the recent Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
This sparked a rather ugly, intense focus in the media on Forbes’ religious views, as a member of the Free Church of Scotland (the ‘Wee Frees’) – a roughly 8,000-member Protestant denomination known for its fundamentalist beliefs.
This then spilled over into journalists questioning Health Secretary Humza Yousaf whether, as a devout Muslim, he is sincere in his support for LGBT people. Naturally, many people found this whole debacle to be offensive and divisive.
There can be no defending Forbes’ reactionary views. These are clearly a source of embarrassment for most of the SNP. But the attention given to them is a distraction from the real class questions that Scottish workers need answers to.
In a poll by Opinion Matters, only 5% of SNP voters said that the candidates’ religious beliefs were important. This compared to 58% who said that priority is to have a plan to help people with the cost-of-living crisis. Similarly, 53% said that the next SNP leader should be focussed on improving the NHS, education, and public services.
On these essential questions, however, there is nothing that really separates the candidates apart. All are practically committed to the programme of austerity that the Scottish Government has planned, with public services facing ‘four difficult years’ ahead.
2023 will likely be the worst financial year for Holyrood in its history, with billions in budget cuts and thousands of jobs on the chopping block.
Nor have there been any fresh answers to the problem of where the campaign for independence is going.
The short notice of the leadership contest has ensured that the planned March conference has been postponed indefinitely. And neither Forbes nor Yousaf have really said much about what the movement should do next, apart from continuing to “make the case” for independence.
Despite essentially being a stand-in for arch-anti-Sturgeonite MP Joanna Cherry, Ash Regan is the only candidate defending the outgoing First Minister’s proposal for a ‘de facto referendum’ at the next UK general election.
Much of the SNP hierarchy have backed-off from the de facto referendum idea altogether. Their plan now is to essentially do nothing, while continuing to ask nicely that Westminster grants a referendum.
Regan may be speaking up against this, but even she has no clue how to actually fight Westminster’s veto, as shown in a string of embarrassing interviews.
One can almost feel the negative mood building up around the SNP, brought on by this surprise leadership contest which has shown us anything but the ‘talented politicians’ Sturgeon predicted would succeed her. Instead, the party looks like a train coming off the rails.
The STV hustings debate was particularly tense, with the three candidates raising their criticisms of each other frankly, and highlighting each others’ shortcomings without much explanation for their own. For those watching, the arguments just ran in circles.
The Scottish Conservatives have said they will use Kate Forbes’s criticism of her own government in their campaign materials.
In a letter to Forbes the party said they applauded her “truthful assessment” pic.twitter.com/LwZtN5R2n2
— The National (@ScotNational) March 13, 2023
Deputy First Minister John Swinney, one of Nicola Sturgeon’s closest allies, has announced that he is also retiring from frontline politics once the new SNP leader is chosen.
With Swinney and former deputy leader Angus Robertson ruling themselves out of the leadership contest very early on, it looks like Sturgeon’s resignation will really mark a turning point.
A new generation of politicians are rising to the top in the SNP: those who have only ever known the party to be in power in Scotland, and with the (false) promise of a second indyref within touching distance.
The situation they will inherit is a dire one, however: economic crisis, austerity, sharpening class struggle, and a dead-end for the independence movement.
This moment must provoke some serious re-evaluation among independence supporters – the majority of whom are workers and youth.
The bourgeois methods of the SNP leaders has led to an utter impasse. The only way forward is through militant class struggle, in the fight for a Scottish Workers’ Republic.