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Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP, and the thankful demise of the independence dream

Updated: May 23

James Baldwin

Long-existing trends in British politics are unravelling at a rather impressive rate. In Westminster, after 13 years in power, the Conservatives are facing a barrage of by-elections, what would have been – had he not resigned first – the suspension of a former leader who was in charge of the country a mere year ago, and a consistent poll deficit to Labour. A decade and a half of Tory rule is all but set to end in some shape or form.

Yet, astonishingly, the drama is even more intense north of the border. The Scottish National Party (SNP) have been the predominant force in Scotland for the past 16 years – leading the Scottish Parliament since 2007 and having the vast majority of Scottish seats in the House of Commons since 2015. The SNP have led every poll in Scotland since 2014. And, despite the appearance of a handful of rogue members – think of the MP Joanna Cherry – the party has appeared stable and united, with only two leaders since it truly emerged as a force in British politics.

All this continuity changed this year. Nicola Sturgeon, who had led the party since the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum, shocked everyone with her resignation in February, only a few weeks after she had told Laura Kuenssberg that she had no intention of going in the near future. She cited fatigue – an odd reasoning given those comments beforehand. Many pundits instead put it down to growing tension in this formerly united party (and, with it, largely united Scotland) following her decision to try and move the age of legally changing one’s gender from 18 to 16. Ruptures appeared after that, even more so when Westminster waded in to prevent the legislation from passing – utilising Section 35 of the Scotland Act which originally set out the terms of devolution, a tool which had never been used prior.

However, the true reason may have now been unearthed. Less than two weeks ago, Sturgeon was arrested – and released without charge – with the police investigating the party’s misuse of their finances. Although Police Scotland began looking into the SNP as long ago as 2021, the saga came to a head only a couple of weeks after Sturgeon had handed the reins of power to the new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, when her husband was arrested. Peter Murrell was also the CEO of the SNP from 1999 until March, emphasising how the long period of continuity in the internal workings of the party has been hugely disrupted. Did Sturgeon get a tip off about the investigation’s escalation? It does not require a genius to at least point to that potentiality.

The sheer dominance of the SNP is, then, under threat. In a recent poll, they were tied with Labour on 34%. Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour, has higher approvals than Yousaf. As the police investigation opens up wounds in the SNP, the matters which the party prided themselves on – the aforementioned stability and unity – are crumbling. With a general election likely only twelve months away, Yousaf has a great amount of work on his hands to try and maintain the party’s 45 Westminster seats.

But the decline of the SNP is no bad, nor sad, thing. Their period in government has been marked by the achievement of very, very little. Although the party can say they have successfully promoted independence to the very heart of British politics, Scotland is still very much a part of the United Kingdom; indeed, its likelihood of staying in the UK strengthens whenever the SNP erupt into disarray. The nationalists lost the 2014 referendum, and have failed to set a date for another one (another issue which has caused fractures in the party). And, even with these failures, independence appears to be the only thing which the SNP has cared about since being in government. The country’s economy, like the rest of the UK, has been largely stagnant; drug problems have simply got worse; and education standards have been declining. Issues which matter to people have been neglected in preference for a constant discourse on independence.

Yousaf styled himself as the continuity candidate. That is something extremely unappealing and, finally, Scots appear to be waking up to this. Sturgeon’s legacy is in freefall and Labour could once again take the crown of largest party in Scotland. Independence will continue to be an issue on the tongues of Scots, and it will probably not disappear for long. But with a second referendum looking more and more unlikely, it is time for any party in power to focus on what actually matters – improving the country. The SNP, like the Conservatives in Westminster, have failed to deliver this. The irony is that, despite Sturgeon’s popularity in the independence movement, with her arrest, she has probably helped highlight this – and with it the flaws of independence itself.

Image: Scottish Government

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