June 20. 2024. 1:03

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A bulging in-tray awaits Nicola Sturgeon’s successor

Nicola Sturgeon has been leader or deputy leader of the Scottish National Party for more than 18 years, Jurassic in political terms. Not only does the party have no succession plan, more than 24 hours after she stepped down there was still a degree of uncertainty over aspects of the process to replace her.

The SNP’s national executive committee met in conclave on Thursday evening to set out a timetable for the process, which hasn’t been activated since 2004 when Alex Salmond defeated John Swinney. Sturgeon was anointed as Salmond’s successor a decade later in the wake of the Yes side’s defeat in Scotland’s independence referendum.

When she took over, Sturgeon faced the daunting task of rebuilding shattered morale and solidifying the SNP’s hold on devolved government. She quickly achieved both. Whoever follows in her stead later this spring arguably faces a much tougher task. The new SNP leader’s in-tray will be bulging.

Sturgeon’s valedictory speech at Bute House on Wednesday focused on her achievements. She painted a rosy picture, as politicians are wont to do, of a party united in its focus on independence. It is obviously true that the elected members of the SNP are at one on the party’s raison d’être: securing independence for Scotland from Westminster.


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Nicola Sturgeon: ‘Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely’

A bulging in-tray awaits Nicola Sturgeon’s successor

A bulging in-tray awaits Nicola Sturgeon’s successor

Nicola Sturgeon ran out of road but Scottish independence has not

Nicola Sturgeon ran out of road but Scottish independence has not

But it remains divided on almost everything else, and the leadership contest could exposé the fissures.

The Gender Recognition Bill passed recently by the Holyrood devolved chamber in Edinburgh, and which Westminster stepped in to block, would not be controversial in many other countries in Europe. Ireland, for example, introduced similar gender self-ID reforms about seven years ago, and the sky has yet to fall in.

But in Britain, the topic of gender is perennially subsumed in the nation’s culture wars. The bill passed easily with cross-party support, but nine of Sturgeon’s assembly members defied the whip to vote against it. One devolved government minister quit. It was a backbench rebellion the likes of which Sturgeon had never encountered.

By killing the Scottish bill, the UK government in Westminster has kept the row over the issue alive. Kate Forbes (32), one of the front-runners to replace Sturgeon, is known for social conservatism that would be anathema to the outgoing leader. If Forbes does enter the race, old debates and divisions could re-emerge. She would not be an obvious unifier.

While the party remains unified in wanting independence, it is divided the next steps to take to get there. The UK’s supreme court recently blocked Sturgeon’s attempt to force a new referendum. She responded by moving to make the next general election a de facto referendum on independence.

But there was huge opposition to this from within Sturgeon’s party. Voters have other concerns at the moment, such as the cost of living and the state of public services, which are as strained in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK. Voters’ intentions could be volatile and it is feared that a mishandled campaign could inflict serious damage on the legitimacy of Scottish nationalism.

The SNP is due to meet next month to decide its strategy for independence. Within hours of Sturgeon announcing her departure, senior figures within the party were pushing for the conference to be shelved. The leadership contest itself is likely to see the issue debated anyway.

Then there is the lingering issue of a police investigation into the SNP’s finances, and £600,000 of donations that cannot be immediately accounted for. Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, is the party’s administrative chief and says he intends to stay on. This, too, is likely to cause division, and a headache for whomever replaces his wife.