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8 July 2021

Nicola Sturgeon is nurturing a new generation of SNP talent to win independence

Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes, regarded by the First Minister as her likely successor, exemplifies the party’s younger, more policy-focused wing.

By Chris Deerin

Even his friends admit Mike Russell is a bit of a shrieking ninny. The SNP president is enjoyably pompous and thin-skinned, with a fluting voice which in moments of stress or excitement can become almost glass-shatteringly shrill. He is a man of culture – and he is likely to tell you so – and carries himself with the air of a meditative intellectual who has reluctantly come down the mountain to improve the lot of hoi polloi.

When I started out in journalism about 25 years ago, Russell was already a character drawn in thick lines. He was then the party’s bearded, cigar-sucking chief executive, who ruled over a small but committed team in a tiny HQ above a pawn shop in central Edinburgh. This was an era of regular electoral drubbings and daily media contempt, and it must have been hard to get out of bed at times absent the stubborn belief that you were an individual of destiny.

Still, Russell hedged his bets, writing a series of books with literary aspirations. These include one arguably ill-advised novel (12p on Amazon), the less successful passages of which still occasionally surface on Twitter, and a brave stab at policy-shaping called Grasping the Thistle: How Scotland Must React to the Three Key Challenges of the Twenty First Century (currently unavailable), which among its startling and as-yet unachieved proposals recommended replacing the NHS with an insurance-based healthcare system.

On his election to Holyrood in 1999, Mike began calling himself Michael (though everyone else still called and calls him Mike), shaved off the beard and dumped the cigars. He took a tilt at the SNP leadership following John Swinney’s resignation in 2004, coming third in a two-horse race, and eventually served as an undistinguished education secretary, and latterly as Nicola Sturgeon’s constitution secretary. He retired from the Scottish Parliament in May and has been elected SNP president, a party perch from which he continues to oversee the party’s quest for independence.

Therein, one may see the outlines of a problem. Russell is 67, has been a party member for almost five decades and an office holder of one kind or another for nearly four. John Swinney, the deputy first minister, became national secretary of the SNP in 1986, at the age of 22, and has been an MP, an MSP, party leader, and another mediocre education secretary. Though still only 50, Nicola Sturgeon has been an MSP for 22 years and a frontbencher for the same time, having joined the party in 1986 and quickly been put in charge of publicity, and having first stood in the 1992 general election.

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It is important to acknowledge the successes of this cohort. They rose to seniority in a rusting Ford Fiesta and have replaced it with a high-end Range Rover – slick, shiny, powerful and aspirational. The past decade has been marked by unprecedented electoral success, political dominance and growth in support for independence. In 2014 they were not too far off achieving their ultimate goal. Sturgeon remains a credible and trusted First Minister.

And yet it is also important to understand that this Range Rover is reaching the end of its road. The SNP in its current form is successful but it is also stuck, and is starting to feel stale. For how much longer can its 21st-century offer to Scots – we will govern as Not The Tories, pick fights on your behalf with Westminster, and attempt to nudge and sometimes hector you towards leaving the UK – prevail?

For if the generation of Alex Salmond, Sturgeon, Swinney, Russell, and Peter Murrell – Sturgeon’s husband, who has been SNP chief executive since 1999, when he took over from Russell – were going to deliver independence, it seems likely they would have done so by now, or at least be on the cusp. 

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They got their big shot in 2014, and fell short. In the aftermath, they adjusted, elected a more sympathetic leader, and deliberately set out to woo the roughly 20 per cent of Scots whose allegiance might be up for grabs. They have benefitted from a series of unappealing UK Conservative governments, culminating in the anathema that is Boris Johnson. The opposition parties have been at bay for an extraordinary length of time, north and south of the border. It is now five years since the Brexit vote, which resulted in an unprecedented breach of the Union’s balancing mechanism, was opposed by a large majority of Scots, and gave Sturgeon the “material change in circumstances” she claimed would justify a quick second referendum. They have had seven years to answer the tricky questions, fiscal and otherwise, that undid them in 2014. They have had 14 years in office to prove they had the chops to improve the nation and persuade the electorate that with the full powers of independence they could do even better.

And where are we? Support for separation is stuck fast at 50 per cent – good but not good enough, despite all that electoral magic, despite Brexit, despite Johnson, despite Sturgeon’s impressive performance as Mother Scotland during the Covid crisis, despite the affront many Scots feel at the way the UK is being run. Only a small minority want a referendum by 2023, the timescale proposed by the First Minister, and it’s at least debatable whether there’s much appetite for one during this parliament at all. And anyway, Westminster can say, and is saying, no. The Yes movement has dangerously fractured. The tricky questions have not been answered, and in important ways Brexit makes independence more challenging rather than less. If there is a public-policy purpose to this new Holyrood administration, it is difficult to discern.

But still, Sturgeon, Swinney and Russell remain at the helm, and give every impression they intend to stay there for as long as they can. Salmond simply can’t let go and has become a wrecking ball. Last month, Sturgeon announced a new political director of the SNP’s independence unit, charged with creating policy papers and a campaign to “fire up” the Yes movement: Mike Russell, with yet another “11-point plan”. She continues to drive her government with the handbrake on, partly through her own natural caution, partly to avoid annoying the trade unions, vested interests and public sector workers whose support she’d need to win a second referendum. Despite the bizarre governance structure where the administration and party are run by a husband and wife – its weirdness fully excavated by the Salmond inquiry  there is no indication Sturgeon sees the problem or is minded to address it.

If there are obvious criticisms of the First Minister here, it’s necessary to say that she is a remarkable politician who is clearly not done quite yet. But that time is drawing nearer, and I suspect she is too astute not to be aware. This is perhaps why she has begun to seed her administration with a new generation of talent.

The SNP has been the beneficiary of its own success, much as New Labour was in the 1990s and early 2000s. It has become a destination for bright young things with an eye on personal advancement and a fancy for power. Many of the fresher Nats I meet are impressive – not all, but many – and, crucially, they are also different. While they believe in independence, this tends to be for technocratic reasons rather than with the heartsick passion that has defined the long lives of elders. Notoriously, a current senior minister once said they would “live in a cave if it meant Scotland would be independent”. That’s not the kind of sentiment you’ll hear much from the new breed.

The leader of this pack is undoubtedly Kate Forbes, the 31-year-old cabinet secretary for Finance and the Economy – effectively Scotland’s chancellor of the Exchequer, if with more limited powers. Forbes, who trained as an accountant, is a thoughtful, open-minded politician with a fierce interest in policy and a tight focus on the details. I understand Sturgeon believes she is likely to be her eventual successor as SNP leader and first minister. It’s not hard to see why.

There are others – the Scottish cabinet now includes Mairi Gougeon, the 36-year-old secretary for rural affairs and the Islands. Humza Yousaf, the health secretary, is similarly 36, and now has a portfolio that will either prove his abilities or find him wanting. Tom Arthur, also 36, is the bright new minister for public finance, Mairi McAllan, in her late 20s, was elected for the first time in May and instantly made minister for the environment. Ben Macpherson and Jenny Gilruth have promise. At Westminster, defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald and foreign affairs spokesperson Alyn Smith have brought a seriousness to important policy areas that has been lacking in the past.

Most of these individuals are the children of devolution, for whom the Scottish Parliament has been an ever-present since they came to political sentience. They have a genuine interest in devolved policy and public service, and see the constitutional question as something other than an existential must. If you believe, as I do, that any route to independence has to be through excellence and an appetite for risk and reform at Holyrood, this lot seem more likely to pursue such a path.

In this light, Sturgeon looks more like a transitional figure between the old guard and the new movement than the conquering hero. In the end, independence may or may not come, but the SNP must begin to move on to the next generation and give them the opportunity to succeed where their elders have, in the end, failed.

[See also: If not now… never? Nicola Sturgeon on the battle for a second Scottish referendum]