When Nicola Sturgeon steps down as SNP leader, who will replace her?

The runners and riders.


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What happens after Nicola Sturgeon? A rumour that shot around Scottish politics this week has raised exactly that question.

It is hard to imagine Scottish public life without Sturgeon – or indeed to remember it. She has been a frontline SNP figure since the mid-1990s, an MSP since the Scottish Parliament set up shop in 1999, an SNP frontbencher from the same point, a cabinet minister since 2007, and First Minister since 2014.

It is perhaps inevitable, this far down the line, that people are starting to wonder for how much longer she’ll go on. A brief frenzy greeted the suggestion this week that the First Minister had handed her CV to the United Nations and was seeking an equalities role on her departure from Bute House. The rumour was given credibility because it was passed on by some in the SNP, and perhaps because that destination seems perfectly plausible for Sturgeon.

She was having none of it, however, telling reporters: "Well, if that's case... I have heard the chatter. It is certainly news to me – emphatically. My CV is not with the UN. My CV is with nobody. In fact I can't remember the last time I updated my CV. And I've got no plans to do it in the near future.

"The next time I'll put my CV anywhere will be to the people of Scotland in the 2021 election."

Fair enough. And there seems no reason for Sturgeon to be looking for a new gig any time soon. The polls suggest the SNP will win again at the next Holyrood election in 2021 – and the unravelling of Brexit may give her a further boost, and damage the challenge from Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. The main issue appears to be whether the Nats will, in partnership with the Scottish Greens, secure a majority of MSPs in favour of independence. This would allow them to legislate for a second referendum, backed by an election mandate to hold one.

Sturgeon was a baby politician when devolution first came about, and, despite her longevity, at 48 is still relatively youthful in political terms. She could serve another term as FM and still only be in her mid-50s.

It is hard to see her going on beyond that point, though, unless she secures independence in a second referendum. While there is no real challenge to her authority or pressure for her to step down, there is a growing feeling among younger members of the party that the time for a generational change in leadership is approaching. The voters will surely tire of the same old faces at some point. And Sturgeon, like her deputy John Swinney, emerged in the era of Alex Salmond, when the arguments for independence were often based more on heart than head.

That has changed. The SNP has developed a technocratic approach in office, and shifted its case for independence as the relationship between Scotland and Westminster has grown more distant. The brighter young stars of the movement have emerged in this new era of governance and are serious policy people with ambitions to deliver under whatever constitutional settlement Scotland has. Some are the kind of people whom in 1997, might have joined New Labour – they’ve gone where the glamour, action, and drama are, as young talent does.

So who are the likely contenders, when Sturgeon finally abandons ship?

Derek Mackay. The 41-year-old Finance Secretary has been trusted with a big job by the First Minister. As Holyrood assumed control over income tax rates, he was charged with using those new powers to begin separating the Scottish taxation system from that of the rest of the UK. He has cautiously begun to rebalance the system towards more progressive ends, and high earners in Scotland now pay a more in tax than their counterparts south of the border, while lower earners pay less. This has been nimbly done, but the jury is out on how sustainable divergent tax systems are and whether damage might be done to Scotland’s competitiveness. Mackay, a former leader of Renfrewshire Council, freely admits he has had to learn on the job, has grown as a political figure in the past two years, and is rated by colleagues for his frankness and capacity to improve.

Kate Forbes. Of the younger generation, Forbes is the stand-out and the one most commonly tipped as a future First Minister. Originally from Dingwall, and having lived in India as a child, the 29-year-old studied history at Cambridge, and then took accountancy qualifications. She is thoughtful and open-minded, and her obvious potential was recognised when Sturgeon appointed her last year as Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy.

Angus Robertson. The highly rated Robertson lost his Westminster seat at the 2017 election, despite having put in a creditable shift as the SNP’s Westminster leader, performing particularly well at PMQs. Robertson hasn’t gone away – he recently set up Progress Scotland, an organisation that studies changes in Scots’ voting behaviour, with an eye to persuading waverers to make the leap to backing Scottish independence. It would be no surprise to see Robertson stand for Holyrood in 2021, and if Sturgeon fell under a bus he would be an obvious replacement.

Andrew Wilson. An interesting outside bet. Wilson, an economist and PR man, helmed the recent Growth Commission, which signalled a change in the SNP’s approach to the economics of independence. He was an MSP in the first Scottish parliament, before pursuing a career in business. Wilson has been a strong voice on the gradualist wing of the party for many years, has a big brain, and is well liked and well connected across the political establishment. His continued hunger for public service remains obvious – don’t count him out.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).