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Is the SNP heading for a split? 

Both opponents and allies of Kate Forbes are warning of resignations if she becomes leader.

By Chris Deerin

Following the sudden resignation of the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell on 18 March, the party veteran Michael Russell was asked to fill the job on an interim basis. One journalist called him, only to be told: “If you congratulate me, I’m putting the phone down.” When another senior party figure answered his mobile to me, he darkly joked that I had caught him “in the Dignitas waiting room”.

There is, inevitably, a combination of gloom and gallows humour in Scottish Nationalist circles at present. For a party that has for years enjoyed – and boasted of – unprecedented unity and untrammelled success, the civil war that has erupted since Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as First Minister in February is a profound shock to the system. If the SNP could once lay claim to political exceptionalism, it now looks every bit as grubby and divided as its competitors.

In just a few short weeks, the executive suite of the party, with its startling record of electoral dominance and long institutional experience, has been cleared out. First Sturgeon quit, then her deputy John Swinney, followed by the head of communications Murray Foote, Sturgeon’s chief aide Liz Lloyd, and finally, Murrell – who is also the First Minister’s husband. Foote, a respected former editor of the Daily Record, had been told by SNP HQ to dismiss a news report that the party’s membership numbers had fallen by 30,000 to around 70,000, only for the story to prove true when the official stats were released on 16 March. Foote walked out, and Murrell, who had been chief executive for 24 years, stood down in the aftermath.

As bad as things are, the Nationalist scene is rife with rumours that worse is yet to come. Even Scottish cabinet ministers are swapping stories about fresh scandals that are apparently about to break, involving unprintable tales of misbehaviour by colleagues and party officials, or about the rigging of the leadership election, or of possible police action. It is hard to separate conspiracy from fact. “People are losing their minds,” one well-placed insider told me.

All of this is having a significant impact on the leadership race, the outcome of which will be announced on 27 March. The Sturgeonites’ continuity candidate, the Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, who has been heavily backed by the party machine and his fellow ministers, has lost much of his early shine as powerful sponsors at HQ have imploded. There have been calls to restart the voting process because some members may wish to change their preference. Ash Regan, another of the three leadership contenders along with the Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, has spoken of taking legal action to pause the contest.

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[See also: Will the SNP be swept away by Scottish Labour?]

Even many of Sturgeon’s allies are aghast at what is being left in her wake. “In retrospect, her resignation speech is starting to resemble [the Japanese emperor] Hirohito’s statement of surrender – ‘the war has developed, not necessarily to the SNP’s advantage’,” said one. Resentments and disagreements that had quietly seethed in the background during the First Minister’s long supremacy have burst into view. Entrenched factions have formed, brutal words and threats have been uttered, and one-time political allies have badly fallen out.

Much depends on who triumphs. The leadership election will be decided using the single transferable vote system. This means that if no candidate surpasses 50 per cent in the first round, the candidate in last place – likely to be Regan – will drop out and their support redistributed between the remaining two. It’s generally agreed that Yousaf needs to win on the first count –
if he doesn’t, the second-preferences of Regan’s supporters are expected to hand victory to Forbes.

Some are attempting to look on the bright side. “I suppose it’s good to get all this out of the way over a short contest, rather than have it dragging on and on,” one MSP told me. But this presumes a new first minister will bring an end to the war. At the moment, that seems unlikely. Allies of Forbes accuse her opponents of forming “Momentum-style online lynch mobs” to go after anyone who endorses her. They are furious at Yousaf’s team for not attempting to rein in this behaviour, which they say has frightened members who are backing Forbes from saying so publicly.

Very few of the Finance Secretary’s elected colleagues have come out for her, but this does not worry her camp. “Kate gave up on getting public declarations of support in the first week. It’s instructive to look at who hasn’t declared for any of the candidates, and ask yourself why that is,” said a source close to her campaign.

Such is the scale of the bad blood that both opponents and allies of Forbes are warning of possible resignations if she emerges as first minister. Those who have signed up most passionately to the shared SNP-Green agenda on issues such as gender reform will find it hard to support a government led by Forbes, who is a social conservative personally opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion. This includes not just younger members, but also some sitting MSPs. “Some of them wouldn’t be much of a loss, to be honest,” one MSP told me. “But it will still need to be managed.”

A further problem is the unspoken policy void in the leadership. Such has been the enmity between the competing camps that debate has focused almost exclusively on Forbes’s religious views, Yousaf as a puppet of the Sturgeonites, and Regan as an underprepared, slightly comic no-hoper. More important issues have remained firmly unaddressed. “There’s been no clash of ideas or debate about the future of the party or the government,” despairs one of the SNP’s brighter parliamentarians. “The policy debate simply hasn’t happened.”

As a consequence, the wider Scottish electorate knows little about where the candidates stand on the economy or public services, and whether they will continue Sturgeon’s Duracell bunny approach to independence or allow the country a period of rest. Support for the SNP and for independence has plummeted in recent polls. Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet, scenting opportunities in SNP seats, are visiting target Scottish constituencies on an almost weekly basis.

Meanwhile, as she prepares to relinquish office, Sturgeon has gone on the traditional leader’s soft-soap farewell tour. She popped up on ITV’s Loose Women on 20 March to discuss, among other things, her thoughts on “braless Mondays”, and made a speech at the Royal Society of Arts that focused on climate change and global poverty – and which sounded very much like a job pitch to international organisations.

The party she ruled with such iron discipline for so many years is already no longer her problem. But Sturgeon will still bear significant responsibility if the battle for the SNP’s soul tears it in two. The carefully controlled coexistence of competing views on everything but the need for independence has been at the heart of the party’s success. “We have been a party for the pink-haired lesbian from Govanhill and for the Barbour-wearing Perthshire farmer,” said one senior figure. “We need to continue to be so. If we are not a popular front bringing together widely different groups, we might as well give up.”

[See also: Will the SNP ever stop blaming Westminster for its own failures]

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink