Scottish independence at crossroads in tricky SNP leadership race

LONDON — The Scottish National Party finds Nicola Sturgeon difficult to follow.

Scotland’s governing party is in bitter competition to replace Sturgeon, a leader who came to dominate Scottish politics but became deadlocked in her fight for independence from the United Kingdom, dividing the party with a transgender rights bill .

Sturgeon, 52, announced her resignation in February after eight years as party leader and first minister of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government. Three members of the Scottish Parliament are running to replace her: Chancellor of the Exchequer Kate Forbes, 32; Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, 37; and 49-year-old legislator Ash Regan. The winner of a vote by SNP members will be announced on March 27.

The campaign has cracked rifts within the party over political strategy, social issues and Sturgeon’s legacy.

Critics say a clique around the former prime minister wields too much power in the SNP. Those rivals secured a victory when party chairman Peter Murrell – Sturgeon’s 58-year-old husband – resigned on Saturday over a row over the party’s dwindling membership.

The SNP had publicly denied a newspaper report that membership had fallen from over 100,000 to just over 70,000 over the past year before admitting it was true. Murrell accepted responsibility and quit, saying that “while there was no intention to mislead, I accept that this has been the outcome.”

Regan welcomed Murrell’s departure, saying it was “unacceptable to have the party leader’s husband as CEO”. Forbes said the party’s rank and file felt powerless because “decisions within the SNP have been made by too few people”.

Sturgeon’s resignation has sparked a battle for the leadership of the SNP, which currently holds 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament and governs in coalition with the much smaller Greens.

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In ill-tempered televised debates, Regan and Forbes have attacked Yousaf — a Sturgeon ally widely regarded as the front-runner — as a continuity candidate in a party in dire need of change.

“Right now we are at a crossroads,” Forbes told the BBC in an interview broadcast on Sunday, arguing that the Scottish government needs to do more to bolster an economy weakened by the Russian war in Ukraine, COVID-19 and Brexit. “We need to get serious about what has worked and what hasn’t worked.”

Forbes’ message appeals to some party members who feel the SNP spent too much time under Sturgeon on divisive social issues rather than economics and independence. Sturgeon’s departure was precipitated by backlash against legislation she championed to make it easier for people in Scotland to legally change their gender.

The gender recognition law has been hailed as a groundbreaking piece of legislation by transgender rights activists, but was opposed by some SNP members who said it ignored the need to protect same-sex spaces for women, such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.

Forbes and Regan both oppose the legislation, which has been approved by the Scottish Parliament but blocked by the UK government. Yousaf supports it, warning that the party could swerve to the right if led by Forbes, a socially conservative Christian seen as its main rival.

Forbes, who is a member of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, has been criticized for saying her faith would have prevented her from voting in favor of same-sex marriage. She was not yet a legislator when the Scottish Parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2014.

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The leadership contest has sent the SNP’s polls plummeting – much to the delight of the Labor Party and Conservatives, who are hoping to take seats in Scotland in the next UK election, scheduled for the end of 2024.

The tough race also reflects frustrations within a party that, after 16 years in power in Edinburgh, has yet to achieve its main ambition: independence.

Scottish people voted to stay in the UK in a 2014 referendum that was billed as a one-off decision. The SNP wants a new vote, but the central government has refused to allow one, and the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has ruled that Scotland cannot hold one without London’s consent.

Regan wants to remove those hurdles by viewing Scotland’s next election as a “trigger point” for independence, effectively challenging the British government not to recognize Scotland’s democratic choice to secede.

Forbes and Yousaf are more careful. Forbes called for more efforts to win over voters lagging behind in the UK, while Yousaf says he wants to build a “solid, sustained” majority for independence. Opinion polls currently suggest that Scottish voters are roughly evenly split on the issue.

Leading Scottish historian Tom Devine said that with dwindling independence an immediate prospect, many voters had more pressing concerns – and that poses a risk to the SNP.

“The perception is that the mainstream of Scottish public opinion is mainly concerned with the problems of the (health system), education standards, transport infrastructure and the wider economy,” he told the Scottish newspaper Herald. “Are parts of the electorate now starting to feel sidelined and are they concluding that the SNP government has failed to deliver on these essentials?”

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