Chris Bambery analyses some of the reasons for the Scottish First Minister’s resignation, and predicts interesting times ahead for Scottish politics

For most people beyond the borders of Scotland the news that Nicola Sturgeon has resigned as First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party will be unexpected news. Less so in Scotland where rumours of her resignation have been mounting.

Sturgeon has been First Minister since the resignation of her predecessor, Alex Salmond, in the hours after the result of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum became clear. The result was much, much closer than had been expected, indeed the British Prime Minister David Cameron only agreed to it because he expected a convincing no vote (any independence referendum needs the approval of Downing Street). Back in the autumn of 2014 the expectation among Yes supporters was that with one more heave independence could be achieved. 

The SNP led Scottish government, now in coalition with the Greens, is the longest in office in Western Europe – Salmond first entering Bute House, the First Minister’s Edinburgh residence in opulent Charlotte Square, in 2007.

Under Salmond – and this is not to eulogise him – the party had adopted social democratic rhetoric, often not matched in reality, to draw away traditional Labour voters unhappy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour. The SNP opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (it had supported that of Afghanistan) and would later oppose bombing Libya.


Many people outside Scotland still see the SNP as being a social democratic party. The reality is more complex. Firstly, it was relatively easy for the Scottish government to strike that pose when it could contrast itself to David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. 

Secondly, many of the measures, such as free university education, were introduced early on in the SNP reign, 2008 in that case. Thirdly, while the SNP has secured an electoral base in working class Scotland, isolating Scottish Labour, it always had a neoliberal wing. That has grown in confidence and evidence in recent years.

Because of Scottish Labour’s demise the SNP was in a strong electoral position. The Conservatives and Scottish Labour both took a strong Unionist position, reinforced under Sir Keir Starmer, and competed for that vote. The Tories came out best because they were seen as the staunchest Unionists, but this was a limited vote, and an aging one.

The SNP were left to pick up the votes of those committed to independence and those alienated by the rule of Tories who had no electoral mandate in Scotland.

The SNP has also been successful at gobbling up the support of those to its left. It managed to do so firstly with some formerly of the Scottish Socialist Party when it imploded in 2006. Its current coalition with the Greens is in part house training them and in part an attempt to do the same.

So the SNP had a relatively clear electoral field to itself. It was also helped by the fact the party has always relied on the tremendous loyalty of its members, who see it more of a movement for independence than simply being simply a normal Westminster style party. In recent years and months that loyalty has begun to be tested.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum Sturgeon convened the Sustainable Growth Commission, chaired by Andrew Wilson, a former SNP MSP Chair and founding partner of Edinburgh strategic communications consultancy Charlotte St Partners. The Commission was thoroughly neoliberal, excluding the trade unions and community organisations. Its final report was straight off a familiar neoliberal template, including implied austerity measures to offset any budget deficit post-independence.

But the biggest reaction was its proposal to keep using the pound sterling for a considerable period after independence, giving fiscal control of Scotland’s affairs to the Bank of England. During the independence referendum just this policy had blown up in Alex Salmond’s face during the first televised debate.

Grandiose announcements

With the Covid19 pandemic Sturgeon profited from the fact she had a degree of humanity missing from Boris Johnson. But her far more effective performance obscured a disaster in Scotland’s privatised care homes: elderly patients with Covid were released from hospitals to return to those homes, leading to thousands of tragic, lonely deaths.

The Scottish government would make grandiose announcements of policy initiatives which would then become dead letters. It promised land reform but left the countryside in the hands of feudal barons. The care sector was supposed to have root and branch reform which never happened. The government paraded its ecological credentials but sold off the seabed to the petrochemical multinationals so they could exploit tidal power for huge profits. When the SNP conference voted for rent controls it was ignored.

In the last year problems have been growing for Nicola Sturgeon.

The neoliberal wing of the party grew more confident after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and was openly pro-NATO. The equation between Scotland’s right to self-determination with Ukraine’s was exploited as the Scottish government made statements that an independent Scotland would be an uber-loyal NATO member. Criticism was muted but has now become more audible. 

Sturgeon displayed a lack of strategy for securing independence. There would be repeated promises a referendum would be held within the coming year or Scotland would be swept by a mass pro-independence campaign. They too would prove to be dead letters.

After the UK Supreme Court ruled the Scottish Parliament could not call a referendum the proposal was that the next Westminster general election would be a de facto referendum. Doubts about this surged. Getting 50 percent plus of the vote was not going to be easy (16-18 year olds and EU citizens cannot vote in a Westminster election as they can in a Scottish one), it would be difficult to focus a Westminster election on a single issue. Plus if it came down to a Sunak v Starmer contest down south that could well lead to even a small rise in Scottish Labour’s support which would cut into the independence vote.

Dissident voices suggested the Scottish government resign and prompt a Scottish election instead. But the members of the Scottish Parliament go through a rigorous selection process and are in the main leadership loyalists who have held posts within the party or for other MSPs. They were unlikely to fall on their swords. Within the SNP group at Westminster,Sturgeon loyalist Ian Blackford resigned the leadership late last year, and in the resulting contest Sturgeon’s candidate was defeated by Stephen Flynn.

Then came the passing of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill last month making it simpler for people to change their legal gender. This saw nine SNP MSPs vote against, which in SNP terms is significant. Others were told that if it was got through quickly it would disappear. 

Almost immediately Sturgeon was forced to respond to the outcry around the Isla Bryson case when a convicted rapist who now identified as a woman was put in a women’s prison. Within the Scottish Parliament there had been a degree of cross-party consensus on the GRR but it was obvious that was not the case outside its walls.

Into this mix is the fact that Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell , the SNP chief executive, (the fact a husband and wife hold these two posts is rather unusual) loaned the party £107,620 – a matter now under close police inspection.

Faced with all this, Sturgeon’s departure was not such a great surprise. In her leaving statement she addressed none of it so it came across as a personal decision. There can be little doubt she has been under personal strain but there is a good deal more to it than that.

There is no clear successor to Sturgeon, demonstrating how personalised the SNP has been run. That, I predict, will create a problem. Whichever candidates attempt to take Sturgeon’s mantle, and it’s likely to be a contest in this situation, they will have to try and make a mark. The obvious way to do that is by proposing a more daring course of action, in pursuit of independence for instance. The base of the party is to the left of the leadership and desires a clear strategy for independence. Any candidate must be tempted to play to the gallery.

The SNP is a mass membership party and an active leadership contest is going to be big, big news. If you want to follow developments keep an eye on who predicted her departure, explaining why. Interesting times ahead.

Chris Bambery is author of A People’s History of Scotland published by Verso

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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