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Politics Post-Sturgeon

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

David Purdy surveys the Scottish scene.

Politics is a rough old trade. Back in February, when she announced her intention to resign as First Minister, what stood out in press photographs of Nicola Sturgeon was her broad smile. We hadn't seen that for a long time. It was the smile of a woman who was demob happy and it spoke volumes about the emotional toll paid by political leaders in the digital age, one of the central themes of her resignation statement. No sign then of the anguish and turmoil into which she, her husband and the SNP were about to be plunged by a divisive leadership contest and the ensuing furore over the party's finances and administration, which remain the subject of a police investigation.

Full disclosure: I admired Nicola Sturgeon and have sometimes voted tactically for the SNP, though I am still a paid-up – albeit inactive – member of the Labour Party and remain unconvinced of the case for Scottish independence. My concern here is with the recent history of the SNP, the future of the Union and the shifting battle-lines of politics on both sides of the border.

Sturgeon and the SNP: a brief assessment

There are three main criteria for judging the performance of democratic political parties and, by extension, that of their leaders: (1) their electoral record; (2) their record (if any) in government; and (3) their success in promoting the long-term cause or causes they stand for. A fourth issue, of obvious importance in Nicola Sturgeon's case, is party management and the standing of the party when the leader hands on the baton to his or her successor.

Sturgeon's electoral record is second to none. She led the SNP to victory in all five of the elections held while she was leader: three for Westminster (in 2015, 2017 and 2019), and two for Holyrood (in 2016 and 2021). Her success in advancing the cause of Scottish independence was less impressive, but still creditable. To be sure, she failed in her bid to secure indyref2, but it was hardly for want of trying. Moreover, when she left office, support for independence was, on average, four points up on the figure achieved at the referendum in 2014, itself a historic high. In 31 opinion polls conducted over the preceding twelve months, support for Yes averaged 49.1 per cent, with 50.9 per cent for No. (These percentages are calculated after excluding Don't Knows and Won't Says, usually between seven and ten per cent of respondents.)

What all this shows, however, is that on the question of independence Scotland is split down the middle, leaving the result of a second referendum too close to call. The handling of the issue must also be judged in context. At a time when the UK was in 'permacrisis', struggling with the disruptive consequences of Brexit, the ordeal of a global pandemic and the upsurge in food and energy prices caused by the war in Ukraine, the holding of another referendum was not a high priority for the vast majority of Scottish voters, including those who supported independence in principle. Despite the clear mandate conferred on the Scottish government by the outcome of the 2021 election and even if the UK government had been prepared to devolve the requisite legal authority, it would have been foolhardy for the FM to embark on a referendum campaign without solid evidence that Yes enjoyed a substantial and sustained polling lead.

The SNP's record in government, by contrast, has been distinctly mediocre. Nicola Sturgeon herself, like her Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford, was a hard-working and reassuring parent figure during the pandemic, both of them streets ahead of Boris Johnson in this respect. Nevertheless, all three administrations made similar mistakes, especially at the start of the pandemic and, so far as I know, none significantly outperformed the others when judged by yardsticks such as the excess death rate and the impact of lockdown on people's mental health, the education of school students and the length of hospital waiting lists. At the same time, the litany of serious policy failures, from the ferries fiasco to drug deaths, is wearily familiar, and has exposed the Scottish government to the charge of caring more about independence than about tackling problems in the here and now. Indeed, there is good reason to think that a poor record in government diminishes the credibility of arguments for independence.

Politics and time

Successful political parties need to operate on different timescales simultaneously, dealing with the hurly-burly of day-to-day politics, while developing policy and preparing for the next election without losing sight of their long-term goals. This is not easy, but neither is it impossible. One way the SNP could improve its competence as a party of government while at the same time building support for independence, would be to distance itself from the independence movement and instead of seeking to dominate it, encourage it to become a broad and loose alliance of people from all parties and none who want Scotland to become an independent state, but who understand that before this can happen, much more needs to be done to win the hearts and change the minds of the pro-Union half of their fellow-citizens. A division of labour between party and movement along these lines would itself help to de-polarise Scottish politics, perhaps with the added bonus of promoting co-operation between the three main progressive parties at Holyrood – the SNP, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens – on issues where they broadly agree: notably, the development of a Green New Deal.

The SNP needs to embrace the politics of the long haul rather than casting around for some quick fix. A prime case in point is the ill-judged proposal to treat the next Westminster election – due no later than January 2025 – as a 'de facto referendum'. This is an institutional impossibility. You can hold an election to decide who forms the next UK government or you can hold a referendum to decide whether Scotland should leave the UK, but you can't do both these things at once within the same decision-making process. Nicola Sturgeon came up with the idea last summer in response to the entirely predictable ruling of the Supreme Court that a referendum held without Westminster's consent would have no legal standing. Even then, it was doubtful whether pro-independence parties would garner a majority of the votes cast at the next general election. Given the travails of the SNP in the past three months, that target now looks out of reach. According to the latest poll of Westminster voting intentions, support for the SNP has fallen by ten points to 41, with Scottish Labour on 29 and the Scottish Conservatives a distant third on 17. Support for independence, by contrast, seems to have been unaffected by recent events.

A similar shift away from the governing party is evident south of the border. A clear majority of voters in England, including many leave voters, now regard Brexit as a mistake, and while there is little appetite for re-running the 2016 referendum, attitudes towards the EU have ceased to influence voting behaviour. Against the backdrop of a stagnating economy, 'sticky' inflation, falling living standards and mounting social distress, the tide of public opinion has turned strongly against a dysfunctional Conservative government. To judge by the results of May's local government elections in England, the parties of the centre-left, if united, would sweep the board at the next general election. The combined share of the vote obtained by Labour, Lib Dem and Green candidates was well over 50 per cent, and a fair proportion of votes cast for the Lib Dems and Greens in local elections will go to Labour in a general election provided voters are convinced that getting rid of the Tories is more important than anything else. Likewise, in 'blue-wall' seats across southern England, where the Lib Dems are hard on the heels of the Tories, many Labour voters appear ready to set aside partisan loyalty for the greater good.

As always, there are no guarantees in politics. The Tories may be haemorrhaging votes, but Labour still has a mountain to climb: to secure a majority of one, it needs to gain 120 seats across the UK as a whole, a feat no party has managed since Britain became a full democracy with universal adult suffrage in 1928. Even so, the odds on a hung parliament in which Labour is the largest party have shortened and the Lib Dems have already indicated that, in this event, they would be willing to help Labour form a government. The price would be a commitment to introduce some form of proportional representation, a reform which was approved by last year's Labour Party conference, though not by the party leadership. Whether the Lib Dems end up as king-makers depends on their success in the 'blue wall', just as whether they manage to push the SNP into fourth place at Westminster depends on Scottish Labour's success in taking back seats from the SNP. But however these various imponderables work out, it looks as if two long periods of ascendancy are coming to an end: that of the Conservatives at Westminster and that of the SNP in Scotland. If this prognosis is correct, it behoves us all to think hard about our respective projects, strategies and policy positions.

Finalised on 29 May 2023, this website article is an updated and expanded version of an earlier piece which first appeared in the Democratic Left Scotland newsletter, March 2023.


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