Nicola Sturgeon is stepping down as Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) amid a crisis in the independence movement. And her government is battling both NHS workers and teachers over pay.
In recent weeks Sturgeon came under fire from transphobes—including unionists and independence supporters—over Gender Recognition Reform. The move was then blocked by the Tories in Westminster.
And some in her own camp attacked the plan to use the next general election as a “de facto referendum” on independence. The scheme, set to be discussed at a special conference later this year, doesn’t have the support of most SNP members in polls.
But at a press briefing Sturgeon said her decision was “not a reaction to short-term pressures”. “There is a much greater intensity, dare I say brutality, to life as a politician than in years gone by,” she said. “It takes its toll on you and on those around you.”
Sturgeon took over at the top in November 2014 after the failed independence referendum. Support for independence rose since then partly as a radical alternative to the horror of Tory rule. And partly because the SNP grabbed a section of liberal and business support by promising to overturn Brexit.
But Sturgeon resigns as the independence movement faces a crisis. The SNP has absorbed its energy and used it to bolster its position as a mainstream pro-business government. It has the permanent excuse of the lack of democracy imposed by the British state. But its vision of what Scotland would be like is little different to, say, Keir Starmer’s ambition for Britain.
That has undermined the working class enthusiasm for independence. The pro-independence mobilisations on the streets are far smaller than five years ago. In October 2019 around 200,000 people joined the independence march in Edinburgh. Nothing like that seems possible now.
Sturgeon has always argued for an exclusively constitutional road to independence, with no defiance of the laws laid down by the British state. So when the Supreme Court decreed last year that the Scottish parliament could not hold a referendum she meekly accepted it.
It shows how non-threatening Sturgeon has been that both Rishi Sunak and Theresa May spoke warmly on Wednesday of her long years of service. The SNP’s record is one of being just a little bit better than the Tories—hardly a high bar of achievement.
Its Covid policies saw a slightly lower death toll than Boris Johnson’s murderous approach. But it was still one of the worst performances in the world, with older people shipped form from hospitals into care homes without necessary testing.
Health policy is devolved to the Holyrood parliament. Scotland has “one of the lowest life expectancies in Western Europe,” according to a report by the Scottish Public Health Observatory. Mortality rates are twice as high in most deprived areas compared to the wealthiest, National Records of Scotland data showed.
And the Health Foundation said life expectancy in Scotland had fallen by 4.4 years since 2013. But the SNP has not used the tax-raising powers it does have to squeeze the rich for more cash.
Sturgeon has also faced intensifying scrutiny following revelations that her husband, the party’s long-serving chief executive Peter Murrell, made a £107,620 loan to it that was not declared to the Electoral Commission until more than a year later. This was a breach of election finance rules.
Separately, the Herald newspaper reported this week that police had begun taking substantive statements from witnesses in an investigation into SNP finances. That followed claims the party spent hundreds of thousands of pounds donated for a future independence referendum on other things.
Asked after her press conference on Wednesday whether she had been interviewed or expected to be, Sturgeon said she was “not going to discuss an ongoing police investigation”.
The first two candidates to announce they are standing to replace Sturgeon are Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf. Regan told the Daily Record newspaper “I’m not going to be bringing forward any new legislation that makes things more difficult for businesses. I’m not going to be progressing anything that’s going to interfere with family life.” She also indicated she would be willing to work with Alex Salmond’s Alba Party.
But this right wing platform is allied with a strong position on independence. She says that if parties with a clear commitment to independence win more than 50 percent of the votes in a future Westminster or Holyrood election she will take that as a mandate to start withdrawal. However, it’s not clear what she would do when the British government says no.
Yousaf would stick with Sturgeon’s gender reform and will be regarded as the continuity and “left” candidate. But as health secretary, he is associated with one of the worst areas of the SNP’s record.
Other possible candidates include Angus Robertson and Kate Forbes. Robertson would offer more of the same of Sturgeon—but worse. He headed up the push for the SNP to back the Nato warmongers’ alliance. Forbes is anti-abortion and opposed to the trans rights reforms.
She might be seen as acceptable to those who broke away with Salmond in 2021 to form Alba. That could hold out the possibility of a reunited SNP on a more right wing basis.
Nobody is confronting the SNP’s veneration of the present system of politics and economics.
Sturgeon’s resignation should underline the need for a defiant movement that isn’t afraid of strikes, civil disobedience and confronting the British state. That’s not coming from the SNP. And socialists have to be at the forefront of supporting and extending all the battles over pay, trans rights, and against racism.
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