Nicola Sturgeon's sudden resignation, catching everyone out in its timing, had long been flagged up as coming over the past couple of years. It is the end of an era of Scottish politics, offering new opportunities and challenges, while being understandably disorientating and confusing for many.
It is the end of a certain era of the SNP that began nearly 20 years ago, when Alex Salmond returned to the leadership and then narrowly won the 2007 election, thus beginning the current period of SNP dominance. Over much of this time, the party was blessed with a wealth of talents at its top: a Salmond-Sturgeon partnership up to 2014, and in its early administrations a host of competent ministers and politicians.
Somehow the party has now exhausted that well of talent. Part of it is the cumulative wear and tear of being in office so long. Another element has been the nature of the Sturgeon leadership: not encouraging new talent, collegiate leadership and the culture of a shared collective project at the top. Power in the Sturgeon years lay increasingly at the top, in the First Minister's hands, with an incessant micro-management of government and control of the party: one which numerous Cabinet ministers found frustrating in the extreme.
The only exception to this pattern was the promotion of Kate Forbes in February 2020 to be Cabinet Secretary, when Derek MacKay was embroiled in a texting scandal. And this brings us to the current SNP leadership contest.
As it stands, there are three candidates: Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan. From this narrow field, the SNP membership will elect not only their leader but the First Minister of Scotland. One of them will become the leader of the government with huge powers and responsibilities to shape the future of the country.
This is a poor, mediocre, second rate set of choices for a governing and dominant party. In the three standing: Humza Yousaf is the current Health Secretary, clearly exhausted from trying to offer leadership to a stretched NHS; Kate Forbes has been a Cabinet minister for a mere three years and has a host of baggage (more on which below); and Ash Regan was a junior minister who resigned over the Gender Recognition Bill.
The contest has been shorn into a narrower field by Angus Robertson, Cabinet Secretary on Europe and the Constitution, and previous Westminster party leader, not standing. But this has merely highlighted the problem. The 'golden generation' of the SNP has come to an end. Part of the responsibility for this is the Sturgeon leadership dominating the party, but it is also a product of a party exhausted by government and the challenges of office.
The contest could be about the big issues facing Scotland: the state of public services, dealing with the effects of a Tory Westminster Government and its hard Brexit, and how to rethink and remake independence. So far, the initial days have been about none of these.
Instead, the dominant issues have been the gender recognition controversy and same-sex marriage. All of the candidates have had to deal with fall out from the Gender Recognition Reform Act, the UK Government's Section 35 blocking, and the resulting challenges in Scotland.
Even more time has been spent on same-sex marriage and the question of LGBT equality. Kate Forbes is a person of faith and member of the Free Church of Scotland, an avowed social conservative and someone who has gone on record as saying she is anti-abortion. In interviews on Monday, she laid out her views on same-sex marriage, telling Ciaran Jenkins of Channel 4 News that she would not have supported such a measure when it came before parliament (not being a MSP at the time) but that as First Minister she will not 'row back on rights that already exist'.
There must be a chance that the way Forbes has articulated her uncompromising views increases the likelihood of her withdrawing from the contest. She seems to have no political nous about how to calibrate her message to a Scotland increasingly socially liberal and secular; and to a party which in a 2017 YouGov survey had 83% membership support for gay marriage.
The wider dimension to this is the role of faith and Christianity in a secular society, and whether it is possible to aspire to lead a socially liberal political party and country from a position of social conservatism.
The dominance of the above illustrates a deeper malaise. Where are the ideas and energy about the huge issues facing the country? About how the SNP renews itself in office and does politics differently? And where are the new ideas and energy on independence?
Seven challenges for the SNP and independence
A number of challenges await any new leader. First, the nature of the SNP leadership has to change. Politics cannot continually be about 'the great leader', sucking energy out of every other space.
Second, a party which has not been given permission to openly debate and reflect on the big strategic issues since 2014 has to reassert its right: in its forums and as a membership-led organisation.
Third, what the SNP does in government clearly matters. After 16 years, it has at best a patchy record. Related to the above two points, the SNP's record as the Scottish Government has increasingly involved SNP ministers thinking they know best and that the answer to every domestic problem is more power to ministers (with the SNP-Green agreement not checking this dynamic).
Fourth, beyond independence and related to it, is the nature of the Scotland the SNP claim to aspire to. Nicola Sturgeon, in the words of Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman
, is a 'dyed-in-the-wool social democrat', but if that is true it is a very apologetic, defensive social democracy. One which seems to amount to ultimately no more than social democracy being what a SNP Government thinks and does (and rather similar to an older adage that 'socialism is what a Labour Government does').
Fifth is the question of rethinking independence. The end of the Sturgeon era breaks the illusion that independence is just around the corner, which the First Minister tried to give voice to from 2017 to the end of 2022 and the Supreme Court decision. The breaking of that illusion, which had become threadbare by the end, is a potential liberation for independence as well as wider Scotland. It forces people to go away and rethink their basic assumptions and not make the widespread mistake many independence supporters did of believing that it only needs the right bold leadership, declaration or process fix, and Scotland will be free.
Sixth, the nature of what independence is should involve more than party, politicians and political institutions. Former Yes strategist, Stephen Noon, summarised this on Monday in The Times
when he said the SNP used to emphasise 'the culture of independence' and no longer seem to do so. This is a crucial dimension, glimpsed in 2014, and subsequently left to wither. Independence is about how we do cultural change, how we nurture the cultural values of our country, how we encourage a diverse cultural representation which portrays the whole of Scotland, and how independence is linked to confidence and hope. This is a terrain I examined in Scotland Rising: The Challenge of Independence
, published late last year, and leaving this area unchampioned greatly restricts and limits the potential of independence.
Seventh, related to all of the above is the question of power and democracy in modern Scotland. Independence cannot be a top-down, narrow, managerial process which merely involves power shifting from Westminster to Holyrood, from one sovereign, omnipotent parliament to another. Nicola Sturgeon made this mistake when, after the Supreme Court decision, she claimed independence was 'Scotland's democracy movement'. This only has plausibility if independence is about sharing and dispersing power within Scotland, which has conspicuously not happened under the SNP in office.
Connected to all of the above is the challenge of the relationship of the SNP to the wider independence movement. Independence is about more than the SNP, but realistically it needs a successful SNP to win. This then brings forth how the SNP and wider independence relate to one another. The idea of an Independence Convention floated by Alex Salmond sounds superficially attractive, but there is no chance of the SNP and Alba sitting in the same cross-party forum. For one, it points the wrong way with voters. More creative would be thinking about how to open out political discussions and contributions from Labour independence supporters, and across the spectrum, bringing together social democratic, progressive and radical currents.
The final end of the imperial era of the SNP was always bound to come at some time. It is perplexing and anxiety inducing for some, but it does offer a window of opportunity for all of us to rethink how we do politics, the state of Scotland and independence.
The current play of UK politics does suggest strongly that a Labour Government is more than likely to be elected in 2024 under Keir Starmer. Despite Labour's current stratospheric opinion poll leads (27% with Redfield and Wilton this week), it is more than probable that 2024 will not be a 1997 landslide. Labour start from much further behind the Tories now than in 1997 (163 seats in 2019; 55 seats in 1992); winning a mere 202 seats in 2019 compared to 271 in 1992. And Labour's reputation and leadership has not yet transformed in its ratings in the way Blair and Brown did pre-1997.
Having said that, a Labour Government will be a sea change moment for UK and Scottish politics, and one which the SNP and independence must respond to in kind. This will require a new kind of politics from the SNP and a different vision of independence to emerge, none of which is a bad thing, but which will take time.
A final observation about the SNP and the future of Scotland. In recent years, the SNP has, aided by its years of dominance, started to believe its own hype. That Scotland is a land steadily getting more fair and equal; that Scotland is the most successful social democratic country in the world; that independence is just around the corner if only we seize the moment offered; and that process politics and quick-fixes can bring about the advancement of independence.
All political parties which are in office and dominant for a period end up articulating and falling for what are in effect fairy tales. Look at the example of the present-day UK Tories obsessed by the pursuit of a pure, unattainable Brexit and the shibboleth of an undiluted sovereignty impossible in the modern world.
This is a salutary point for the SNP, its new leader and leadership, and independence. The future of Scotland is going to involve hard choices in a difficult world. This cannot be avoided. Facing up to this should be central to the SNP and independence, accepting that we will all need to grow up and show a maturity and respect for each other to take responsibility and make those choices. That would be a culture of independence worthy of its name.