Sturgeon out: what’s next for British politics?
Harry McPhail reviews the shifting political situation in the UK with the change in Scottish First Minister and the future implications for the SNP, Labour and the Conservatives.
Nicola Sturgeon’s departure from frontline politics changes the dynamic of the British political landscape. After eight years at the top, Sturgeon has decided to resign as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), with the new leader to be announced on 27 March.
She leaves following disputes over the Recognition Reform Bill, a second Scottish independence referendum (calling the next General Election a ‘de-facto’ referendum), and ongoing controversies around party finances.
Sturgeon denies these short-term factors were influential, citing personal motivations and fatigue as being deciding factors in her decision. Yet only three weeks before her decision to resign, she told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that she had ‘plenty left in the tank’. Sturgeon’s decision comes weeks after Jacinda Arden’s resignation as Prime Minister in New Zealand, who stepped down due to political burnout. Although not related, there is a similarity in circumstance to the end of these two premierships.
There is now undoubtedly a void in Scottish politics domestically but also internationally with the departure of the longest serving Scottish First Minister.
Unlike when Sturgeon was elected following Alex Salmond’s resignation in 2014, the next leader of the SNP is not a foregone conclusion, as no obvious successor has emerged yet. Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, former Minister for Community Safety Ash Regan, and Finance Secretary Kate Forbes have all announced their leadership bid (as of 20/02/23).
Ian Hislop said on Question Time this week that Nicola Sturgeon’s exit from the centre of Scottish politics removes a ‘cult of personality’. There is now undoubtedly a void in Scottish politics domestically but also internationally with the departure of the longest serving Scottish First Minister. Looking forward, alongside continued party divides and controversy, the SNP could struggle to dominate elections as they have done with Sturgeon as leader.
Sturgeon will be remembered for landslide election wins and being the leader during seismic moments in British politics, notably Brexit and COVID-19. Both events represented a divide between Scotland and the rest of Britain. The majority of Scottish people (62 per cent) voted to remain in the EU, which continues to be a root of tension between Holyrood and Westminster.
The change in leadership in Scotland has extensive political ramifications, not just for SNP’s ambition in becoming independent from the UK, but on the direction of the next UK General Election. This new, unexpected political space in Scotland could be Kier Starmer’s route to Number 10. While Labour have led the Tories in the polls for months now, the reality is that without more Scottish votes the chance to gain a majority of seats in Westminster remains challenging.
With Sturgeon out and SNP support unsettled, Scottish Labour will be hoping to reclaim some of the SNP voters they lost.
Incidentally, Tony Blair sustained his electoral wins through having widespread Scottish support. In 1997 and 2001, Blair claimed over 75 per cent of the Parliamentary seats in Scotland, only dropping to 69 per cent in 2005. One of Sturgeon’s keys to electoral success was working class voters shifting from Labour to SNP, with Labour only managing to gain 1.7 per cent of the seats, equating to one MP, in 2019. With Sturgeon out and SNP support unsettled, Scottish Labour will be hoping to reclaim some of the SNP voters they lost.
Rishi Sunak should be equally keen to make political gains out of this situation. It provides an opportunity to grow support in Scotland and attempt to consolidate increased backing for the Union. As is natural in politics, whoever can claim the momentum most astutely with political instinct will achieve the best outcome.
When any leader leaves, change is inevitable. The SNP will have to redefine somewhat and attempt to underline some of the remaining issues Sturgeon leaves behind. Divides over transgender rights and the practicalities of independence would appear to be the immediate priority.
In contrast to the turbulent and short-term nature of leadership in Downing Street, Scotland’s leadership has remained unchanged in the last decade. Now Scotland more than ever has become a politically volatile but crucial battleground.