Soul-searching for Scotland's SNP after Sturgeon quits

There is no frontrunner to succeed Ms. Sturgeon, who was a towering presence in Scottish and U.K. politics

February 16, 2023 09:16 pm | Updated 09:16 pm IST - Edinburgh

Nicola Sturgeon speaks during a press conference at Bute House where she announced she will stand down as First Minister of Scotland on February 15, 2023 in Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

Nicola Sturgeon speaks during a press conference at Bute House where she announced she will stand down as First Minister of Scotland on February 15, 2023 in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Scottish National Party (SNP) on Thursday faced calls to postpone a special conference aimed at reviving its troubled push for independence, after the surprise resignation of leader Nicola Sturgeon.

After more than eight eventful years as Scotland's first minister and SNP chief, Ms. Sturgeon said on Wednesday she lacked the "energy" to carry on and would step down.

The party's executive was to meet later on Thursday to set the timetable for the leadership race.

There is no frontrunner to succeed Ms. Sturgeon, who was a towering presence in Scottish and U.K. politics, and no clear path forward on the dream of independence for Scotland from the U.K.

Ms. Sturgeon announced the conference for March 19 after the Supreme Court in London agreed that only the U.K. government, and not the Edinburgh parliament, could call a second independence referendum.

Scots voted in 2014 to remain part of the U.K. But the SNP says the calculus was upended with Britain's Brexit referendum two years later, when a majority in Scotland opposed leaving the European Union.

Despite Brexit, the U.K.'s Conservative government has ruled out a second plebiscite in Scotland. Ms. Sturgeon summoned the conference in a bid to chart a way out of the constitutional conundrum.

Her preferred path was to turn the next U.K. election, due by early 2025, into a "de facto referendum" on separation, but that has left many in the SNP nervous at the prospect of electoral blowback.

"I personally think that party conference should be paused, for obvious reasons," Stephen Flynn, who leads the SNP in the Westminster parliament, told Sky News.

"I think the new leader should have the opportunity and indeed the space to set out their position, their values and their intentions going forward," he said.

SNP president Mike Russell told the BBC that the leadership race was "unlikely" to be over by March 19.

"Therefore there is a question to be asked about whether that should be postponed while a leader comes into place," he said.

Ms. Sturgeon, 52, confirmed she would remain first minister until the SNP elects a new leader, and also stay on as a member of the Edinburgh parliament until at least the next Scottish election, due in 2026.

Opponents and SNP members alike praised her contribution to U.K. politics over recent years, including during the COVID pandemic.

But she departs after facing mounting pressure over her tactics on independence as well as over transgender rights.

And opinion polls point to waning support for Scotland breaking away from the U.K. since the Supreme Court ruling.

Possible contenders in the SNP include Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

"I firmly believe that my successor, whoever he or she may be, will lead Scotland to independence, and I'll be there cheering him or her on every single step of the way," Ms. Sturgeon said.

But others cheered her departure.

In Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city and a bastion of anti-independence sentiment, demonstrators danced a line and waved U.K. flags late on Wednesday, as they chanted "conga, conga, conga, Nicola's no longer!"

Others celebrating included Britain's Opposition Labour party, which until this century ruled the roost in Scotland. It needs a strong performance there to return to power across the U.K.

"For 12 years I don't think people in Scotland have believed that a Labour U.K. government was possible," Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said.

"I think that is changing now," he added.

Several commentators said that while Sturgeon had cited the strains on her personal life of many years in office, she was also admitting political defeat.

Veteran Scottish journalist Andrew Neil said that if she truly believed her claim that independence was within reach, she would not be quitting now.

"In truth, Sturgeon has run out of road," he wrote in the Daily Mail. "All possible paths to independence are blocked."

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