Scottish independence is a crossroads in the SNP leadership race

LONDON — The Scottish National Party considers Nicola Sturgeon a difficult move.

The Scottish government party is in a tight race to replace Sturgeon, who has come to dominate Scottish politics but hit a dead end in her fight for independence from the UK and split the party over the transgender rights bill.

Sturgeon, 52, announced her resignation in February after eight years as party leader and first minister of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government. Three members of the Scottish Parliament are running for his seat: Finance Minister Kate Forbes (32); Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, 37; and Ash Regan, 49, a lawmaker. The winner of the SNP members’ vote will be announced on March 27.

The campaign opened rifts within the party over political strategy, social issues and Sturgeon’s legacy.

According to critics, the clique around the former first minister has too much power in the SNP. Those rivals scored a victory when the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell – Sturgeon’s husband of 58 years – resigned on Saturday amid controversy over the party’s declining membership.

The SNP publicly denied a newspaper report that its membership had fallen from more than 100,000 to just over 70,000 in the past year before admitting it was true. Murrell accepted responsibility and resigned, saying that “although there was no intention to mislead, I accept that this was the outcome”.

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Regan welcomed Murrell’s departure, saying it was “unacceptable to have the husband of the party leader as chief executive”. Forbes said the party’s grassroots group felt disempowered because there were “too few people making decisions within the SNP”.

Sturgeon’s resignation sparked a battle for the direction of the SNP, which currently holds 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament and governs in coalition with the much smaller Greens.

During the ill-tempered televised debate, Regan and Forbes attacked Yousaf – a Sturgeon ally widely seen as the front-runner – as the candidate for continuity in a party in dire need of change.

“We are at a crossroads right now,” Forbes told the BBC in an interview broadcast on Sunday, arguing that the Scottish government needs to do more to support an economy weakened by Russia’s war in Ukraine, COVID-19 and Brexit. “We need to get serious about what worked and what didn’t.”

Forbes’ message will appeal to some party members who say Sturgeon’s SNP has spent too much time focusing on divisive social issues rather than the economy and independence. Sturgeon’s departure was precipitated by a backlash over laws she pushed to make it easier for people in Scotland to change their gender.

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The Gender Recognition Bill was hailed as landmark legislation by transgender rights activists, but it faced opposition from some SNP members who said it neglected to protect spaces reserved for same-sex women, such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centres.

Both Forbes and Regan oppose the law, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament but blocked by the British government. Yousaf supports him and warns that the party could swing to the right if it is led by the socially conservative Christian Forbes, who is seen as his main rival.

Forbes, who belongs to the Lutheran Free Church of Scotland, has been criticized for saying his faith would have prevented him from voting to allow same-sex marriage. There were no MPs when the Scottish Parliament legalized gay marriage in 2014.

The leadership contest has seen the SNP’s poll ratings plummet – much to the delight of Labor and the Conservatives, who are hoping to win seats in Scotland at the next general election in late 2024.

The trial also reflects frustration within a party that, after 16 years of governing in Edinburgh, has still not achieved its main ambition: independence.

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Scots voted to remain in the UK in a 2014 referendum that was billed as a once-in-a-generation decision. The SNP wants a new vote, but central government has refused to allow one, and the UK High Court has ruled that Scotland cannot hold a vote without London’s consent.

Regan wants to sweep these obstacles aside by treating the next Scottish election as a “tipping point” for independence, effectively daring the UK government not to recognize Scotland’s democratic decision to secede.

Forbes and Yousaf are more cautious. Forbes has called for more efforts to win over UK Remain voters, while Yousaf says he wants to build an “established, durable” majority for independence. Polls currently suggest that Scottish voters are evenly split on the issue.

Leading Scottish historian Tom Devine said that with independence set back as an immediate prospect, many voters had more pressing concerns – and that posed a risk to the SNP.

“The perception is that the mainstream of Scottish public opinion is primarily concerned with issues of (the health system), education standards, transport infrastructure and the wider economy,” he told Scotland’s Herald. “Are some of the electorate now feeling sidelined and concluding that the SNP government has failed to deliver on these vital issues?”