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Expert comment: Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation opens up a political crisis in Scotland

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Following Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as Scotland’s First Minister, Professor Michael Lavalette - Dean of Social Sciences at Liverpool Hope University - analyses the impact of her departure.  A Professor of Social Work and Social Policy, he argues Sturgeon’s decision to leave her role could cause a crisis in Scottish politics and within the Independence movement.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister for the last eight years, has resigned creating a political vacuum in Scotland that others may struggle to fill.

Her resignation was unexpected and was made at a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh.

In a long speech she set out her reasons, denying it was due to any recent political problems. Instead it was, she claimed, a result of the personal toll high office can take on people, her ‘energy levels’ to give to public office all that is expected and an awareness that, too often, politicians ‘outstay’ their welcome, becoming a distraction to the issues of the day.

Sturgeon took over leadership of the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 Independence Referendum. She was able to clearly establish the SNP as the natural recipient of the ‘Yes’ referendum vote - something which wasn’t inevitable as the ‘Yes’ movement was always far broader than the SNP.

Over a series of elections to Westminster, Holyrood and Scottish local government she established the SNP as the main political force in Scotland - a truly remarkable turnaround in a nation where Labour had seemingly been the natural party of government from the late 1950s onwards.

There is no doubt that Sturgeon is a very able politician. During the COVID-19 pandemic, her daily briefings were assured and clear at a time when the UK government response appeared blustering and confused.

She has a significant popular following - and a very vocal minority who detest everything she stands for.

She has introduced a range of socially liberal policies in regard to trans recognition (which has proven very controversial), support for looked after children and the popular ‘baby box’ initiative.

But it’s also true that the SNP have not been able to deliver on the vision and promise embedded in the 2014 Yes movement.

The strength of the movement for Independence in 2014 was its assertion that ‘another Scotland was possible’. The vision of a more equal, more egalitarian, welfare society built on good jobs, good wages and better life chances for all.

In power, at local Government and Devolved Government levels, the SNP have not been able to respond to these hopes and aspirations.

The SNP in power have been tied in to what we might call neo-liberal forms of governance. 

For example, Scotland is rich in renewable energy sources. Yet the Scottish government has sold off land and sea beds to multinational corporations rather than harnessing them for a nationalised Scottish energy company (the option favoured by most in Scotland according to polls). 

And at local level, outsourcing and internal marketisation of services continues apace, with growing dissatisfaction at outsourced, privatised service provision.

Furthermore, there have been some disastrous decisions - such as those associated with the upgrade and renewal of the vast shipping fleet servicing the islands.

But there is one issue that has shaped Sturgeon’s last few years: the strategy to obtain Independence.

The decision of the UK government to deny a referendum is a democratic outrage. The SNP have ‘won’ every election to Westminster and Holyrood for the last eight years and clearly have the right to ask the question.

But in the face of UK government intransigence, Sturgeon has struggled to offer a way forward. Going to the Supreme Court was a mistake (and predicted to fail by many advocates for Independence). 

The assertion that the next Westminster election should be a de facto vote on Independence was confused and confusing (and surely would only make sense if the strategy was to make a Universal Declaration of Independence if there was a majority of Yes supporting MPs returned - something that wasn’t Sturgeon’s position).

There was a growing feeling that, for some in the SNP, pushing a referendum off into the future was a way of solidifying local SNP rule at Holyrood and at local government level and the increasingly comfortable SNP politicians were not in favour of disrupting the status quo as part of a radical campaign for Independence.

Sturgeon’s resignation opens up a political crisis in Scotland and for the Independence movement more generally. 

Which way will the SNP fall? For the safety of governance in a devolved regime, or for a broader, radical campaign for ‘another Scotland’?

Please note: All expert comments hosted on the Liverpool Hope University website provide the views and opinions of the author(s), and not the views and opinions of Liverpool Hope University.

Published on 23/02/2023