New Scotland arrives this Monday. Or, more precisely, Scotland will discover its new leader on Monday, after having been led for eight years by Nicola Sturgeon. A change that is absolutely not insignificant because the Scottish Prime Minister has truly left her mark on the British political landscape, with her tireless and vigorous commitment to lead her country towards a new destiny. And his style, particularly characterized by his accent.
Patroness of the independence party SNP (Scottish National Party) since November 2014, in the wake of the first independence referendum which had seen the “no” win, Nicola Sturgeon, had immediately acceded to the post of Prime Minister of Scotland, thus becoming the first woman to head what remains a British province. Since that day, she has literally been the face of a new Brexit-enhanced quest for independence that the majority of Scots did not want. But last February, when she had explained a few weeks earlier, on the occasion of the resignation of Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister, not to feel close at all close to a departure, she chose to resign, declaring that he no longer has the necessary energy.
“The departure of Nicola Sturgeon is certainly a blow for the party, which she had led to an unprecedented electoral success,” explains Coree Brown Swan, professor at the Faculty of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. “And rather than a smooth transition, the process to replace her has been messy and exposed deep divisions within the party. However, despite these divisions, the SNP remains the most credible party to push for independence. Alba , the party of Alex Salmond (the former leader of the SNP, editor’s note), is a minor political force, and the membership of the SNP, although reduced from its peak of 100,000, remains larger than any other party “.
There is also a scent of uncertainty about the government coalition, as analyzed by Camille Schmitz, researcher at the Faculty of Law, Political Science and Criminology of ULiège and specialist in the foreign policy of the United Kingdom and the ‘Scotland: ‘The Greens, with whom Nicola Sturgeon had struck a government deal to secure a majority in Holyrood (the Scottish parliament), have announced that they would not hesitate to leave government if the next Prime Minister/next Prime Minister does not share the progressive values common to the SNP and Greens, especially if he/she does not oppose the British government’s veto of the ‘Gender Recognition Reform Bill'”.
And if Scottish environmentalists denounce the government agreement, it would mean for the SNP the loss of the pro-independence majority in parliament.
Three Candidates, Three Distinct Profiles
Three candidates therefore presented themselves to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP and therefore also of the government. And these are three rather different profiles:
“Humza Yousaf represents the ‘continuity candidate’ because he intends to remain aligned with the center-left and progressive policies followed so far by Sturgeon”, explains Camille Schmitz. “He also wants to maintain the SNP’s alliance with the Greens.
Kate Forbes, a member of the Free Church of Scotland (opposed to marriage for all and the Gender Recognition Reform Bill), defined herself as centre-right and was quite critical of Sturgeon. On the road to independence, she advocates a slow persuasion of Unionist voters with a priority focus on improving Scotland’s economic situation. She is therefore not in favor of the organization of an independence referendum for the moment.
The third candidate, Ash Regan, proposes not to wait for Westminster to agree to the organization of a new independence referendum; it states that a majority of votes for the SNP and other pro-independence parties in the next elections represents a mandate for independence, and that means independence directly, without going through an independence referendum, which is rather radical”.
One certainty, the campaign to succeed Nicola Sturgeon has shown significant divisions within the SNP, both socio-economically and morally or even on the strategy to adopt to obtain independence. The challenge for the person who will lead the SNP (and the government) will be to bring these different factions together to avoid seeing the party lose credibility with voters.
The Difficult Road to a New Referendum
The SNP has been accumulating electoral success for more than ten years. During the legislative elections of 2016 and 2021, the Scottish National Party certainly failed to retain or regain the absolute majority it had obtained in 2011, but it remains the indisputable first political party in Scotland. And since Brexit, against which 62% of Scots had voted, the SNP is doing everything possible to organize a new independence referendum, called there “IndyRef”.
But this new referendum cannot take place without the agreement of London, which authorized it in 2014 and the outcome of which resulted in a 55% rejection of the proposal made to the Scots to free themselves from the United Kingdom. Since then, the British government has invariably responded to the desire for independence in the same way: this 2014 referendum was clearly defined as that of a generation. There is therefore no question of doing it again a few years later. And if Brexit has undeniably changed things, London remains on its position, confirmed last November by the Supreme Court to which the Scots had addressed with the hope of obtaining a green light for a referendum fairly quickly, the date of October 19, 2023 was even considered.
“The pursuit of independence will be one of the major challenges for the successor of Nicola Sturgeon”, specifies Coree Brown Swan. “The UK government has in effect said no to a short-term referendum, building on the Supreme Court’s ruling late last year that a referendum was outside the purview of Parliament. Candidates to succeed Nicola Sturgeon have offered a variety of ways to secure a mandate, but none of them seem particularly viable.”
Today, the holding of a second referendum therefore seems unlikely, at least in the near future. And according to the latest polls, this is no longer the time: while the “yes” vote stood at 53% in August 2020, the trend has since reversed and since March 2021, it is now the “no” that prevails in the polls, the latest, carried out in February of this year, even seems to accentuate the gap since it would be 54%-46% in favor of the “no”. But in Scotland, there is a saying that today’s rain is tomorrow’s whiskey.
This article is originally published on rtbf.be