Why did Nicola Sturgeon resign as Scottish National Party leader and First Minister?

SNP first minister Nicola Sturgeon photo World News/Creative Commons

Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and the First Minister has underscored, in spectacular fashion, the multi-faceted crisis that has engulfed the Scottish government recently.

In power since 2007, the SNP administration was regarded to be among the most stable and popular capitalist governments in Europe.

The SNP has won the last four Holyrood elections, and three Westminster elections and are the largest party in Scottish local government.

Sturgeon herself was seen as a highly-skilled politician with significant public support, not least for her performance during the Covid pandemic which contrasted hugely with the calamitous former UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, at Westminster. Nevertheless, many of the same mistakes were made by both governments during the pandemic.

Following the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish nationalists completely eclipsed an already declining Labour Party as the electoral vehicle for a majority of the Scottish working class. In 2015, the SNP won 50% of the vote at the Westminster election, securing 56 of the 59 Scottish MPs.

Even as late as 2021, Scottish parliament election the SNP won 1.3 million votes, the highest number for any party in the 24-year history of the parliament.

But as Socialist Party Scotland pointed out in the Scottish perspectives document in March 2022: “It is no exaggeration to say that if a genuine workers’ party existed in Scotland with a sensitive attitude to the national question the electoral base of the SNP would be shattered overnight.”

Roots of the crisis

The crisis facing the SNP is rooted in their implementation of austerity and anti-working class policies generally. The recent strikes have played a decisive role in exposing and undermining Sturgeon’s government.

Wave after wave of strikes and threats of strikes in the public sector have been taking place against SNP politicians. The NHS is in an unprecedented crisis – the result of decades of underfunding. A recent opinion poll underlined the scale of opposition to the Scottish government that now exists.

There is also significant public opposition to the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) bill that the Tories have based themselves on by blocking the bill at Westminster.

Sturgeon will have been shocked by the polling that indicated large support for the Tories’ actions. 50% think the UK Government was right to block the GRR with 33% opposed. Incredibly, 31% of SNP supporters supported Sunak.

Around 55% in current polling oppose the specifics of the bill while only 25% support it. This is despite the fact that in February 2022, 57% backed the general idea of making it easier for trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate, which Socialist Party Scotland supports.

The strident and intolerant way in which the SNP and the Scottish Greens have dealt with concerns over the GRR – added to by their record of anti-working class policies, including making cuts to public services needed by women, LGBTQ+ people, and the working class, generally – has made it much more difficult to win support for self-ID. Sturgeon’s resignation could also lead to a reconsideration of the GRR by a new SNP leadership.

Against this background, the SNP have begun to see their support fall, with backing for independence also dipping back to around 45%.

Splits within the SNP, for example on the strategy for winning a second referendum, have also come to the fore. The decision of the UK Supreme Court to rule against Holyrood’s right to hold indyref2 in late 2022 opened up further tensions.

Ian Blackford, a Sturgeon loyalist, was effectively removed as Westminster leader by the SNP group of MPs and replaced by a more Sturgeon-critical leader in December last year.

A special policy conference in March – if it goes ahead – will debate whether to make the next Westminster election a de facto referendum on independence – or the next Holyrood election.

It is likely that Sturgeon’s preferred option of using the Westminster election as a referendum will be defeated. Not least because of fears among the SNP that a 50% plus one share of the vote being a mandate for an agreed referendum is just not achievable.

These divisions, at root, reflect the incapacity of the pro-capitalist leadership of the SNP to overcome the entrenched opposition of the ruling class in Britain to Scottish independence.

The break-up of the UK would be a huge blow for the bourgeois and they will fight tooth and nail to try to avoid it. Overcoming that obstacle requires mass struggle and the mobilisation of a united working class against those capitalist interests which the SNP leadership is deathly afraid of.

This points to a reality that Socialist Party Scotland has emphasised again and again: that the SNP’s big business policies are an obstacle to winning a majority in Scotland for independence.

All of these factors have played a role in Sturgeon’s decision to resign. The SNP as a whole will now be thrown into a crisis. Sturgeon was party leader and first minister for eight years and was the anointed successor to Alex Salmond when he resigned in 2014. Today, there is no clear and obvious replacement.

Splits to come 

Elements of the SNP privately critical of the direction taken by the leadership will be emboldened to speak out. Open splits and divisions against the backdrop of falling support for the SNP are inevitable.

It is also possible that the coalition with the Scottish Greens can also come undone, if not immediately then in the run-up to the next Holyrood election in 2026.

What Sturgeon’s resignation underlines is that even a seemingly stable and popular political party can be undermined in the maelstrom of events.

Following the 2014 indyref the SNP was seen as an anti-establishment force that swept all before it with a series of spectacular electoral successes.

Yet, such is the acute nature of the economic and social crisis today that any party that bases itself on capitalism, which the SNP does, will come ultimately come into collision with the interests of the working class.

That’s why it was a mistake for the STUC to release a statement immediately after Sturgeon’s resignation that said of the first minister: “we deeply valued our working relationship, working collaboratively on behalf of Scotland’s workers.”

This was on the same day that Sturgeon’s government offered an insulting 6% pay offer to Scottish teachers in their long-running dispute.

Nor will there be anything ‘collaborative’ about the estimated £700 million in cuts being made in the next few weeks by Scottish councils that will massively impact the jobs and services provided by council workers.

New workers’ party

The SNP will still likely remain the largest party in Scotland, for now – and will continue to use the national question to bolster its waning support. But the space for a new party based on the working class – with the trade unions playing a decisive role in its formation – has grown even larger.

Socialist Party Scotland has advocated the building of such a workers’ party consistently. Even in 2015, when the SNP was sweeping all before it, we stood in the 2015 general election as part of the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. As we did in the 2016 Scottish parliament election, putting forward the case for fighting socialist policies and for an independent socialist Scotland.

Many other left and socialist groups when faced with the SNP juggernaut buckled under the pressure and opposed standing socialist candidates.

Today we continue that pioneering work in preparation for the next general election. We would appeal to all those who want to see the building of a new mass working-class party to help lead a mass struggle against capitalism and for socialist change to join us.

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