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Search begins for new Scotland leader after shock resignation

The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon leaves a power vacuum at the top of Scottish politics and an uncertain future for the country’s independence movement.

(CN) — Likely candidates in the race to be the next first minister of Scotland are starting to emerge, following the shock resignation of long-term leader Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday.

Angus Robertson and Kate Forbes are widely viewed as front-runners in the imminent contest to succeed Sturgeon in Scotland's top job and take on the role as chief advocate for independence from the United Kingdom. Nominations for the position will close on Feb. 24, it has been announced, leaving candidates with just a week to scramble together impromptu leadership bids.

Sturgeon’s unexpected announcement that she would be standing down imminently has left a power vacuum at the top of the country's ruling Scottish National Party, or SNP, which will be hard to fill. The outgoing first minister has dominated Scottish politics ever since she ascended to the role unopposed back in 2014. Widely regarded as Scotland’s most effective political communicator and operator, she has led her party through two Scottish parliamentary elections and three U.K. general elections, winning landslide victories on every occasion.

Her success has left the SNP without a figure of similar prominence or stature, and lacking in alternative power bases. Sturgeon has not nominated a successor, stating in her resignation speech that she believed her longevity had become an obstacle to reasoned debate on a variety of issues, and that her country's politics would benefit from a new face in charge that was distinct from her leadership.

The two favorites for the job offer very different propositions to the SNP’s 100,000-strong rank-and-file membership, who will determine the winner in a grassroots poll.

Robertson is a well established figure, who previously led the party’s Westminster contingent in the British Parliament between 2007 and 2017. The veteran politician has represented Edinburgh Central in the Scottish Parliament since 2021, and currently performs the role of constitution secretary in the Scottish government – a key role which gives him responsibility for the party’s independence strategy. Robertson is a reliable media performer and known quantity within the party, but as a "continuity candidate" may not appeal to members looking for a new direction of travel.

Forbes, in contrast, is a relative newcomer to the movement. Just 32, she rose to prominence in 2020 when she delivered the Scottish budget with just a few hours notice following the sudden resignation of previous finance minister Derek Mackay. Her delivery impressed many, sparking immediate leadership rumors, and cementing her as a key member of the Scottish government in charge of economic affairs. However, Forbes is a member of the Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland and holds socially conservative views, which are unlikely to sit well with party members.

The SNP’s membership has become markedly more liberal since 2019, when former leader Alex Salmond created the Alba Party, a pro-independence party with a more socially conservative outlook. Much of the SNP’s right-wing moved to Alba, pushing the SNP further to the left.

Other potential candidates include deputy leader Keith Brown, who narrowly won his position as second-in-command back in 2018, and Humza Yousaf, another youthful newcomer whose rise in the party has recently been damaged by scandals in the Health Department he oversees. Popular former leader John Swinney and prominent Westminster leader Stephen Flynn have both ruled themselves out of the contest.

The leadership race comes at a critical moment in the movement for Scottish independence. The growing momentum behind the push for secession was thwarted by a ruling from the British Supreme Court last November that the Scottish government does not hold the power the call a referendum independently of Westminster. Despite this, a number of recent polls have suggested support for independence is over 50% among the Scottish electorate, adding to a sense of urgency inside the SNP.

Sturgeon’s favored way out of the impasse was a proposal that the party’s next general election campaign should be treated as a de facto referendum, with more than 50% support regarded as a mandate for leaving the union. However, this strategy was controversial among her party, and unpopular with the wider electorate. Opposition to her plan, along with a lack of clear alternative options, appears to have been major catalyst for her sudden resignation.

A special conference to discuss the strategy due to be held next month now looks likely to be canceled or turned into a leadership hustings. But the wider debate over independence looks increasingly like it has stalled, bogged down by constitutional barriers and bipartisan opposition in London.

The leadership contest may be an opportunity for candidates to reevaluate the push for independence, with the view that a longer-term approach is needed increasingly emerging among Scottish nationalists. Such a suggestion will be divisive, however, with independence hardliners already impatient over the pace of the party’s strategy.

The new leader will also have to face down a number of other immediate challenges which Sturgeon had been battling. A constitutional deadlock over contentious gender reform laws have become a debilitating quagmire for the SNP, with polls showing that Scots think the party's priorities are in the wrong place. Scrutiny of party finances is intensifying, with accusations of fraudulent donations circling senior management. Plus, there is growing disquiet over the management of the country's public services. The result is that, for the first time in years, Scottish Labour are beginning to cut into the SNP’s still sizeable polling lead.

The less than appealing in-tray adds to the sense that any successor will struggle to duplicate Sturgeon’s sustained electoral success, longevity, or dominance of Scottish politics. That she provided stability during a period of great political volatility across the U.K. is testament to her political acumen – a factor recognized across the political spectrum. Few senior politicians get to choose the timing of their exit, while still enjoying broad popularity. Sturgeon now joins that exclusive club.

Categories:Government, International, Politics

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