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The Scottish Play* - a troubled leadership election

by Stoker

Dark Doings in MacPolitics - 600 years on from The Thane of Cawdor (castle - above) and his wife

It is the fashion at the moment to rewrite great works of literature, including works for the stage and opera house, to reflect modern ideals and values. Only Connect must draw to the attention of readers who may have missed recent performances, the new woke version of MacBeth. In this production Lord MacBeth is a queen, Lady MacBeth a male princely power behind the throne, King Duncan living in exile in Aberdeenshire, and the Three Witches quarrelling endlessly.

Scottish First Minister Ms Nicola Sturgeon, female, feisty, and on occasion blonde, unexpectedly resigned on 15 February. Why is not entirely known yet, but certainly she felt that she was ceasing to command the confidence of her Scottish National Party (SNP) in the Scottish Assembly. Ms Sturgeon, one of the cleverest political operators in the British Isles, did not wait to be pushed or indeed for the men in grey suits (or kilts) to eject her*. With the taste for drama for which she is noted, she called a press conference and announced her resignation, to take effect as soon as her successor were chosen.

And thereby she created chaos.

Ms Sturgeon has been First Minister and Leader of the SNP for nearly nine years with an iron grip on both the elected members of the party in the Scottish Assembly and on the party machine throughout Scotland. It helped no doubt that her husband, Peter Murrell, was the SNP’s chief executive for twenty-five years until last Friday, when he too resigned (their conversations over breakfast must be fascinating.)

She was the protégé of another very skilled politician, the former First Minister and leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, though they are now believed to be on distant terms, another wonderfully understated phrase (translation: they hate the sight of each other). She learnt much from him but one thing she seems not to have picked up is that of the necessity of controlling the succession. When Nicola resigned there was no obvious heir to her. This is of course not uncommon among powerful and ambitious politicians who fear to nominate a possible future leader for fear that the chosen one may then oust them.

But failing to manoeuvre a possible successor into a lead position, enabling the transfer of power and the smooth continuation of the policies of the leaver, can have the most dire consequences, and the current astonishing tussle for the leadership of the SNP will in future years become, without doubt, an academic study of how not to transfer power (the Conservative struggle following the fall of Boris Johnson will be another.) There was some thought that John Swinney, Ms Sturgeon’s close confidante, deputy First Minister, and friend, might step forward but Mr Swinney quickly decided not to. His ministerial record has been mixed – another polite understatement (translation: dreadful), and whilst he has led the SNP before, twenty-three years ago, that was not highly regarded (translation: a disaster).

Alex Salmond briefly arose from whatever forest in which he now lurks, suggesting that he could return. “No, he couldn’t” was the immediate reaction, not least, it was pointed out, because he is not a member of the SNP; he resigned in 2018, and leads another independence party, Alba, albeit it does not have any members elected to any form of public office.

Which left three candidates to put themselves forward for the job: Kate Forbes, the Scottish Financial Secretary (although she has until very recently been on maternity leave), Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Health Secretary, and Ash Regan, who was a middle-ranking minister until she resigned in 2022 and is now a backbencher.

Ms Regan is very much the outsider; she was only elected to the Assembly in 2016, having until the Independence Referendum in 2014 taken little interest in politics or indeed independence. She joined the party after the referendum and became a junior minister in 2018. That is a remarkable rise, though her achievements so far have not been great; and she resigned as a minister late last year because of her opposition to the Gender Recognition Bill.

And here we must swerve to one side to briefly cover the issue which was the ostensible cause of Ms Sturgeon’s sudden exit. One piece of legislation that Ms Sturgeon was determined to get on to the Scottish statute books was the Gender Recognition Bill, a slightly curious bill under which those who wished to change gender could simply do so from the age of 16. Although the Scots are pretty broad minded nowadays about matters sexual (it was not always so but that is another story), this bill was thought to go too far in allowing young people simply to pick and choose genders without medical advice or specialist counselling. Much opposition arose. At which point Nicola came up against one who is learning the political arts quickly and impressively, the UK’s newish Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. Mr Sunak, through his relevant cabinet minister, Alistair Jack, said that this was not a matter that the Scottish Parliament could legislate on, being a Section 35 matter, a reserved matter which requires the approval of the UK Parliament in London. The proposal was duly debated there and rejected.

Worse, Ms Sturgeon received only lukewarm support on the matter from the SNP. She had clearly and almost uniquely mis-stepped and after a period of reflection decided she must resign.

So, back to the leadership contest. And for once the three witches, sorry, candidates, were united. It has for a while been rumoured that the SNP has lost a large number of members in the last year who object to the Gender Recognition Bill. Mr Murrell, who was in the odd position of overseeing the election of his wife’s successor as leader and First Minister, strongly denied it. Then the SNP’s head of publicity resigned. The three candidates issued a joint statement calling for the SNP’s membership numbers to be published. Last Friday evening they were; followed immediately by Mr Murrell’s resignation. Not surprisingly; membership has dropped from 101,000 to 72,000.

Ms Regan and Ms Forbes have at the time of writing called for the election to be re-run on the basis that the members have been misled. Mr Yousef has not said anything much; he may do by the time you read this. But as he is most identified with the Sturgeon side of things, he has most to lose from this shambles and scandal.

Ms Regan is against the Gender Recognition Bill. So are both other contenders. Ms Forbes is a devout and practising member of the Free Church of Scotland, a strict protestant church which takes a very traditional line on all matters sexual and moral. Ms Forbes has said that she supports her church’s line on all such matters (and her Scottish Assembly voting record so indicates) but also recognises and defends the rights of persons who take other positions. Mr Yousef is a practising Moslem and in the past has also abstained, or at least not been available to vote, in matters where the SNP position is different to a traditional Islamic position. He has however been less clear-cut as to how he might vote in the future on such matters if a conflict arose between an Islamic view and a SNP policy.

At the moment Ms Forbes seems to be narrowly in the lead among SNP members and much more so across Scotland generally, with Mr Yousef, formerly seen as the front runner, falling back. Ms Regan is currently well behind.

Even more remarkably, and hugely damaging, is that the three candidates have not held back from bitter assessments of each others’ characters, abilities, and records, each claiming the others are incompetent, light weight, and not up to the job. Mr Yousef has suffered a particular mauling with his record as Health Secretary taken apart (the Scottish Health Service has huge and deepening problems, though some date back before he got the job). The effect of this is that the focus on the SNP’s record in government - not good (translation: terrible) seems to have eroded over the last couple of weeks much voter support for the whole concept of independence. According to the latest opinion poll support for independence has sunk from around 48% a month ago, to under 40% on 18 March.

It seems not impossible that the new leader – who automatically becomes First Minister - may find themselves captain of a sinking vessel, with former captain Sturgeon underwater in its wake. It is not quite what Ms Sturgeon had in mind as her farewell celebration.

* Shakespeare’s play, MacBeth, is known in the superstitious world of the theatre as “The Scottish Play”; to say the word MacBeth is to invite disaster.

**It was said of the Conservative Party that when a leader was felt to have occupied the job long enough, a group of senior party members, male and grey-suited, would go to 10 Downing Street and tell him to resign. This ended in 1965 when the party introduced elections for leader – only to elect Edward Heath.


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