Nicola Sturgeon’s iron grip on the Scottish National party is starting to loosen, with signs of internal dissent in Edinburgh and Westminster, as she also faces questions about her strategy for securing an independence referendum.
Eight years after she became Scotland’s first minister, Sturgeon is no closer to securing a plebiscite, while her plan to turn the next UK general election into a “de facto” referendum is fuelling divisions within the SNP.
She suffered a blow in her bid to hold a referendum in October 2023 when the UK Supreme Court ruled last month that she did not have legal authority to do so without the UK government’s consent.
Just over a week later, cracks in SNP discipline were exposed when Sturgeon’s ally Ian Blackford quit as leader of the party’s MPs at Westminster.
Discontent had been growing among the MPs partly over Blackford’s close links to Sturgeon. One SNP MP said: “There was very much a challenge [to Blackford’s position] . . . Ian knew it was coming.”
Days later, Pete Wishart quit the SNP’s Westminster front bench team with a parting attack on Stephen Flynn, who won the race to replace Blackford. Wishart said he had been left “bemused” by Flynn’s bid to change the SNP leadership in Westminster.
More recently, Sturgeon suffered a rebellion among her own lawmakers in Edinburgh over SNP legislation to make it easier for people to legally change their gender.
Ash Regan, the Scottish minister for community safety, stood down in October in order to oppose the bill. This month the Scottish parliament passed the reforms, but nine of the party’s MSPs defied the whip and voted against the legislation.
“The sense that the SNP is a tight and disciplined ship is slowly beginning to unravel,” said Gerry Hassan, professor of social change at Glasgow Caledonian University and author of Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence.
“They’ve had 15 years in office and eight years of Sturgeon . . . Independence is not making the progress that they would want.”
Sturgeon is yet to face a serious challenge to her authority as SNP leader since she replaced Alex Salmond in 2014, after Scots voted by 55 per cent to 45 per cent to reject independence.
However, some independence supporters have criticised her for being too cautious and failing to make the case to Scots who are reluctant to leave the 315-year union with England.
The UK government has held fast on its refusal to consent to a second referendum, arguing that not enough time has passed since the last one. But the SNP counters that Brexit, which took Scotland out of the EU against its will, justifies a fresh vote.
Sturgeon in June said she would use the next UK election as a “de facto” referendum if the Supreme Court ruled against her.
But this month she announced plans for a March SNP conference to “discuss and decide” how to secure independence, suggesting her previous strategy is up for debate.
Hassan said the lack of a strong opposition in Scotland, combined with the unpopularity of Conservative prime ministers at Westminster, had so far allowed the SNP to avoid “difficult” discussions about the path to independence.
A successful Labour government in Westminster could gain support in Scotland and weaken the appetite for independence among voters, forcing “the need for a proper strategic rethink” in the SNP, he added.
The danger for Sturgeon in 2023 is that the SNP’s internal divisions could widen and, ultimately, cost the party votes.
But recent polling indicates that support for independence is, for now, growing in Scotland, with six consecutive surveys showing a majority of Scots in favour of a second vote.
However, the longer-term trend is that Scots are split roughly down the middle on the issue.
Some analysts said that Sturgeon may have benefited from the Supreme Court decision. “This may well be a temporary bounce in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling,” said Emily Gray, Scotland managing director at Ipsos.
Ipsos also found that 53 per cent of likely voters would choose the SNP if it used a general election as a “de facto” referendum.
Analysts warned that even if the SNP won the majority of the Scottish vote share in the next general election, Westminster would not accept this as a mandate for independence. The next UK election must be held no later than January 2025
However, dropping the “de facto referendum” plan would make the SNP “a laughing stock”, said Sir John Curtice, leading pollster and politics professor at Strathclyde university.
Sturgeon could choose a “softer” version where the SNP takes victory as a mandate to secure another independence referendum, and use its leverage in Westminster, he added.
An SNP official close to Sturgeon said that divisions in the party were overplayed when they were in reality “mundane”. The plan to consult members on an independence strategy was aimed at “finessing” it rather than a full retreat, they noted.
Flynn also downplayed the divisions, describing Sturgeon as one of the most successful politicians in Europe.
“There is perhaps hope among some commentators that the party is divided and that is certainly not the case, much to their disappointment . . . We are very much focused on what comes next and what comes next is that push for independence.”
Rishi Sunak, prime minister, and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer “are afraid of losing”, added Flynn.