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Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, arrives with outgoing Deputy First Minister John Swinney for her final First Minister's Questions on March 23, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ms Sturgeon is standing down as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP after more than eight years in the position.Peter Summers/Getty Images

After ruling Scotland for 16 years and winning 11 elections in a row at all levels of government, the Scottish National Party is facing a moment of crisis.

The sudden departure of Nicola Sturgeon as party leader and Scotland’s First Minister has plunged the SNP into an acrimonious leadership race that has raised questions about the party’s future and its quest for Scottish independence.

Ms. Sturgeon surprised everyone last month by announcing that she no longer had the stamina to carry on as leader. She’d been a fixture in the SNP for more than 20 years, serving eight years as leader and eight years as deputy to her predecessor, Alex Salmond.

Her resignation has exposed deep fissures in the SNP and lifted a lid on years of pent-up frustration. Ms. Sturgeon kept a tight grip on the party – her husband Peter Murrell was also the SNP’s chief executive – and the SNP hasn’t had a contested leadership race in 19 years.

With no obvious successor, party members have been forced to choose between two front-runners; Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and Health Secretary Humza Yousaf. The results of the membership vote will be released on Monday but neither candidate has generated much public enthusiasm and both have raised eyebrows among party officials by attacking each other and criticizing the government’s record.

The campaign has also been marred by a scandal involving the party’s membership figures. Both candidates have complained about a lack of information about the membership and Mr. Murrell had to resign a week ago after he admitted providing misleading information about the numbers. Figures released by the party showed that the total membership had dropped to 72,186 from 104,000 in the last two years, something Mr. Murrell and other officials had denied for weeks.

“I think it is fair to say there is a tremendous mess and we have to clear it up,” said Mike Russell who replaced Mr. Murrell as CEO.

“It’s a mess for the SNP without any shadow of a doubt,” said James Mitchell, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh. “Every day seems to bring forward something further damaging to them.”

Dr. Mitchell said the party’s renowned discipline has fallen apart mainly because of public anger over a host of issues including hospital waiting times, falling education standards and the soaring cost of living. There has also been a fierce backlash to legislation that makes it easier for people as young as 16 to change their gender through self-identification.

“Across a whole range of responsibilities, this has not been a successful government,” he said. “Whoever wins the leadership is going to be under enormous pressure because people are now much more critical of the SNP and the media is now scenting blood.”

The public discontent has encouraged Ms. Forbes to go after Mr. Yousaf’s record in various cabinet posts. “You were transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister we’ve got record high waiting times,” she told him during one debate. “What makes you think you can do a better job as First Minister?”

She also chastised him for pledging to follow Ms. Sturgeon’s policies, saying that was an “acceptance of mediocrity.”

Mr. Yousaf has challenged Ms. Forbes about her opposition to abortion, gay marriage and gender recognition. He said the SNP’s success was built on “inclusivity, equality and respect for everyone” and that the party “cannot afford to have a leader who pulls us off that progressive path.”

Another challenge facing both candidates is the SNP’s inability to make much progress on Scottish independence.

Scots voted by a margin of 45 per cent to 55 per cent in 2014 to remain in Britain, but Ms. Sturgeon has been pushing for another referendum. She’d hoped that the 2016 British-wide vote for Brexit – which Scots overwhelmingly opposed – would provide the impetus for another ballot on independence. But a Scottish referendum must be approved by the British government and it has refused to consent.

Ms. Sturgeon challenged Westminster’s position at the Supreme Court last year and in a unanimous decision a panel of five judges said the 1998 legislation that created the Scottish Parliament did not give it the power to unilaterally call a vote on independence.

Mr. Yousaf and Ms. Forbes have provided few details on how they would pursue independence beyond building a case for an independent Scotland and trying to persuade No voters. Both have acknowledged that could take years.

Robert Johns, who studies Scottish voting patterns at the University of Essex, said repeated polling has found that there has been little change in the support for independence since 2014. “I struggle see to any scenario in which support for independence rises significantly in the next couple of years,” he said.

Part of the SNP’s problem, he added, was that many people who voted Yes to independence in 2014 also supported Britain leaving the European Union. “Those people wanted independence, not just from London but from Brussels,” Dr. Johns said. Those voters now reject the SNP’s plan for independence because it involves rejoining the EU.

Whoever wins the leadership race could have a short time in office. Support for the SNP has been falling steadily in the polls and Dr. Mitchell expects the Labour Party will win the most seats in the next Scottish election, due in 2026. “I think things are starting to tumble,” he said. “And I think we’re only just beginning to see that happening.”