The author is director of think-tank Reform Scotland
Scotland has never recovered from the independence referendum held in 2014. The angry divisions sparked by that fiery debate pitted friend against friend, wives against husbands, parents against children, and have dominated discourse ever since. and the country’s democracy.
Nicola Sturgeon, who this week announced her surprise resignation after eight years as first minister and leader of the separatist Scottish National Party, has been both a source and a beneficiary of these tensions. Despite early signs that she wanted to reach out to those who voted to remain in the UK – a preference she won by 55-45 – the final years of her leadership saw relentless efforts to force a repeat.
Scotland is stuck in a loop, with the arguments for and against independence being repeated on a weekly basis to the exclusion of almost anything else. For trade unionists, who would rather talk about deep-rooted, mainstream problems, this was both infuriating and exhausting. They will not mourn Sturgeon’s departure.
Since losing the independence referendum in 2014, the SNP has won every election it has contested at national, devolved, European and local level. This is largely due to the charismatic Sturgeon, whose personal popularity has steadily dwarfed that of her rivals in Edinburgh and London. He was the face of an independence movement that saw his support rise from 45 percent at the time of the referendum to around 50 percent.
In recent months, however, the gloss has begun to peel off. Sturgeon announced a plan to use the upcoming UK general election as a “de facto” second referendum: if the SNP won more than 50 percent of the vote, she would begin independence negotiations with Westminster. This presumption did not sit well with Scottish voters. Equally unpopular was an attempt to reform the rules around gender reassignment, removing the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and lowering the age to allow the change to 16. Even around a third of SNP voters backed a UK government decision to block the measures from becoming law.
After these miscalculations, public support for independence, for the SNP and for Sturgeon finally began to fall. In recent weeks, the need for change at the top had been increasingly discussed, but at some future point.
After her shocking departure, Unionists smell the opportunity they have been waiting for. The independence movement must find a new leader, but Sturgeon has been so singularly dominant that the contenders to succeed her have relatively low public profiles. The contest is likely to be less about personalities or governing ability and more about who can offer the most compelling strategy for securing independence. The danger, as the Conservatives found with the ill-fated Liz Truss, is that candidates are lured by their select group – SNP members – into pleasant but unrealizable promises of how and when.
Those candidates, if they have their sights set on wider Scotland, will have to answer questions that ultimately proved beyond Sturgeon. How will a new leader reverse the party’s slide in the polls? How would they push support for independence towards the 60 percent mark most observers believe is necessary to secure and win a second referendum? What is the point, after 16 years in power, of an SNP administration in Edinburgh that has avoided meaningful reform and modernization of public services?
On the ground, there are also difficult challenges: how would an independent Scotland rejoining the EU manage the economic border with England, its largest market by some distance? What would be a convincing design for the currency used by a separate Scotland? What about the impact on savings and pensions denominated in pounds?
Amid this turmoil and debate, the Labor Party intends to seize its opportunity. It is the only credible alternative to the SNP as a devolved government, but has always struggled against Sturgeon’s electoral genius and, as a unionist party, has lost traditional supporters to the independence cause. It currently holds only one Scottish seat in the Commons.
However, Labor has recently started to return to the polls in Scotland and the belief that Keir Starmer could become prime minister will provide a further boost. Labor strategists hope to win somewhere between 15 and 20 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the UK general election, likely to be held next year. The party will then campaign for the next Holyrood election in 2026, promising that Labor administrations north and south of the border will work in harmony to improve the state of Scotland – in contrast to more than a decade of challenge between the right Tory Westminster and the left SNP Holyrood.
Unionists are desperate to end the obsessive debate over breaking up the UK, which has kept Scotland divided and detached since 2014 and which threatens the continued existence of the British state. For that to happen, they need to convince Scottish voters to finally move on from their allegiance to the SNP. Sturgeon’s departure may be her best — and, as far as the Union is concerned, last — chance.