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Civil war in the SNP threatens to topple Sturgeon

After accusations of a "tired" approach to governing, Sturgeon's role as First Minister may be under threat

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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has come under increasing pressure as members of her party grow frustrated at a lack of progress towards independence. Ms Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party since November 2014, has been criticised for overseeing a ‘tired’ government. Most ominously for the 49-year-old, this discontent has led to private questions about whether she is the right person to lead the SNP forwards.

These questions come in an environment of increasing factionalism within Scotland’s largest party. After a hugely successful 2019 election that gave the SNP 48 seats out of 59 contested, the absence of strong opposition has helped to facilitate infighting within the party. At the centre of this brewing political storm lies the key issue of independence.

While the SNP is unified over a desire for Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom, there is disagreement about how this is best achieved. Some, including Joanna Cherry MP, are pressing for radical action aimed at forcing through a referendum without the consent of the Prime Minister. This course of action would be constitutionally unprecedented as well as straining the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster. Therefore, more cautious members, such as long serving MP Pete Wishart, have supported Sturgeon’s slower strategy by warning against Cherry’s approach.

These internal divisions come at a particularly inopportune time for Sturgeon’s administration. Sturgeon’s predecessor and former close political ally Alex Salmond is to stand trial next week on 14 charges including attempted rape and sexual assault. All the offences are alleged to have happened during Salmond’s tenure as first minister between 2007 and 2014. In even worse news for Sturgeon, an inquiry is to be launched into her government’s handling of the complaints.

In January, Salmond successfully sued the Scottish government for £500,000 after it admitted to involving an individual with a previous interest in the case. The court defeat, which Salmond said was an “abject humiliation” for the authorities, forced Sturgeon to apologise and did little to reinforce her statesmanship. Now it threatens to further damage the legitimacy of the SNP as the party prepares to build upon its election success.

The SNP brand has been further dented by the recent loss of a rising stars. Derek McKay, seen as a future leader by some in the party, resigned in early February after it was revealed he sent inappropriate social media messages to a 16-year-old boy. Within a party traditionally known for its discipline, these scandals not only call Sturgeon’s personal judgement into question but also undermine her authority at a crucial time.

Sturgeon herself is under pressure to deliver on her promise of a second referendum. Despite recent polls putting support for independence at around 50 percent, organising a sequel to the 2014 vote has proven more difficult than the SNP originally anticipated. Boris Johnson’s refusal to grant formal powers to Holyrood was a considerable blow to Sturgeon’s timetable, and she has subsequently been criticised for not having a back up plan prepared for such an eventuality.

Sturgeon’s inability to predict stiff resistance from Johnson has aroused particular disappointment, and her promises of a referendum this calendar year are deemed unrealistic by many within Scotland.
Consequently, support from her party has been minimal with insiders feeling she has been consistently outmanoeuvred and fearing she is unable to engineer a solution. Regarding the leadership of the SNP, Angus MacNeil MP told the BBC: “What I’m concentrating on is not so much the personalities involved but it’s the issue of independence.” MacNeil’s failure to endorse his leader is indicative of the problems facing Sturgeon as she attempts to simultaneously appease her own party, while presenting an acceptable proposal to a hostile Conservative government in London.

If Nicola Sturgeon is to succeed where Salmond failed, she must reunite her party, persuade or strongarm Johnson into a referendum, and finally convince the electorate of her vision for Scotland outside the United Kingdom. A failure to do so could soon see her replaced by a party impatient for success. The coming weeks and months will be crucial, not only for the career of Scotland’s first ever female leader, but also the nation as whole.

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