LONDON — The Scottish National Party is finding Nicola Sturgeon a hard act to follow.
Scotland’s governing party is holding an acrimonious contest to replace Sturgeon, a leader who came to dominate Scottish politics, but hit an impasse in her fight for independence from the United Kingdom, and divided the party with a transgender rights law.
Sturgeon, 52, announced her resignation in February after eight years as party leader and first minster of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government. Three members of the Scottish parliament are running to replace her: Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, 32; Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, 37; and 49-year-old lawmaker Ash Regan. The winner of a vote by SNP members will be announced on March 27.
The campaign has cracked open fissures within the party over political strategy, social issues and Sturgeon’s legacy.
Critics say a clique around the former first minister wields too much power in the SNP. Those rivals scored a victory when party chief executive Peter Murrell — Sturgeon’s 58-year-old husband — resigned on Saturday over a kerfuffle about the party’s declining membership.
The SNP had publicly denied a newspaper report that its membership had fallen from more than 100,000 to just over 70,000 in the past year, before admitting it was true. Murrell accepted responsibility and quit, saying that “while there was no intent to mislead, I accept that this has been the outcome.”
Regan welcomed Murrell’s departure, saying it was “unacceptable to have the husband of the party leader as the CEO.” Forbes said that the party grassroots felt disempowered because “decisions within the SNP have been taken by too few people.”
Sturgeon’s resignation has unleashed a battle for the direction of the SNP, which currently holds 64 of the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament and governs in coalition with the much smaller Greens.
In bad-tempered television debates, Regan and Forbes have attacked Yousaf — a Sturgeon ally widely regarded as the front-runner — as a continuity candidate in a party that badly needs change.
“Right now, we are at a crossroads,” Forbes told the BBC in an interview broadcast Sunday, arguing that the Scottish government needs to do more to bolster an economy weakened by Russia's war in Ukraine, COVID-19 and Brexit. “We need to get serious about what’s worked and what’s not worked.”
Forbes' message appeals to some party members, who think that the SNP under Sturgeon spent too much time focusing on divisive social issues rather that the economy and independence. Sturgeon’s departure was hastened by a backlash over legislation she championed to make it easier for people in Scotland to legally change their gender.
The gender recognition bill has been hailed as a landmark piece of legislation by transgender rights activists, but faced opposition from some SNP members who said it ignored the need to protect single-sex spaces for women, such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.
Forbes and Regan both oppose the legislation, which has been passed by the Scottish parliament but blocked by the U.K. government. Yousaf supports it, and warns the party could swing to the right if led by Forbes, a socially conservative Christian who is considered his main rival.
Forbes, who belongs to the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, has been criticized for saying that her faith would have prevented her from voting in favor of allowing same-sex couples to wed. She wasn't yet a lawmaker when the Scottish Parliament legalized gay marriage in 2014.
The leadership contest has sent the SNP’s poll ratings plunging — to the delight of the Labour Party and the Conservatives, which hope to gain seats in Scotland during the next U.K.-wide election, due by the end of 2024.
The testy race also reflects frustrations within a party that, after 16 years in power in Edinburgh, has yet to achieve its main ambition: independence.
Scottish people voted to remain in the U.K. in a 2014 referendum that was billed as a once-in-a-generation decision. The SNP wants a new vote, but the central government has refused to authorize one, and the U.K. Supreme Court has ruled that Scotland can’t hold one without London’s consent.
Regan wants to sweep those obstacles aside by treating the next election in Scotland as a “trigger point” for independence, effectively daring the U.K. government not to recognize Scotland’s democratic choice to secede.
Forbes and Yousaf are more cautious. Forbes called for more effort to win over voters who back remaining in the U.K., while Yousaf says he wants to build a “settled, sustained” majority for independence. Polls currently suggest Scottish voters are split about evenly on the issue.
Leading Scottish historian Tom Devine said that with independence receding as an immediate prospect, many voters had more urgent concerns — and that poses a risk for the SNP.
“The perception is that the mainstream of Scottish public opinion is concerned chiefly with the problems of the (health system), educational standards, transport infrastructure and the wider economy,” he told Scotland’s Herald newspaper. "Are parts of the electorate now beginning to feel sidelined and concluding that the SNP government has failed to deliver on these vital matters?”