The self-immolation of the SNP
How the once unassailable Nicola Sturgeon was brought crashing down to Earth.
In January 2023, it emerged that a double rapist going under the name ‘Isla Bryson’ had been placed on remand in Scotland’s main women’s prison, Cornton Vale. Adam Graham, as he’d been known when he was charged, had been allowed into the women’s estate purely because he ‘identified’ as a woman. But he was clearly, to use the hashtag phrase of the year, ‘a man in a wig’.
The Scottish public was understandably outraged. Yet then first minister Nicola Sturgeon could not bring herself to call Bryson a man, even after she ordered the Scottish Prison Service to send him and other male-bodied sex offenders to male prisons. Within a month of the debacle, she was gone.
The shock resignation in February of Scotland’s most successful leader, who had won eight elections, was not solely a result of her gender policies. But no one can be in any doubt that the Bryson affair played a major role in Sturgeon’s decision to step down as first minister and leader of the SNP.
The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, blocked by Westminster in January over a conflict with UK equalities law, was her flagship policy, her personal crusade. She wanted Scotland to be at the leading edge of ‘progressive’ policymaking, a Stonewall champion. However, many Scottish women, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling, did not regard allowing natal men free access to their changing rooms, prisons and sporting events to be in any way progressive.
The gender-reform bill wasn’t the only thing blocked by Westminster. Successive UK prime ministers had rejected Sturgeon’s demands for a second independence referendum. They did so on the not-unreasonable grounds that the SNP had itself said that the 2014 referendum was a ‘once-in-a-generation event’. Party members were consumed by frustration at her failure to ‘move the dial’ on ‘IndyRef2’.
Sturgeon had already taken her case for an advisory referendum on independence to the UK Supreme Court in 2022, only for it to be rejected. Holyrood did not have the power to hold any such plebiscite, advisory or otherwise. Her next ploy was to turn the 2024 UK General Election into a ‘de facto referendum’ on independence. This was constitutional nonsense, as many even in the SNP agreed. Moreover, since the SNP had never actually won an absolute majority of votes in any election, the plan was very likely to fail.
A special conference was then scheduled for March 2023 to set out the SNP’s new approach to independence. Nicola Sturgeon decided to jump ship before it happened, claiming that she no longer had the stamina to lead a party in the ‘brutal’ climate of modern politics.
Exactly why Sturgeon resigned when she did, out of the blue and without any obvious transition planning, still puzzles many in the SNP. By any normal measure, she was at the top of her game, the gender reforms aside. Her personal popularity remained remarkably high after nearly a decade in office. She had no obvious internal rivals and the opposition parties posed no immediate threat.
Some suspected that Operation Branchform – the police investigation into irregularities in party funding and fundraising – had something to do with her dash for the exit. But that doesn’t really make sense. Had Sturgeon known in February that she would soon be arrested along with her husband, the SNP’s then chief executive, Peter Murrell, she would surely not have resigned when she did. Police Scotland would have thought twice about arresting the first minister of Scotland, and they would surely never have erected that now infamous forensics tent outside her official residence, Bute House, in Edinburgh’s West End.
Sturgeon was released without charge in June, as was Murrell back in April, alongside former SNP treasurer Colin Beattie. The investigation into what happened to £600,000 in donations, raised for an independence campaign that never took place, has yet to come to any conclusion. Few have seriously claimed that Nicola Sturgeon is corrupt and she insists she has ‘done nothing wrong’.
Nevertheless, the affair undoubtedly contributed to what Elon Musk fans might have called the ‘rapid, unscheduled disassembly’ of the Scottish National Party in 2023. The leadership election following Sturgeon’s resignation was chaotic. Murrell was forced to resign during the campaign after false membership figures were given to the press. In the end, the ‘continuity candidate’, Humza Yousaf, was elected by the narrowest of margins over the former SNP finance secretary, Kate Forbes. A Christian conservative, Forbes had made no secret of her opposition to Sturgeon’s gender reforms or her scripture-based views on abortion and same-sex marriage.
That Forbes, who had been on maternity leave when the leadership campaign began, came so close to winning shocked those in the party who believed that the SNP is inherently socially progressive or woke. It isn’t – at least if ‘progressive’ has to mean accepting that women can have penises. As in the rest of the UK and Europe, the trans issue has been uniquely damaging to the liberal-left establishment.
Yousaf, Sturgeon’s successor in Bute House, has persevered with the fight to save the gender bill. But he has had so many other crises to handle – not least a vastly overspent Scottish budget – that his heart is clearly not in it.
The SNP’s popularity is on the slide and polls suggest that Labour could win a substantial number of Scottish seats in next year’s UK General Election. No one seriously expects an independence referendum any time soon. The SNP will remain the leading political force in Scotland, but clearly the magic has gone.
Iain Macwhirter is a political commentator and author of Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won A Referendum But Lost Scotland. Visit his Substack here.
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