It’s 2014. The Glasgow Commonwealth Games have just finished. The independence movement is reeling from its narrow defeat in the referendum, yet support for the Scottish National Party has never been so high.
By the end of the year, Nicola Sturgeon had become First Minister. Her acceptance speech in the Scottish Parliament was all optimism and humility, buoyed by the belief that the referendum defeat was a setback, nothing more. Sturgeon thanked her predecessor, Alex Salmond, sitting in the backbenches, paid tribute to her husband, Peter Murrell, and pledged to serve the people of Scotland to the best of her ability.
Move to today. The former First Minister has a predecessor who has been exposed to numerous sexual assault allegations and a husband who broke election finance rules by loaning a large sum of money to their own party. She was also having to cope with falling support for both the SNP and independence, a party intent on rebelling against her, a health service with the longest ambulance waiting times in history, teachers striking, and the highest recorded numbers of homeless people. Scotland appeared to be failing at every level, and it all happened under Sturgeon’s watch. Many were beginning to question how much longer the electorate would put up with this. Or more pointedly, her.
YouGov polling has shown a six-point fall in SNP support on the constituency vote and a four-point drop on the list vote. Backing for independence has also taken a hit, dropping seven points to just 40 per cent, well down on the halcyon days just last year when there were six polls in a row showing a majority in favour of ending the Union.
Diminishing approval ratings also hit Nicola Sturgeon personally, with her own popularity dropping from +7 in October to -4 now: a level not seen since 2018. At the same time, she was also being forced to contend with a party becoming ever more rebellious. In Westminster, Stephen Flynn recently became the new SNP leader in the House of Commons, defeating close Sturgeon ally Alison Thewliss. This has revealed how uncomfortable and publicly damaging rivalries in the SNP have become with the former First Minister’s favourite failing to succeed.
The generational and political divide between Flynn and Sturgeon is also stark. Flynn, 34, has already openly disagreed with Sturgeon, who is 52, on the Cambo oil fields, which could provide significant employment opportunities for Mr Flynn’s own constituents in Aberdeen South. Compared to his predecessor, Ian Blackford, who often remained quietly loyal to the former First Minister, this public distance between the two-party figureheads is a clear reminder of Sturgeon’s increasingly tenuous position.
New factions were also making their moves in waves against the former First Minister’s authority. Government minister Ash Regan resigned after disagreements over key amendments included in the Gender Reform Bill, plus eight other SNP MSPs rebelled against the whip in the final stage of the Bill.
The Bute House Agreement, which gives the SNP government a majority with the Scottish Green party, had also not helped the former First Minister’s position. There has never been a party in the Scottish Government with so much power over policy but with so little political representation. This has led to tensions within the government as legislation pushed by the Scottish Greens, such as the deposit return scheme, has proved hugely unpopular with members of Sturgeon’s own party.
If we look back to 2014, those now seen as potential successors to Sturgeon’s job were not even in the Scottish Parliament. One favourite, Kate Forbes, was still two years away from becoming an MSP. Angus Robertson, the current bookies’ favourite, was in the House of Commons. But one thing is certain; whoever replaces Sturgeon will have to revive a party and independence movement, both of which are seeing support dwindling by the day.
Image: “Nicola Sturgeon chairs first Forum meeting as First Minister” by Scottish Government is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.