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Nicola Sturgeonâ€™s position is safe â€“ for now.Â
A tumultuous week in the long-running feud with her predecessor as Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, has left Sturgeon more secure in her job. Yet splits in the movement for Scottish independence remain, and crucial Scottish elections could still determine whether the cause founders.
On Monday, Scotlandâ€™s First Minister wasÂ clearedÂ by independent investigator James Hamilton of breaching the countryâ€™s ministerial code following her governmentâ€™s botched handling of sexual harassment allegations leveled against Salmond in 2018.
Twenty-four hours later, a separate investigation, conducted by a committee of Scottish parliamentarians, found that Sturgeon did potentially break the ministerial code â€“ although its findings were dismissed by the Scottish government as partisan and incomplete.
SturgeonÂ then survivedÂ a vote of no confidence brought by Conservative MSPs in the Holyrood chamber, Scotlandâ€™s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh.Â
Sturgeon leads the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), and, while Salmond looks set to keep making noise â€”Â he said he would take the Scottish government to court again on Wednesday â€” senior nationalists are elated with the Hamilton ruling. They acknowledge that, had the verdict been different, Sturgeon would have been forced to resign.Â
â€œWeâ€™d gamed it on the basis of what the various outcomes might be,â€ one high-ranking party official said. â€œThis was at the top end of what we expected.â€
Yet the fallout from the Salmond affair may not end here.Â More than two years of bitter infighting between the pair â€“ historically Scottish nationalismâ€™s two most dominant figureheads â€“ have exposed sharp divisions in the independence movement.Â
Anger over Sturgeonâ€™s strategy for securing a second independence referendum, her bunkered approach to policy-making and her centrist economic platform isÂ visible among a once tightly unified nationalist base.
These tensions are heightened by the fact that the country is only weeks away from a pivotal national election that could determine whether or not Scots get to vote again on their independence from the U.K.Â
The margins are agonizingly tight. SurveysÂ suggest the SNPÂ is either on course for an outright victory on 6 May â€” or could fall just short of winning an absolute majority of Holyrood seats.
The first result would bolster Sturgeonâ€™s political authority and ratchet up pressure on U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grant Scotland a second referendum. Yet the latter could drain momentum from nationalist politics and further unsettle the SNP internally.Â
At the heart of the Salmond controversy lies the former first ministerâ€™s insistence that a close-knit team at the top of the Scottish governmentÂ conspiredÂ against him after the accusations of sexual misconduct first came to light. Sturgeon denies this claim and, for the most part, SNP voters agree with her.
In February, aÂ pollÂ conducted by YouGov found that 49 per cent of Scots who support the SNP believe Sturgeonâ€™s version of events, compared to just 13 per cent who donâ€™t.Â
Those numbers were almost exactly reversed for Salmond.Â Likewise, according to party insiders, no more than a fifth of the SNPâ€™s 100,000 plus members subscribe to Salmondâ€™s belief that Sturgeon sought to â€œdriveâ€ him from Scottish public life.
But the Salmond-Sturgeon rift has mapped on to broader ideological fault lines.Â
Fundamentalists vs. gradualists
Traditionally, the most enduring political divide within the SNP has been between nationalist â€˜fundamentalistsâ€™ â€“Â those who believe independence should be the partyâ€™s sole campaigning focus â€“ and â€˜gradualistsâ€™ â€“ those who believe independence will only be won after a long march through the U.K.â€™s devolved institutions.
Sturgeon is an arch-gradualist.Â She wants any future independence vote to be legally and democratically water-tight from both a domestic and international perspective.Â
That means securing a clear political agreement with Johnson in advance of a new vote and building strong â€˜para-diplomaticâ€™ ties to the EU and Washington.Â
Westminster MPs such as Joanna Cherry, Angus Brendan MacNeil, and Kenny MacAskill, however, are not convinced that Johnson will agree to a second independence poll and want the SNP to pursue more adversarial routes to Scottish self-government, including by testing the legality of a non-sanctioned referendum in court.
â€œUnderpinning all the discontent has been a growing despair at the failure of SNP HQ to prepare for Indyref2,â€ MacAskill, who served as justice secretary in Salmondâ€™s cabinet,Â wroteÂ in September 2020.Â
The failure to develop a so-called â€˜Plan Bâ€™ for independence was â€œnot just negligent but criminal,â€ he argued.
Despite the fact that Salmond himself shares Sturgeonâ€™s gradualist instincts, the fundamentalist wing of the party has grown close to the ex-SNP leader over the course of his stand-off with Sturgeon.
Since 2018, it has also seized on other contentious political issues â€” including, notably, transgender rights and theÂ reform of Scotlandâ€™s gender recognition lawsÂ â€” as a way of amplifying internal opposition to her leadership.Â
Alyn Smith, the SNP MP for Stirling and a strong Sturgeon ally, sees this grouping as a â€œTrumpianâ€ faction inside the party determined to dislodge the current leadership structure, even if it means undermining the wider credibility of the nationalist movement.Â
â€œItâ€™s legitimate to ask questions but when the questions are answered, move on,â€ Smith told POLITICO. â€œThe â€˜Plan Bâ€™ stuff was never about â€˜Plan Bâ€™, and itâ€™s the same with the gender recognition stuff.Â They were cyphers [to get at Sturgeon].â€
Another major fissure within the SNP is Sturgeonâ€™s perceived lack of economic radicalism.
In 2016, Sturgeon appointed Andrew Wilson, a corporate lobbyist and former PR man for the Scottish financial sector, to draw up a new economic blueprint for independence.
Wilsonâ€™s â€˜Sustainable Growth Commissionâ€™Â reportÂ was published two years later.Â The Growth CommissionÂ recommendedÂ a decade of spending constraints after a â€˜Yesâ€™ vote for independence. It argued that Scotland should continue using Britainâ€™s pound sterling in the absence of a formal currency union with London, and instead of establishing a separate Scottish central bank and currency.
These proposals provoked fury among activists on the nationalist left â€” including those associated with the SNP Common Weal Group (CWG), an influential internal party faction that believes Wilsonâ€™s plan would impose severe constraints on Scotlandâ€™s economic sovereignty.
Rory Steel is the National Secretary of the CWG and a Glasgow-based SNP member. He views Sturgeonâ€™s decision to outsource the partyâ€™s economic policy as indicative of her technocratic leadership style. And he highlights what her regards as a reluctance among party chiefs to engage with basic rank-and-file demands.
â€œEven people who you would call Sturgeon loyalists, when you speak to them privately, are critical of the way party is governed,â€ Steel said. â€œAll the internal democratic mechanisms are completely shut off.â€
The COVID effect
Yet, even after the bruising and divisive experience of the Salmond affair, the bulk of the SNP remains committed to Sturgeon and the ultra-cautious direction she has taken the party in.Â
This culture of loyalty encompasses both the MSPs group at Holyrood â€“ Sturgeonâ€™s de-facto power base â€“ and the MPs group at Westminster.
The partyâ€™s leader in the UK parliament, Ian Blackford, is a staunch Sturgeon supporter, as is Scotlandâ€™s deputy first minister John Swinney and the SNPâ€™s deputy leader Keith Brown.
Most SNP activists see the first minister as a hugely effective political leader who has presided over a period of unprecedented electoral success for Scottish nationalism and who is slowly but surely coaxing the country towards the U.K. exit door, said Mhairi Hunter, a Glasgow city councillor who has known Sturgeon since the 1990s.
Hunter attributes at least some of the simmering frustration among competing nationalist groups to the claustrophobic impact of the COVID crisis, which has made it impossible for SNP members to push the case for independence on the doorsteps.Â
â€œYou canâ€™t understand whatâ€™s been going without taking into account the past year of political inaction,â€ she said. â€œIt has had a weird effect in terms of party activity, because there hasnâ€™t been any.â€
Sturgeon will likely hold the confidence of the SNP base for as long as she keeps winning elections and pressing Westminster for another independence referendum.
The relentless stress and pressure of the Salmond feud is now â€“ largely â€“ in the rearview mirror, but the May election is a short distance down the road.
â€œIf you want to remove me from office as first minister, do it in an election,â€ SturgeonÂ toldÂ opposition politicians in the Holyrood parliament Tuesday afternoon.
As the last 14 years of Scottish nationalist dominance have shown, that may be easier said than done.Â
Sturgeon loyalists â€”Â Opposition to Nicola Sturgeon within theÂ SNPÂ is diffuse but shallow. The majority of party members and office bearers support Sturgeon, share her vision of Scotland as a liberal, independent nation-state inside the EU, and think the first minister has governed Scotland competently throughout her six-and-a-half years at the head of the Holyrood parliament. Having been cleared of breaking the ministerial code by James Hamilton, the future of Sturgeonâ€™s leadership rests on whether Sturgeon continues to be an election winner â€” and the perception, among rank-and-file nationalists, that Scotland is making progress towards independence.
Constitutional fundamentalists â€”Â High profile â€˜fundamentalistsâ€™ within theÂ SNPÂ include senior MPs like Joanna Cherry and Kenny MacAskill. They want Sturgeon to set out a roadmap to independence that doesnâ€™t rely on the largesse of Boris Johnsonâ€™s Conservative government in London. Of all Sturgeonâ€™s internal critics, they are most likely to have sided with Salmond during the inquiry process. Some Sturgeon supporters have privately mooted kicking hardline fundamentalists out of theÂ SNPÂ â€” a proposal rejected by Sturgeonâ€™s team.
Left nationalists â€”Â TheÂ SNPÂ has traditionally cast itself as a social democratic party. Under the leadership both of Salmond and Sturgeon, however, it has pursued a staunchly centrist economic strategy. The left of the party is centred around the influential ex-MP George Kerevan and theÂ SNPÂ Common Weal Group (CWG), an internal party faction. They argue Sturgeon has failed to live up to her early social democratic promise and has grown far too close to private sector interests. Left nationalists are critical of Sturgeonâ€™s leadership, but not necessarily aligned with Salmond.