After Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation last month as head of the Scottish National Party and, by extension, as the First Minister of the Scottish government, both party and country are now in need of a new leader. The race to replace her has been whittled down to three candidates: Scotland’s health secretary Humza Yousaf, finance secretary Kate Forbes, and former junior minister Ash Regan.
Although Sturgeon remained relatively popular throughout her eight-year tenure, the race to succeed her has exposed deep divisions within the nationalist party. This extends to matters as central to the SNP as Scottish independence and how best to achieve it, to more contentious matters such as Scotland’s efforts to make it easier for people to legally change their gender—reforms that were ultimately blocked by the British government in Westminster.
Perhaps the most important test facing whoever succeeds Sturgeon is how well, and how quickly, they can bring the party together. “It’s not been pleasant,” Ian Blackford, the SNP’s former Westminster leader, tells TIME of the campaign (the last leadership contest was held in 2004; Sturgeon ran unopposed for the post in 2014). As a party devoted above all to the cause of Scottish independence from the U.K., its membership has always consisted of an ideologically broad church. “Of course you’re going to get a degree of tension,” adds Blackford.
Forbes is the favorite of the wider Scottish electorate, according to recent polls, claiming an average of 30% of support compared to 20% for Yousaf and 10% for Regan. But it isn’t the Scottish electorate that will decide the outcome of this race. That choice falls to the SNP’s members, the size of which has seen a dramatic drop in recent years, from its peak of 125,000 in 2019 to just 72,000 today. Among this “selectorate” of voters, which skews older and more male than the general population, the picture is a bit murkier. There has been just one, limited poll of SNP members to date, which put Yousaf in the lead with 31% of the vote, well ahead of Forbes (25%) and Regan (11%).
The outcome of the contest will be announced on March 27.
John Curtice, a polling expert and professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, says that among SNP voters—a much broader swath of the public than card-carrying SNP members—Forbes and Yousaf are seemingly neck and neck. “The honest truth at the end of the day is that none of us knows what is going to happen,” he adds.
Below, here’s everything you need to know about the candidates, and what their victory could mean for Scotland and the independence movement.
Humza Yousaf: The continuity candidate
Sturgeon has not declared a preference in the race to succeed her, but if she did, it’s widely assumed it would be Yousaf. In addition to being the most experienced of the three candidates (he was first elected in 2011, at the time becoming Holyrood’s youngest parliamentarian), the 37-year-old Glaswegian has also secured the backing of most of the SNP leadership, including Sturgeon’s deputy John Swinney, SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, and party grandees such as Blackford.
To his supporters, Yousaf is a sharp communicator and the candidate best placed to continue the SNP’s electoral trajectory, particularly when it comes to matters of social justice such as the gender recognition reforms. But his detractors say that his track record in government has been poor, noting in particular his tenure as health secretary at a time when the country’s health service is experiencing record hospital waiting times.
“He’s very much the continuity candidate,” says Nicola McEwen, a professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh. “The downside of that for him is that he would be continuing with policy and government, but he’s not Nicola Sturgeon. The opposition don’t think he’s anything anywhere close to the gravitas and authority of Nicola Sturgeon.”
On this, Yousaf’s backers agree. “He’s very different from Nicola,” says Blackford, in terms of both personality and leadership style. Whereas Sturgeon was known for working with a tight-knit team, Yousaf is expected to operate a bigger tent with more delegation. “He’ll be a fresh face,” Blackford adds. “I think people are going to be surprised by what he will do.”
On perhaps the most salient issue—Scottish independence—Yousaf appears to be more of a gradualist. Having distanced himself from Sturgeon’s plan to treat the next election as a de facto referendum, he has instead pledged to work toward building a “consistent majority” for independence, support for which currently stands at 46%, according to recent polling. A prior referendum in 2014 under former SNP leader Alex Salmond saw 55% of voters reject independence.
As a son of South Asian immigrants from Pakistan and Kenya, Yousaf has already made history as Scotland’s first non-white and Muslim cabinet minister. His victory in this race would be no less historic, making him not only the first ethnic minority leader of Scotland but the first Muslim leader of a major U.K. party.
Kate Forbes: The change candidate
When Sturgeon announced her resignation last month, Forbes was tipped as a leading contender to replace her. A rising star in the party, the 32-year-old former accountant and Gaelic-speaking Highlander was Scotland’s youngest-ever finance secretary. Should she succeed Sturgeon, she’ll become the country’s youngest-ever First Minister, too.
Early support for her campaign waned after revelations that Forbes, an evangelical Christian, would not have supported same-sex marriage had she been a parliamentarian when the vote was held in 2014. Her religious beliefs notwithstanding, Forbes has pledged to “protect the rights of everybody in Scotland, particularly minorities, to live and to love without fear or harassment in a pluralistic and tolerant society,” including by upholding the laws “that have been hard won.” What is less clear is whether she would advance them. On the gender recognition reforms, Forbes has said that she would not have voted for the legislation in its current form (as she was on maternity leave at the time, she didn’t cast a ballot either way).
Forbes has largely presented herself as the change candidate of the three contenders, arguing “continuity won’t cut it” and that the party needs a reset. In addition to focusing her leadership bid on the economy and eradicating poverty, Forbes has also called for a more gradual approach to Scottish independence, noting that she would prioritize convincing those opposed to leaving the U.K. through “gentle persuasion” before she sets any deadlines.
But Forbes and her fellow leadership contenders may find it difficult to change too much. The SNP government is in theory bound by the progressive manifesto it was elected on in 2021. “They will have a responsibility to be there and serve that manifesto,” McEwan says. That includes a commitment to secure independence, which all three candidates are at least agreed on, if not in process then at least in practice.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Forbes would face as First Minister is keeping her party together. If she were to win, “She would find herself in the situation of not having had the backing of most of her ministerial colleagues,” McEwen says. “That would be an added pressure.”
Ash Regan: The rank outsider
Despite having been a government minister for four years before she resigned last year over her opposition to the Scottish government’s gender recognition reforms, Regan is the least-known of the three contenders.
Despite being considered a long-shot, the 49-year-old representative for Edinburgh Eastern insists that she is in the contest “to win it,” and has distinguished her campaign most notably through her bullish stance on independence. Rather than try to negotiate with Westminster to hold another referendum, Regan has argued instead for using a “voter empowerment mechanism,” which would treat all future elections as de facto referendums in all but name. Under her plan, any contest that results in a majority for pro-independence parties (including the former SNP leader Salmond’s Alba Party and the Greens) would be considered a mandate to trigger negotiations to leave the U.K. This proposal has been roundly criticized by many SNP lawmakers as unworkable.
Like Forbes, Regan has said that she would not seek to challenge Westminster over its vetoing of the gender recognition reforms, which she opposed on the grounds that it would have “negative implications for the safety and dignity of women and girls.” She has since advocated for appointing a citizens’ assembly on the matter.
“She is definitely seen as the least strong and the least experienced and the least effective of the three,” McEwen says. But support for Regan could still prove to be significant in the contest’s outcome. Under the party’s preferential voting system, SNP members will be instructed to rank their preferred candidates in order of one to three. If no candidate gets at least 50% of the vote outright, then the candidate with the lowest percentage will be eliminated and their second preference votes will be redistributed to the final two standing. The expectation is that her voters are more likely to support Forbes over Yousaf.
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