David Kemp has been a member of the Scottish National party for most of his adult life, but the 85-year-old Glaswegian says the controversies that culminated in the resignation of outgoing first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s husband as SNP chief executive could be the final straw.
The SNP and its cause of Scottish independence have been plunged into crisis since Sturgeon announced last month that she would resign as party leader. The three candidates to succeed her have trashed each other’s record in government and her husband, Peter Murrell, stepped down as chief executive of the party after it was forced to admit it had 30,000 fewer members than claimed.
“I’ve been thinking of resigning for a while to be honest and the only thing holding me back has been loyalty and the desire for Scottish independence,” said Kemp, who was a secretary of Edinburgh university’s Nationalist Club in the 1950s. “I can’t stay in a party that is so dysfunctional.”
The discipline that has been a central feature of the SNP’s time as Scotland’s devolved government since 2007 has now broken down because of disputes over its strategy to overcome a Westminster block on a second independence referendum and other issues, including a controversial attempt to reform gender recognition legislation.
The SNP’s woes mean whoever is elected party leader on March 27 will face a difficult task restoring party unity and revitalising a devolved government under growing criticism after 16 years in office. They could also open the way for a revival of the Scottish Labour party, the once dominant pro-union party that currently holds only one Westminster seat in Scotland.
Gerry Hassan, professor of social policy at Glasgow Caledonian University, said Sturgeon had been able to contain longstanding strains within the SNP that have now been exposed. He added that the party remained more popular than its rivals but its prospects appeared to have peaked.
“This is a long-term crisis . . . a watershed really. Either they continue in gentle decline for a period or they could even fall off the cliff for a bit.”
The loyalty of Kemp and many other SNP members has been tested most recently by Sturgeon’s championing of an unpopular law to make it easier for trans people to gain official recognition of a change of gender.
The bill has been blocked by the UK government and controversy over trans issues was inflamed when a rapist was briefly housed in a woman’s prison after being convicted in January.
But tension had also been building over what critics saw as Sturgeon and Murrell’s overly tight control of the party, a lack of internal democracy and questions about its use of funds raised for a prospective referendum that are the subject of a police investigation.
Some in the party have also been impatient with Sturgeon’s inability to overcome the UK veto on her efforts to hold a second referendum on independence after Scots voted 55-45 per cent to stay in the union in 2014.
Sturgeon’s proposal to use the next UK election as a de facto referendum was opposed by many of her own MPs. The candidates to replace her — health secretary and bookmakers’ favourite Humza Yousaf, finance secretary Kate Forbes and former community safety minister Ash Regan — have all disavowed the plan.
Michael Russell, SNP president and interim chief executive, admitted on Sunday that the party was in a “tremendous mess” and had lost the trust of a significant portion of Scotland’s population.
“What has happened has not been good for the party and it’s not been good for Scotland, and we have to change it,” Russell told the BBC.
Regaining public trust may be complicated by doubts raised about the integrity of the SNP leadership election by Regan. On Monday she called for members who had already cast their ballots to be allowed to change their votes. Russell said this would be “massively disruptive and confusing”.
The party admitted last week that about 72,000 members were eligible to vote in the leadership election, after claiming at the start of the contest that it had close to the 104,000 members it reported at the end of 2021.
The controversies would make it difficult for whoever wins the leadership to secure “real legitimacy and momentum”, especially if their margin of victory was narrow, said Hassan. “They are going to face difficult, rocky times.”
Angus MacNeil, an SNP MP who is a critic of Sturgeon and a Forbes supporter, said that while there would be short-term damage to the party, its popularity would be sustained by the hunger of many Scots to leave the union.
“Support for the SNP is about that desire for independence, rather than belief in the particular brilliance of the SNP,” he said, adding that the internal disagreements showed that “the independence movement is capable of getting its house in order”.
Kemp said he was backing Forbes for leader and might give the party another chance if she won. But the retired television producer said the SNP’s recent “utter shambles” was likely to have badly damaged the party’s central cause.
“I don’t see independence in sight for years. And nobody is more sad than me to say that.”
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