The Guardian view on the SNP leadership: significant for Scotland and beyond

<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

Where the Scottish National party goes after the departure of Nicola Sturgeon matters not just to Scotland but to the whole of Britain. Ms Sturgeon has been an astonishingly successful politician. Under her guidance, the SNP has won eight elections since 2010 and stormed once impregnable Labour bastions. Yet Ms Sturgeon’s success concealed divisions within the party that have burst into view during the leadership race to replace her. If these are not bridged, then Scottish support for independence may fade from the mainstream and dramatically reshape British politics.

Two frontrunners – Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf – are wooing the SNP’s membership. Without a clear path to independence, the party’s leading lights don’t seem to agree on much. Their recent clashes have taken place at a time when constitutional issues have been eclipsed by concerns about the economy and the cost of living. Despite this, at times, the contest appeared consumed by social, moral and ethical issues.

Mr Yousaf, the Scottish health secretary, is heir to Ms Sturgeon’s politics, which cast Scottish nationalism as part of a progressive agenda that includes gender self-identification. Ms Forbes, the SNP finance secretary, is an evangelical Christian with a pro-business agenda who is critical of the outgoing first minister’s record. Her opposition to equal marriage and abortion nearly upended her campaign. The latest poll of members puts Mr Yousaf ahead.

The contest has raised questions about trust, transparency and accountability for the SNP. The party’s electoral dominance has been built on foregrounding the issue of independence, often without answering trickier questions about what a new nation would look like. Historically, Scotland has suffered from poor economic growth, deep pockets of poverty and high inequality. Despite promising public service improvement, SNP policies failed to deliver in many key areas. Clearly, whoever becomes Scotland’s first minister will have to re-energise not just the SNP but the government as well.

Ms Sturgeon has urged the depolarisation of Scottish politics. This may happen because the issue that most divides voters – independence – is losing its salience. The Lib Dems and Labour rightly spy an opportunity if constitutional questions, upon which the SNP vote rests, become less relevant. The pollster James Kanagasooriam thinks that if an election was held today, Labour would gain 11 MPs. The stakes could not be higher for the incoming leader. A continued slide in poll ratings opens the door to a Labour government in Westminster that could marginalise the SNP. The penny is dropping for the party. Scotland has the highest rate of drug deaths in Europe and lengthy NHS waiting lists. Last year, academics from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health warned that poorer communities are being submerged “by a rising tide of poverty”. Mr Yousaf and Ms Forbes said that, if elected, they would want to be judged on their efforts to help the poor.

The party’s leadership is divided over how to pursue independence. Its options are limited. Downing Street has refused to allow a second referendum and the supreme court blocked attempts by Holyrood to hold a vote on its own. Both Ms Forbes and Mr Yousaf want to achieve independence, but disagree on the means to achieve it. Mr Yousaf sees the current electoral configuration, and coalition with the Greens, as the right vehicle, whereas Ms Forbes would realign the SNP away from the progressive voters they currently have. Whether the new leader, to be unveiled on Monday, can call a truce will depend on whether there is a shared vision that SNP supporters can unite behind. Scotland remains split between determined nationalists and determined unionists. Resolving those tensions will require a surer touch than any politician has so far displayed.