LONDON — Divided parties don’t win elections, or so the saying goes. The Scottish National Party may soon have to put that one to the test.
The brightest lights of Scotland’s dominant pro-independence party have been tearing chunks out of each other in a deeply acrimonious leadership contest to replace leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who resigned after eight years at the helm in February.
TV debates this week have seen the contest reach boiling point, and there are fears it may be hard to let bygones be bygones when it’s all over.
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes — who has bounced back from a torrid first week to remain a serious contender — is pitching herself as the change candidate. And that means heaping scorn on Sturgeon’s government, as well as the competence of her main contender Humza Yousaf.
“When you were transport minister, the trains were never on time,” she said Tuesday night, in a highly-charged attack mixing the personal and the political. “When you were justice minister, the police were strained to breaking point. And now, as health minister, we’ve got record-high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?”
In the latest clash Thursday night, Forbes somewhat toned down her attacks, but Yousaf warned she had “handed our opponents materials and ammunition.”
“They don’t fear you, Kate — they are rooting for you to win,” he said.
Such public battles are a far cry from the days when Sturgeon could confidently describe the SNP as the “most united of all the parties in Scotland.”
For her part, the outgoing first minister claimed she hadn’t watched the debate. But at first minister’s questions in the Scottish parliament Thursday, she made a point of specifically defending her government’s record on health — Yousaf’s brief.
One SNP MP backing Yousaf said they believe Forbes’ direct criticisms of the Scottish government could hurt the party’s prospects in the long term.
“It’s deeply unfortunate some candidates seem to forget that it’s the record of this SNP government, and our hard-working activists who have promoted this, that got them elected when they are trashing it,” the MP said.
“I don’t think it’s too much to expect [the candidates] to seek to avoid damaging the party,” they added.
Those hard-working activists didn’t take too kindly to proceedings either. “What the actual f*** is a serving cabinet secretary doing using opposition hit lines against a colleague?” the prominent SNP campaigner Mhairi Hunter tweeted in the wake of Forbes’ barbs.
The deep acrimony of the contest has been so notable because the SNP has long had a reputation as a tightly run ship where divisions are worked out behind closed doors.
Some of the differences within the party have moved into the light over the last 12 months, as Sturgeon faced widespread internal opposition to her strategy for gaining Scottish independence and — to a lesser degree — her government’s gender reforms.
But it’s the first time the SNP has had to undergo the highly-public feuding of a leadership contest in the era of social media and after a long spell in power, with the last proper battle for the top job coming in 2004.
“How this has been presented, as a civil war, as a battle, is probably simply a reflection of the fact the SNP doesn’t do these leadership contests very often,” the SNP’s former head of communications Fergus Mutch said. He argued that divisions have been over-egged by activists and commentators.
“There’ll be some challenges in bringing the party back together, but generally speaking I think it’s doable,” Mutch added.
The candidates aren’t sounding quite as sure, and uniting the party post-leadership contest looks like a difficult task for whoever becomes the new leader.
Reflecting how the party’s top brass feel about the tone of Forbes’ attacks, one of Sturgeon’s key allies criticized the finance secretary in an interview with the Daily Record newspaper.
Shona Robison, who, like most of Sturgeon’s top team, is backing Yousaf, said the tone of Forbes’ broadsides “does not sit well with SNP members.” And she called for “full transparency” on candidates’ views on abortion — a not-so-subtle way of bringing back to the fore Forbes’ socially conservative views, which derailed her first week as a candidate.
Robison also made clear she would have to think carefully about whether she would serve in a government led by Forbes.
The Sturgeon factor
Though Sturgeon herself is unlikely to publicly declare a favorite, the backing of most of her key team and allies has cemented Yousaf’s position as the frontrunner among members who still — mostly — adore their departing leader.
“Judging from our polling of SNP members just after the U.K. general election, they were huge Sturgeon fans — although their enthusiasm probably did wane a little after that,” Queen Mary University Professor Tim Bale said.
The opposition Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Labour party in particular have been delighted by the primetime TV attacks on the Scottish government’s record.
Opinion polling since the turn of the year generally shows that Labour — once dominant in Scotland before being routed by the SNP — is closing the gap. A Redfield and Wilton poll had the SNP polling below 30 percent for the first time since 2014.
“Even though we’re still in the lead, [the polling] should give candidates and members pause for thought on the manner with which they engage in this contest,” another SNP MP said. “If there’s one thing people don’t like, it’s parties that don’t appear to be united.”
“It’s a balance,” said Bale. “Desperately pretending everything’s hunky-dory when it quite clearly, it isn’t is frankly laughable. But whacking great lumps out of each other risks making you look incapable of getting your act together and getting anything concrete done.”