Scotland's next First Minister: Contest gives SNP chance for a reset on gender bill, 'de facto' referendum, and its deal with Greens – Ian Swanson

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SNP could change course on controversial issues

Everyone got used to the revolving door in Downing Street last year with its succession of prime ministerial departures and arrivals. Amid the chaotic state of British politics under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, Bute House and Nicola Sturgeon were a model of calm, sense and stability.

But now, after eight years as Scotland’s First Minster, Ms Sturgeon has announced she is stepping down and it’s Scotland’s turn to seek a new leader. Ms Sturgeon was Scotland's fifth First Minister, the longest-serving and the first to bow out in this way. Donald Dewar tragically died after less than 18 months in office; Henry McLeish was forced to quit after just a year, over what soon came to be recognised as a trivial scandal; Jack McConnell served for five-and-a-half years before being defeated in the 2007 election; and Alex Salmond completed seven before losing the 2014 independence referendum.

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Ms Sturgeon has no obvious successor and as leading figures launch their campaigns or rule themselves out, the outcome of the leadership contest remains uncertain. But there is no doubt about the era-changing nature of her departure.

Nicola Sturgeon shocked everyone with her resignation, which she announced at Bute House last Wednesday (Picture: Jane Batlow/PA)Nicola Sturgeon shocked everyone with her resignation, which she announced at Bute House last Wednesday (Picture: Jane Batlow/PA)
Nicola Sturgeon shocked everyone with her resignation, which she announced at Bute House last Wednesday (Picture: Jane Batlow/PA)

None of the contenders are anywhere near as well known as she is and will need time to establish themselves. And the leadership election gives the SNP and the government the chance for a reset, an opportunity to re-examine key issues which have become controversial under Ms Sturgeon’s watch.

The gender reform debate did not end with the passing of the Bill making it easier for trans people to get a gender recognition certificate; instead, the UK Government's vetoing of the legislation escalated it into a constitutional showdown. But with a majority of the public and a large chunk of SNP supporters opposed to a legal challenge of the veto, the new First Minister could decide to seek some kind of compromise rather than press ahead with a court case.

The plan to make the next general election a de facto referendum on independence could also be dropped. It too has been criticised within the party and Ms Sturgeon herself acknowledged the opposition to it, saying in her resignation speech that she wanted to "free" the party to decide the matter without her influence.

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Both issues are likely to feature prominently in the campaigns of the leadership candidates and the result of the contest should help to settle which path the party takes on them. In turn, the policy direction followed by the new First Minister could affect the SNP’s deal with the Greens, either confirming or potentially scuppering the agreement which gave the Greens ministerial posts for the first time.

So who are SNP members likely to pick as the new party leader and First Minister? The last contested succession in 2004, when Alex Salmond returned to the helm with Ms Sturgeon as deputy, took place in very different circumstances.

The SNP was in opposition and yet to taste power for the first time; the Salmond-Sturgeon ticket was sure to win; and it was long before the independence referendum, when party membership was about a quarter of its current 100,000. That influx of new members, who have never helped choose a leader, adds to the difficulty of predicting the result of what promises to be a fascinating race.

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