NICOLA Sturgeon’s successor will require to conduct a “painful clear out” of failing ministers, according to Scotland’s leading academic authority on the SNP.

Professor James Mitchell, of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Edinburgh University, said the sackings would be met with “strong resistance” and would do “nothing to heal the inherited deep divisions” but were needed to restore the party’s reputation for competence.

He gave a withering judgement on both the state of the outgoing First Minister's government and the party under her leadership as its fractious contest to elect her successor draws to a close with the new leader announced at Murrayfield Stadium on Monday afternoon.

"The party is in real danger of losing its hard fought reputation for competence. Across a range of devolved subjects, its performance has been poor," he told The Herald.


"Recent figures on child poverty, its record on drug deaths, its scandalous mishandling of ferries, far from impressive records in education and health, [and its] centralisation [agenda] mean that whoever wins will need to adopt a very different approach to government and policy making. 

"That will require a clear out of many associated with these failures but that will be painful, meet strong resistance and do nothing to heal the inherited deep divisions."

Finance secretary Kate Forbes, health secretary Humza Yousaf and former community safety minister Ash Regan are vying to succeed Ms Sturgeon who announced her resignation last month after more than eight years as SNP leader and First Minister.

The contest has been bitter with the candidates fiercely criticising rivals’ records and rows erupting over transparency and party governance.

The Herald:

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stands on the steps of Bute House with her new cabinet on May 19, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Photo Getty.

Peter Murrell, Ms Sturgeon’s husband and the SNP’s long-serving chief executive, resigned last Saturday after the party was forced to admit it had 30,000 fewer members than claimed at the start of the race. His departure followed that of Murray Foote, the party's head of communications in Holyrood, the previous evening.

And earlier that day Ms Sturgeon's closest aide Liz Lloyd announced she would be leaving government after Ms Regan raised concerns about her involvement in Mr Yousaf's campaign with the head of the civil service.

Professor Mitchell said the “the egregious” nature of some of the attacks on candidates made from within the party was a reflection of the SNP’s “very poor health”and that the condition had come about despite Ms Sturgeon inheriting the party in better shape than any of her predecessors.

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He said that under her tenure as First Minister there had been “a lack of progress on tackling Scottish economic and social problems” while an advance on the party’s key goal of independence had not been made.

The senior academic blamed the flaring of internal “resentments” during the contest on Ms Sturgeon’s failure to provide an outlet in the party for proper internal debate. He said whoever becomes leader will have to find an alternative way of governing.

“Leadership contests tell much about the health of a party as they allow for an open debate on policies and strategy. This contest has shown that the SNP is in very poor health,” Professor Mitchell said.

“Nicola Sturgeon inherited a party in a healthier state than any previous SNP leader.  The SNP had seen independence support rise from around 30 per cent to 45 per cent, an unprecedented growth in its history its membership was soaring, the party and wider movement was united, and with a reputation for competence across all devolved areas.

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"The new leader inherits a very different situation, far greater challenges and without the goodwill that existed not only inside the party but well beyond the SNP.”

He added: “Pressures have been building up under the surface of the SNP for some years. The lack of an outlet for concerns without fear of being vilified turned these concerns into grievances then resentments.

"Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of her departure finally created an outlet but manifested bitterly on lack of progress on tackling Scottish economic and social problems and in failing to advance its constitutional objective.

“These grievances have been aired very publicly during this election, not only by the candidates but across the party, in the most egregious, at times absurd and personal terms. These have been gifts that kept on giving for the SNP’s opponents and we can be sure we will be repeatedly reminded of attacks from within the SNP of whoever wins from now until the next Holyrood elections.

“The SNP has made no progress on independence – public opinion remains much as it was in 2014. The party failed to confront and address weaknesses exposed during the referendum but instead carried on in campaign mode as if the referendum had never ended.

"Coherent and convincing answers commanding at least a consensus in the SNP and wider pro-independence movement on currency, Scotland’s fiscal position, an economic model that will deliver sustainable growth, pensions, relations with the rest of UK and Europe have not been found – nor, indeed, sought.”

Ms Sturgeon has sought to portray her party as in robust health as she steps down as leader blaming the heated rows and party divisions evident in the contest on “growing pains”.

She has also repeatedly stressed that the SNP won eight elections with her at the helm.

Asked by The Herald about her election wins and whether these could be regarded as a measure of her success, Professor Mitchell said: “The SNP has won elections for one simple reason, support for independence had risen under her predecessor to 45 per cent and became the key factor in voting behaviour by 2014. 

“The SNP’s position as Scotland’s largest party was secure so long as those supporting independence voted SNP and voters opposed were divided between Labour, Tories, Liberal Democrats.”

He added: "The SNP can’t advance its cause until and unless it faces some harsh truths.  A large part of its problem is that it is better at attacking uncomfortable analyses than addressing exposed weaknesses."

Meanwhile, the First Minister yesterday opened a £33 million orthopaedics facility at Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy, Fife,  in what is likely to be her last engagement in office.

Campaigning in the contest continues over the weekend with the ballot of the party's 72,000 members closing at midday on Monday.

The SNP was approached for comment.