THE race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland has begun and already there are signs that it will become a deeply unpleasant one. It was never destined to be anything else. This has been a legacy of her eight years as First Minister.

Late on Saturday night, the Health Secretary Humza Yousaf announced his candidacy and expressed the hope that the leadership contest would be characterised by decency. He said he wanted the contest to be “a positive debate conducted with honesty, passion and rigour about the best direction for our country, party and movement.” Those virtues may have already slipped anchor.

In the course of the last few years the SNP has been a pitiless realm where to be on the wrong side of the First Minister’s identity war is to invite not just criticism, but threat and intimidation, especially if you are a woman.

Kevin McKenna at Large: My afternoon drinking with Nicola Sturgeon

I don’t doubt Mr Yousaf’s sincerity, though. In all the fear and loathing that has come to characterise the professional SNP he has largely conducted himself with decorum and avoided the nasty stuff that pours forth from some of his colleagues.

The First Minister’s resignation last week was greeted in some quarters with a level of gushing sentimentality that made you wonder if she’d won a Nobel prize in her spare time, or carried stretchers in a war zone. Commentators and politicians tumbled over each other to convey the impression that she was a towering stateswoman who had left the country in far better fettle than she’d found it. In many respects though, the opposite has been the case.

In her eight years at Bute House, Ms Sturgeon’s administrations have failed dismally to improve the lives of Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities. If you live in one of these neighbourhoods you are still likely to encounter such a degree of health and educational inequality that your chances of living a full and rewarding life much beyond your 50th birthday are profoundly restricted.

If though, you belong to the sprawling and swollen caste of professional and managerial opportunists who gather around Holyrood and suck from its teat then you will indeed have cause to mourn her decision to step down.

During this time too, large parts of Scotland have been gift-wrapped to slake the predations of global business and energy, not least the absurdly cut-price fire-sale of seabed plots for offshore wind projects around the coast of Scotland for £700m.

Such has been the SNP’s unchallenged hegemony during this time that the First Minister’s office has been reinforced by powers of civic patronage last enjoyed by Roman emperors. If you’re responsible for a charitable organisation or seek a rewarding career in the public sector, it helps if your pronouns are in order and that you sport the correct colour of ribbons.

The post-apocalyptic horror, A Quiet Place, portrays a family’s struggle for survival in a realm inhabited by blind monsters with an acute sense of hearing. A version of this plot is currently playing out across civic Scotland. If you desire to go about your business unmolested by the sentinels of state authority then you must learn to be silent as you go about your business.

Kevin McKenna's Diary: I love a party with a happy atmosphere

This reality has been evident in many conversations I’ve had with people –mainly women – who hold influential positions in the agencies of the state. At some point I’ll be told “Don’t quote me on this, but …”, followed by their concerns about some aspects of the GRR legislation. To be condemned as a transphobe now carries the same risks that women in the 18th century faced from self-appointed witch-finders.

That many of these feminists had faced down discrimination on the basis of their sex or sexuality and paved the way for progressive laws in this area doesn’t matter now. They all back transgender reforms, but not at the expense of the protections for which they’d fought throughout their lives.

Critics of Scottish nationalism often falsely portray the debate about self-determination as nasty and divisive, knowing full well there’s no evidence to support this. Yet part of Ms Sturgeon’s legacy are chronic divisions in the party she leads that have knocked back the cause of independence by several years.

At the weekend, the SNP’s deputy Westminster leader, Mhairi Black declared: “Any attempt to move to the right would destroy the main motivation for many activists out chapping doors. Take that reason away and you’ll very quickly find no one under the age of 35 willing to deliver your leaflets.” It was a crude dog-whistle aimed at damaging the leadership candidacy of Ash Regan and Kate Forbes, if she chooses to stand.

Ms Black must know that many people – young and old – have already deserted the party because of the toxic atmosphere she has helped to foster. This has been evident in the dramatic drop in support for independence following the Scottish Government’s mishandling around men, including rapists, being placed in a women’s prison. 

And besides, it’s reasonable to conclude that Ms Regan and Ms Forbes each have better leadership credentials than those of the men being touted for the job. They’ve both previously demonstrated competence and efficiency in the ministerial positions that they’ve held.

Ms Forbes, the Finance Secretary, is regarded throughout Scottish and UK politics as the brightest Scottish politician of her generation. Yet opposition to her as leader has focused on her Christian faith. In Scotland, we’re fond of disparaging the Act of Settlement which debars Catholics from ascending to the British throne. Yet, according to Marco Biagi, an SNP backwoodsman who claims to be on the party’s progressive wing, Ms Forbes is unfit for office because she is faithful to the beliefs of her Free Presbyterian church. He’s not alone.

Kevin McKenna: Blaming the media is a sign the SNP is in deep trouble

Such attacks are symptomatic of a regressive and reactionary mindset, masquerading as liberal. It suggests that you are free to practise your faith in modern enlightened Scotland, just so long as – like China – it’s a state-approved version of it. It also coincides with a creeping anti-Catholicism that’s freshly insinuating itself into the media and civic Scotland: that you’re considered persona non grata unless you first ditch some of the tenets of your faith, even though you don’t seek to impose them on others.

Ms Forbes’ views on the sanctity of all human life from conception until death is a fundamental pillar of both Christian and Muslim belief. As is her belief – based on science – that sex is binary.

The treatment that she’s already beginning to receive offers further evidence of the poison now circulating at the top of the SNP. That you’re free to be whoever you want to be, just so long as you’re not a Christian.