WE are not used to this, are we? For the first time since the SNP has been in government, there is a leadership contest, and it bears all the hallmarks of a contest for which nobody was well prepared.

The outcome of that has been somewhat chaotic, and not at all characteristic of a party which was hitherto known for being a slick, world-class campaigning and electoral machine. The first leadership hustings, on Wednesday evening in Cumbernauld, had more the feel of a hastily-constructed community council meeting rather than a convention to help decide Scotland’s next First Minister.

In amongst that chaos has been the pointed, sometimes vitriolic, arguments which the candidates and their campaigns are playing out in public. For the first time in many people’s living memory, the SNP is arguing in front of the children.

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That in itself is not necessarily a lingering problem – the Conservative and Labour parties have both done this in recent times, and both have, to some degree or other, proven able to glue themselves back together.

However, in the substance of the arguments there may lie an existential problem for the party. There is a chasm in the SNP which has raised the question, in my mind at least, as to whether the unity of the party and the ability to create a majority in favour of independence are two concepts working in opposition to one another.

Without wishing to sideline Ash Regan, because the limited polling conducted so far indicates that she will not win, the focus has been on the differing viewpoints of Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf. And it is becoming increasingly clear that those viewpoints differ not on a single piece of legislation such as Gender Recognition Reform (GRR), or on a single tactic to gain independence, but on the foundations of their entire political ideologies.

Mr Yousaf is firmly established as the continuity candidate. He has long been thought of as the choice of the current incumbent, Nicola Sturgeon, and her statements since the eruption caused by the entry into the campaign of Ms Forbes have done nothing to change that presumption. Indeed, she has either tacitly or explicitly been joined by the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, along with a swathe of other cabinet secretaries, ministers and MSPs. Privately, they will all tell you the same thing – only Humza can hold the party together.

Not just the party, of course, but the Cooperation Agreement with the Greens. Because of Ms Forbes’ opposition to GRR, if the Greens stay true to their word then her election will instantly lead to their withdrawal from the agreement, which Mr Yousaf has lauded as an important example of so-called progressive politics, and of course of the independence movement working together.

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The party box is ticked, and the Green box is ticked. But what about Mr Yousaf’s beliefs? Well, we know enough to say that he is firmly a man of the left. He did make clear, this week, that he believed in economic growth (a distinction from his Green partners) but otherwise he is a firm supporter of the Scottish Government’s status quo position of relatively high taxes, a presumption in favour of universal taxpayer-funding of services, centrally controlled public services and so on.

In this country it is called the Scottish National Party, but without the constitutional cling-film around our politics there would be another name for it – the Labour Party.

We know enough, even after these first 10 days, to know that Ms Forbes is different. The SNP as a governing party may be largely of the left, and the seismic intake of mainly young, urban members since the 2014 independence referendum appears to drive it even further in that direction. However, despite being the youngest candidate, Ms Forbes appears to be cut from a more traditional SNP cloth.

She is proactively and unashamedly in favour of an entrepreneurial, growth economy. Her first major campaign speech was made at a small business in the north and she has talked about SMEs as the backbone of our economy on multiple occasions. One gets the impression she would feel much more at home at the local farmers’ market than at a meeting of the Glasgow University branch of SNP Students.

HeraldScotland: Leadership candidate Kate Forbes appears to be cut from a more traditional SNP modelLeadership candidate Kate Forbes appears to be cut from a more traditional SNP model (Image: Colin Mearns)

She also, clearly, values large businesses and is conscious of bolstering key sectors of the Scottish economy. Most notably, she has made clear her disagreement with the strategy being incrementally pursued by the Scottish Government, towards keeping oil and gas reserves in the ground.

Her reliance on the principle set by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in voting with her conscience but pushing through legislation with which she disagrees, showed us a deeper alliance. Like Mrs Merkel, Kate Forbes is not a woman of the left.

That this fact is so unusual and, let us be clear, deemed by some in the SNP to be unacceptable, is a portrayal of the scale of shift in the SNP, particularly since 2014. This is a party which, for all the talk of it being the broadest of churches, is actually being narrowed to the left by its elected representation. In a few short weeks, we will know if its membership agrees.

If it does, we must return to the question of whether party and cause are opposed. To use numbers rather crudely, 40 per cent of this country will vote Yes at any future referendum, and 40% will vote No. What matters is what that soft, malleable 20 per cent does.

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In 2014, they largely voted No, and largely because they did not see a credible economic position from the Yes movement. There must be a large question mark placed over whether those soft unionists will see it in a government led by Mr Yousaf and the Greens, or whether they could more easily be brought over the line by Ms Forbes’ focus on the issues atop their priority list.

If the conclusion to this contest is that Mr Yousaf can unite the party but not the country, and Ms Forbes can unite the country but not the party, then the SNP may need to loosen its grip on the notion that it must remain united for independence to be won.

Perhaps it must not. Perhaps there must be more than one midwife of an independent Scotland.

Andy Maciver is Founding Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters