Culture wars derailed Nicola Sturgeon. Will they dominate the race to replace her?

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LONDON — Nicola Sturgeon wants her successor as first minister to “reach across the divide.” In a polarized Scotland, that’ll be easier said than done.

While multiple factors contributed to Sturgeon’s dramatic decision to throw in the towel this week, her exit follows a bitter row over gender identity — a dispute that could play a major part in the race to replace her.

Sturgeon moved last year to introduce reforms that would make it easier for people to legally change gender. The changes passed comfortably in the devolved Scottish parliament in December, with cross-party support — but they were strongly opposed by parts of Sturgeon’s own Scottish National Party, who felt they jeopardized single-sex spaces.

Sturgeon’s team breathed a sigh of relief when the law finally passed — but the issue erupted again when the U.K. government announced last month it was blocking the reforms, arguing they were incompatible with wider U.K. law.

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While in public the SNP reacted with fury, party chiefs privately believed Westminster’s intervention would boost support for their wider goal of Scottish independence. “In terms of the cold, hard politics, I don’t see how it can go badly for us,” one senior SNP MP confidently asserted in the wake of Westminster’s move.

One month later, that prediction seems much less assured.

Sturgeon and her team were almost immediately rocked by a scandal over the temporary placement of a transgender woman — found guilty of raping two women before transitioning – in a female prison. Pressed repeatedly on the case during a catastrophic TV interview, Sturgeon, normally the most accomplished of media performers, visibly struggled to answer for her policy.

“I’ve never seen her look so uncomfortable,” one U.K. government official said.

The clip swiftly went viral. It coincided with a sharp drop in polling support for the SNP, the wider cause of independence, and even for the once-unassailable Sturgeon herself.

Political opponents have been rubbing their hands with glee.

Former U.K. Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng said Thursday night that Sturgeon “got herself into lots of knots,” telling TalkTV that the issue “was really the straw that broke the camel’s back.” He added: “Her ratings plunged and essentially her woke agenda ended up blowing up in her face.”

The next generation

But even with Sturgeon now departing the scene, there’s little sign identity rows will disappear from the debate over the SNP’s future — especially with the party still to decide whether to challenge the U.K. government’s intervention at the High Court.

The highly-rated Finance Secretary Kate Forbes is considered a strong contender to succeed Sturgeon. But she is a member of the socially-conservative Free Church of Scotland, and has in the past expressed concerns about the gender reforms backed by her outgoing boss.

Observers expect considerable scrutiny of her views on whether the blocked legislation should be scrapped — as well as on same-sex marriage and abortion, which her church largely rejects — if she does decide to run.

Allies, however, are already bullish about her chances, and see in her a principled contender who can renew the party.

“I hope and expect that she will run,” a senior SNP lawmaker said. “Kate would deliver a new start, while the other candidates would be more of the same. She has strong views and she has very strong Christian beliefs, but I think that’s a tremendous asset.”

Some saw a veiled reference to Forbes’ views in a statement by John Swinney, Sturgeon’s loyal deputy, who confirmed Thursday night he will not be running, but said her successor must “anchor the SNP in the mainstream of Scottish politics.”

“There’s lots to read into [that],” said a former SNP adviser. “Given Kate Forbes position on social issues, that’s not her.”

Ash Regan, a former minister in Sturgeon’s government who quit due to her fierce opposition to the gender recognition reforms, is also considering a tilt at the top job.

Other likely candidates — including the Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson and Health Secretary Humza Yousaf — have largely toed the line and backed Sturgeon’s plan.

SNP figures insist culture wars will play only a marginal role in the contest, pointing to divisions over the best way to pursue the party’s ultimate goal of independence.

“People support the SNP because they want independence,” one Scottish government minister, who plans to back Forbes, said. “There are other things people might not agree on, but when it gets down to it what people want to see is progress towards independence.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.