Scottish politics, the parliament, the nature of government and the role of First Minister changed when the SNP inched past the Labour Party in May 2007 and formed its first ever administration.
Alex Salmond became leader of a minority administration, the survival of which depended on making parliamentary alliances and deals with other parties, aided by the convulsions endured by Scottish Labour deprived of power and patronage. This SNP administration was initially seen by opponents (and particularly Labour) as a temporary phenomenon, but quickly made an impact changing the political weather and temperature.
Firstly, there was the successful renaming of the 'Executive' as the 'Scottish Government', first as a branding exercise, then made legal by the Scotland Act 2012. Secondly, connected to this, the role of First Minister became more pronounced and less apologetic and defensive: this was the leader of a national administration, albeit a devolved one, but one with aspirations to become that of a fully self-governing nation.
All of these factors, as well as the SNP's competence in office and series of eye-catching popular initiatives, combined with Labour's inability to make the transition to opposition, contributed to the SNP landside in 2011 which produced Scotland's first and only majority government (under a PR system meant to prevent such outcomes).
The SNP's administration was elected on a manifesto to hold an independence referendum agreed between the Scottish and UK governments in 2012 in the Edinburgh Agreement. The 2014 indyref was won 55:45 by the Union but the wider effect was to act as a catalyst for the SNP and independence cause. It brought the latter into the mainstream, normalising it as one of the defining ideas of Scotland – a fundamental shift which has remained to this day.
Salmond resigned the day after the indyref, making way for his deputy Nicola Sturgeon to become party leader and First Minister. She was elected SNP leader with no contest or opposing candidates in the equivalent of a 'coronation', along with elements of mass adulation and no democratic debate, which would pose problems in the future.
The May 2015 UK election saw the SNP win just under half the vote and 56 of Scotland's 59 seats, as Labour went from 41 seats to a single MP in one election. The SNP replaced Labour as the dominant party of Scotland. In retrospect, this was the moment of peak SNP – the point where the party's appeal was at its broadest across the nation.
At this point, Sturgeon was hugely popular and could have used her political capital to reposition the SNP and independence, posing difficult questions to the base, and presenting herself as a national leader, not just leader of the party. She instead chose a politics of caution, with much effort going on maintaining the SNP's 'Big Tent' appeal rather than what she could positively do, and this was as true of the independence cause.
In 2016, Sturgeon faced her first Scottish election which the SNP won comfortably, falling two seats short of an overall majority. One month after this, the UK voted 52:48 for Brexit with Scotland voting 62:38 remain. Four years later, the UK entered Covid lockdown restrictions and Sturgeon was further pushed into a more prominent role in Scotland and the UK, which brought plaudits but concerns about the concentration of government authority in her hands. The 2021 Scottish elections saw another emphatic SNP victory, with the party falling one seat short of a majority and the following year entering into an agreement with the Scottish Greens.
Then Sturgeon shocked the political world by announcing her sudden resignation in February 2023 – a move which precipitated the current SNP crisis. Sturgeon's eight and a half years as SNP leader and FM saw her maintain the SNP as the dominant party in Holyrood and Westminster, but elsewhere the legacy is more mixed.
She bequeathed a party which had been increasingly taken for granted and used as a platform for presidential-style politics. Despite her unquestioned communicative skills, Sturgeon was no strategist but a micro-manager and tactician who eventually ran out of road in the art of government and independence. She failed to use her immense political appeal to chart long-term priorities and choices for government; and on independence she cumulatively told pro-independence people what she thought they wanted to hear – until she hit the roadblock of the Supreme Court decision on a referendum.
Humza Yousaf came to office after a divisive contest with Kate Forbes in March 2023, which he won by the margin 52:48: the first time a leader who became First Minister emerged from a ballot of party members while the party was in office. In the election contest and subsequently, the SNP was engulfed in controversy over the culture of party management and finance in the Sturgeon era, raising serious questions about how the party had been run.
Yousaf faces big choices with a weak mandate and a divided party displaying signs of exhaustion and discontent. There is unease in the party about the cumulative effect of past decisions: 16 years of office catching up on it as it faces the pressures any incumbent party eventually does. Despite this, the SNP still has the advantage of holding office, the cause of independence to dampen discontents, and a divided anti-independence opposition which particularly disadvantages the anti-SNP parties in FPTP Westminster elections.
Making sense of the SNP era
What does the era of SNP First Ministers tell us? First, there has been the remaking of the profile of the post under Salmond and Sturgeon. It became remade in the years after Salmond became FM in 2007 as the most prominent elected political leader in Scotland and the principal voice on domestic and international issues relevant to the country – and not just on narrowly devolved issues (as was the case under Labour). It remains to be seen if this transformation is about the personalities of Salmond and Sturgeon, or the SNP and its political dominance, over the past 16 years. Will it survive the post-Sturgeon era, a more competitive politics, or parties other than the SNP being in office?
Second, this expanded role has resulted in a concentration in power and authority in the office of First Minister and the diminishing of other institutions including the Scottish Parliament and wider SNP. This is a quasi-presidentialism of the position and system, which begs the question whether the shift in political focus is permanent or temporary. Is it something specific to the Scottish situation, or part of the wider erosion of checks and balances in democratic cultures across the West?
The role of First Minister and the bigger picture about Scotland
The role of First Minister has changed in the past 24 years. One related set of shifts which have had an impact is how the two parties who have filled the role – Labour and SNP – do leadership. The Labour years of devolution saw the person who became FM hold the post of 'leader of Scottish Labour in the Scottish Parliament', underlying that there were other power centres in Scottish Labour and that their political authority was qualified. They were commonly described as Scottish Labour leader, but this only became the formal case once the party was in opposition and felt it needed to compete with the SNP on the grounds of Scottish Parliament leadership.
The SNP leader has throughout this period been the unqualified leader of the entire party and its different power centres. This is unlike pre-devolution in the 1970s, when the sizeable SNP Westminster group brought into the open disagreements about where power lay in the party, whether elected MPs or in the party structures. Such confusions do not exist today, although there are, as in all parties, numerous tensions. The SNP leader has, with Salmond and Sturgeon, had a formal authority intensified by their personal power, with the latter becoming more qualified in the Yousaf era.
Looking back at nearly a quarter century of the First Minister, there is a striking lack of literature considering the importance and power of the post. There is a small number of biographies about First Ministers. Three First Ministers have biographies (McConnell, Salmond and Sturgeon) but several are instant and superficial takes published when the relevant First Minister was in office and had box office appeal.
Two First Ministers (Dewar and McLeish) have not had biographies, although a serious Donald Dewar study is in the pipeline. One can only hope that it will be the first of several, and that in particular the consequential appointments of Salmond and Sturgeon will see similar books post-office.
The evolution of the First Minister has to be seen in the broader context. The post exists as part of the devolution settlement laid out in the Scotland Act. The past 24 years have seen, contrary to much that was written pre-devolution, a concentration of power in the First Minister and Scottish Government, and a waning in the actual influence and power of the Scottish Parliament. This ongoing shift of power at the minimum needs to be understood and scrutinised, and questions asked about whether it is serving good governance and better public policy – or to a degree hindering and harming them.
One common observation regularly made is that the Scottish Parliament has accrued powers, responsibility and status, vis-a-via civil society and an array of public bodies and institutions. But in fact, while the parliament may notionally hold these powers, the real authority is held in the office of the First Minister, Scottish Government and civil servants.
The arc of devolution has seen the gradual marginalisation of Cabinet government as a forum for decisions since the Dewar and McLeish years. Similarly, the post of Deputy First Minister has gone from having influence and status under Jim Wallace in the Labour-Lib Dem era to being about party management in the SNP, and is now a tokenist title under current deputy Shona Robison. One difference in this is how power dynamics work in coalition versus long periods of one-party government. Yet the current SNP is in an agreement with the Scottish Greens, and this has not reduced the concentration of political power in a few hands at the top.
A wider move can be witnessed from the changing fortunes of the First Minister and parliament: namely, what are the stories of modern Scotland and who is telling them? One of the defining characteristics of the earlier Labour era of devolution was the absence of a dynamism, mission and vision, and underneath these, a compelling story of what the Scottish Parliament and devolution were meant to be positively for.
The SNP period for many years was informed by dynamism, mission and vision, and a compelling narrative of the Scottish Parliament, devolution and future Scotland. That story was of an increasingly self-governing country, with devolution as an evolutionary stage towards the ultimate goal of independence. This had the advantages of being widely understood: linking devolution and independence, having a positive dimension and looking to the future about possibilities, without caveats.
Yet the SNP, like Labour before, has seen a growing chasm between the story of Scotland it presents and the everyday reality that people experience. The SNP, as with Labour previously, has been captured by the 'official story' of devolution and institutional Scotland. This says that the fundamentals of the political system are right, progressive and enlightened, and that the internal power dynamics of it should not be disrupted by widening democracy, accountability and scrutiny. In short, the SNP (like Labour) in becoming a system and insider party has diluted its political antenna.
The ability to present a convincing story and invite people to see themselves as part of it is one of the key aspects of modern leaders and of the First Minister. The periods of peak Salmond and Sturgeon saw this articulated and the benefits it could offer as well as eventually its downside, namely that any wider vision and story has to have a relationship with everyday experience otherwise it just invites cynicism.
The role of First Minister has been of major importance in the evolution of devolution and Scotland. But it has to be seen in a broader context about the changing nature of leadership and political leadership, voter expectations, and the relevant role of other political institutions and of democratic accountability.
Scottish political discourse over the past 24 years has articulated too much in terms of Scottish exceptionalism, with too little reference to what people, processes and institutions actually do. One example being the chasm between the real parliament and what it does – and the idea of a parliament – the differences between which being barely examined.
This needs to change in the future, otherwise the establishment of the parliament will become less associated with self-government and more with the transfer of power from one insider political class to another insider political class, with the vast majority of people reduced to passive spectators.
First Ministers and political leadership: Part 1