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Sensemaker: Scot free

Sensemaker: Scot free

What just happened

Long stories short

  • America launched air strikes against an Iran-backed group in Syria, after a US contractor there was killed by a suspected Iranian-made drone. 
  • World Athletics barred transgender women who have been through male puberty from competing in female world-ranking events. 
  • Westminster Abbey said visitors would be allowed to walk on its medieval Cosmati pavement to mark the coronation – as long as they take their shoes off. 

Scot free

Yesterday Nicola Sturgeon took her 286th and last First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish parliament. On Monday, a new leader of the governing Scottish National Party will be unveiled from three contenders: Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan.

Sturgeon left the stage defending her record in government and her party. The Scottish Conservative leader accused her and the SNP of lying about losing 30,000 members (a row that led to Peter Murrell – Sturgeon’s husband – quitting as the party’s chief executive). 

  • Her proudest accomplishments? Eight election wins and policies including the Scottish child payment.
  • Any regrets? “I would love to have been the leader who took Scotland to independence,” she told reporters. 

So what? She didn’t, and the moment might have passed. A sea change is underway in Scottish politics.

  • This is the first contested SNP leadership election in nearly 20 years.
  • It has been ugly and dangerous for the party’s reputation (see the lost members, above, and more below).
  • None of Sturgeon’s possible successors comes close to her in popularity – 46 per cent of Scots and 77 per cent of SNP voters have a favourable opinion of her – or name recognition; and
  • there are no guarantees they’ll be able to repeat the SNP’s electoral triumphs or further its defining cause.  

Independence. The tide that seemed strong after a Brexit that most Scots opposed is ebbing. In broad terms support for independence has grown steadily for half a century, boosted by distaste for Thatcherism, falling back under Gordon Brown and rising again since the Tory-LibDem coalition victory in Westminster 2010.

But the prize has proved elusive:

2014 – 44 per cent vote yes in the Scottish independence referendum.

2016 – Pro-independence voters briefly outnumber antis in polling after the EU referendum in which Scots oppose Brexit by 62 per cent to 38.

2019 – Support for independence passes 50 per cent for the first time after Boris Johnson becomes prime minister.

2020 – Support for “Yes” reaches a record 56 per cent in November as Sturgeon wins praise in the pandemic.

2023 – Yes falls back in polls to 2014 levels as the UK government blocks Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform bill and Sturgeon announces her intention to resign.

Labour. On present polling Scottish Labour, resurgent under its leader Anas Sarwar, could win more than 30 seats at the next Holyrood election — up at least 10 and its best result since 2011. The party could also take 14 Westminster seats, up from one now.

Who gets to choose? The SNP party members. At least we know how many there are: 72,186 (a figure only released after all three leadership candidates called for more transparency). In a nation of around five million people, that is at least more members per voter than the Conservatives could claim last summer, when some 140,000 members across the UK voted in a leadership election that led to Liz Truss becoming prime minister.

But we don’t know much more. Political parties rarely, if ever, release information about the demographic make-up of their membership, says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, because “members are almost invariably more middle-class, more middle-aged, more white and more male than the average voter, which opens them up to accusations that they’re less representative than they’d like to think”.

Tortoise sent a letter to the SNP requesting anonymised data on the demographics of the party membership and what processes the party had in place to make sure the election was secure. We asked the same questions of the Conservatives last summer. The SNP did not respond. 

Forbes and Regan have tabled concerns about the integrity of the SNP election, and withdrawn them. Yousaf is odds-on favourite to win on Monday. He’s the establishment candidate in a party that has to show it’s not run by a clique. 

As for independence, don’t hold your breath.


ECB v Raiffeisen Bank
The European Central Bank is putting pressure on Austria’s Raiffeisen Bank to pull out of Russia. It’s a significant tussle because Raiffeisen is the most important western bank still operating there, handling a quarter of all Euro payments into the Russian economy, and it has no immediate plans to give up such a big part of its business despite hints from Washington that it might be violating sanctions. If this was just a bank thumbing its nose at international efforts to stop funds flowing to Russia’s war machine it might be comprehensible if not forgivable. But it isn’t. Reuters reports that Raiffeisen has senior government officials onside, including a finance ministry spokesperson arguing effectively that if this bank doesn’t handle payments for Russian raw materials, others will. Maybe so. But does Austria really need reminding of its history?


TikTok hearing
As the UK parliament became the latest public body to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok app from its devices and network yesterday, TikTok’s boss testified in front of a testy US congressional committee. Shou Zi Chew does not usually seek attention. The 40 year-old Singaporean has posted just 13 TikTok videos on his personal account in the past year; his short Wikipedia entry says he enjoys golf and reading books on theoretical physics in his spare time. But he has an uphill battle convincing legislators that TikTok is not a threat as the app faces a possible US ban. Democrats and Republicans are concerned that TikTok could be used as a surveillance tool by the Chinese government; one legislator called it a “cancer”. Chew’s $2 billion plan to store data and content from TikTok’s 150 million US users in America did not appear to convince the politicians. But those 150 million users will have a lot to say if a ban goes ahead. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Beethoven’s hair
Beethoven probably died from a “perfect storm” of viral hepatitis, alcohol consumption and genetic factors, according to a groundbreaking analysis of five samples of his hair taken by admirers on his death 194 years ago. The findings owe much to recent developments in genome sequencing of ancient DNA, and seem to corroborate contemporary accounts of the great composer drinking heavily in his final years. The study by Cambridge University’s Tristan Begg found two genes linked to liver disease, which can be exacerbated by alcohol. Beethoven was tormented by his loss of hearing for at least the last 25 years of his life – during which he wrote his last seven symphonies and much else – but the cause of that remains a mystery. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Water, more and less
A paradox of global warming is that it puts more water in the atmosphere but water scarcity is becoming endemic in the process. A UN water conference in New York this week has heard that 40,000 people died from drought in Somalia last year, half of them children, while a third of Pakistan was hit by devastating floods. Ninety per cent of climate impacts are related to water, according to a report presented to the conference, but only 3 per cent of climate finance. Half the world’s population experiences water scarcity for at least a month a year, while cities go on sucking rivers and aquifers dry with “vampiric overconsumption”. The UAE is under pressure as hosts of Cop28 to make water an official priority of the conference. As a now-traditional Sensemaker reminder: the Clausius-Clapeyron equation states that for every 1 degree C rise in the atmosphere’s temperature, its water-holding capacity goes up by 7 per cent.


Bordeaux blaze
On Wednesday France’s Emmanuel Macron did a television interview to publicly defend his unpopular pension reforms, which his government pushed through last week without a parliamentary vote. The goal, aides said, was to “calm things down”. It didn’t work. Yesterday huge protests and strikes took place across the country: around a million people marched nationwide, according to government figures (unions put the number at 3.5 million), with some protests turning violent. Around 400 police officers were injured; 1,000 rubbish bins were set on fire; more than 400 people were arrested. The main entrance to Bordeaux’s town hall was set on fire days before a scheduled visit to the city by King Charles. This morning the Elysée said the state visit had been postponed. 

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Jess Winch

Giles Whittell

Graphic by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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