WHISPERS of spring are in the air, and the promise of change is afoot for far more than just the seasons. Though the party doesn’t seem to have realised it yet, the SNP’s exceptional grip over Scottish politics is finally breaking.

Regardless of personal opinions on Nicola Sturgeon – and gods know every flag-bedecked Twitter profile has one – it can’t be denied that the SNP have benefitted from the impression of progressive and forward-looking politics that came with her leadership, even if the organisation itself didn’t live up to the manufactured image.

For all of the talk of fair taxation, the difference between the Conservative and SNP models of taxation are relatively minimal on the face of it, while the regressive council tax – long promised to be scrapped by the SNP – remains, as local government faces crippling budget cuts.

And while the adoption of socially liberal policies around LGBTQ+ equality are a staple of how the SNP now brand themselves, the fact is that it was a far greater struggle to drag the party into the 21st century than their breezy, self-congratulatory attitude would suggest.

READ MORE: Inside the first wild week of the SNP leadership campaign

Still, the SNP managed to position themselves as a centre-left party, even while selling off green energy production on the cheap and backing sub-national tax havens in the form of so-called freeports.

In many ways, the party’s reputation as a force for social good has acted as a counterpoint to their relatively milquetoast economic policies and penchant for ditching more radical ideas – often ones that they had campaigned on – when nobody was watching. Land reform? She doesn’t even go here.

This past week, having listened to the party’s leadership hopefuls setting out their respective stalls, I realised what it was that I had been struggling to put into words since Sturgeon’s resignation.

For the first time in years, the SNP have looked and sounded like a normal political party, and not the seemingly unassailable behemoth that led Scotland for the better part of two decades.

Of course, the shine had been wearing thin for some time now. The bitter internal splits over the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill revealed a party more divided on social issues than their outward-facing liberalism would have suggested. Much of the current antagonism toward transgender people in Scotland is a direct result of the SNP’s failure to legislate on the issue in a timely manner.

Now, we enter a new period for the SNP – one in which I suspect their image as a centre-left party of progress will not survive, though just how poorly they fare in time will depend on who the membership ultimately elect to lead them.

However, one thing is certain: neither the government, nor any of the current candidates, have even the slightest clue on how to secure a second referendum or independence for Scotland – regardless of what they may tell you otherwise.

READ MORE: Who's backing who in the SNP leadership race?

Humza Yousaf wants to get the campaign for indy restarted for what must be the ninth time in nine years.

Ash Regan thinks using an election as a de facto referendum will somehow get the UK Government around the table when they aren’t even willing to explain why they overrode Scottish democracy with their recent Section 35 order.

And Kate Forbes ... well, who knows what she actually thinks. So far, all we’ve had is waffle about working with anyone sporting a Yes badge regardless of how unpopular they may be with soft No voters – but no concrete plan on how to actually bring about independence.
The National: (left to right) Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf, and Kate Forbes(left to right) Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf, and Kate Forbes (Image: PA)

The current UK Government is a seemingly impenetrable wall across the path to Scotland’s self-determination – and a concerning number of voices in Scotland’s largest party seem content, in their choice of candidate, to throw as many vulnerable people against that wall as it takes to bring it down.

Personally, it seems to me counter to the entire enterprise of self-determination to back any candidate that has explicitly voiced intent to let the UK Government’s undemocratic interjection in blocking the GRR Bill pass without a fight.

Nicola Sturgeon, for better or worse, was pretty competent at knocking back concerns over both the SNP’s route to independence and the party’s firmly centrist political stance. In her successors, I see little chance in that continuing.

The SNP’s decline will not be overnight. First, it will manifest as many party members holding their noses and voting for the greater good of securing a future referendum.

READ MORE: ‘SNP membership not as socially liberal as might be assumed’

But it’s much harder to imagine a future scenario in which the youth wing of the party will be putting in serious hours of campaigning to return a first minister who, should Forbes take the election, holds anti-LGBT beliefs and opposes reproductive rights. And as the activist base dwindles, so too will the party.

I doubt the SNP’s 2014 intake of members, sold on the image of a progressive, independent Scotland, will hang about for someone whose politics are so reprehensible – nor for someone like Ash Regan who opened her campaign with a bizarre and uncalled-for defence of the oil industry at a time when climate change is causing back-to-back crises around the world.

It took a week to dismantle an image that took the SNP years to carefully craft. Even the good voices in the SNP won’t be enough to stop the party’s decline now. Not for a while at least.