This article was published in The Times on 13 February, 2023.

Whether they know it or not, how SNP members vote for their next leader will depend on how compassionate and inward-looking, or powerful and outward-looking they perceive that leader to be. I know this because during the pandemic I did research with my academic colleagues that compared the perceived competence of Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson.

Scotland’s first minister outperformed the UK prime minister on every measure of leadership ability we used despite delivering identical policies for initial phases of the pandemic. Strikingly, she won at things typically thought of as conservative qualities, such as economic competence, as well as those more stereotypically considered left wing, like compassion.

Voters valued the aspects of leadership aligned to tending the flock, like compassion and communality, things that Sturgeon did very well in her public briefings. More outward-focused qualities, such as power and competition, as exemplified by Johnson’s Churchillian strategy of framing the pandemic as a competitive enemy to be fought, turned people off.

Sturgeon’s clear messaging, lack of prevarication and her overt compassion all helped to solidify her as a competent and trustworthy leader. While a permanent rallying cry for another independence referendum appeased those thirsty for change, she also made her followers feel tended to, especially in those uncertain times. In short, she offered something for everyone.

Sturgeon succeeded in stabilising a party that houses a broad church. Only recently have we begun to see divisions arising within the party. So, what type of candidates are most likely to lead the SNP to continued success at the polls? All my political psychology research over the past decade shows Scottish voters prefer leaders with stereotypical feminine qualities, related to an inward-tending and caring style, even when the candidates are male.

If our data from the Covid crisis can be generalised to wider economic unrest, voters may desire an inward-tending leader who offers a sense of being looked after, instead of the outward-looking candidate promising to fight for change.

Sturgeon’s most valuable gift was being seen to rise above the fray: compassionate and inward-tending, powerful and outward-looking, without looking like she was trying too hard for either of these. SNP members will, unconsciously perhaps, choose their next leader with these two concepts in mind.

Dr Kristen Knowles

Related Blog Posts

Transport themed pattern
QMU Annual Travel Survey

Every year the university conducts a travel survey, collecting commuting habits of staff and stud... read more

A group of young people, both black and white, wearing casual sports wear, sit in a classroom and are engaged in a friendly conversation.
Critical dialogue - developing confidence in young people

Critical dialogue is helping young Scots and Malawians develop confidence and gain empowerment.... read more

A small group of people talking, facing away from the camera, on a sunny day outside
Making for good

Making for good We are Amy Millar and Amy McCue - more commonly known on our course as “The Amy’s... read more

A small group of people talking, facing away from the camera, on a sunny day outside
A dyslexic student's advice for making a successful time of studies at QMU

“How to make the most of your studies?” is a question that is often asked. What are the best tech... read more

3 girls in winter jackets outside the Queen Margaret University Campus, Edinburgh
Top tips for open day

Prepare before you get to the University. Consider attending an open day event to find out what i... read more

QMU students playing jenga whilst others have tea and biscuits beside them
Top tips for halls

Moving away from home can be daunting whether you are undergraduate or a postgraduate. At Queen M... read more

Students queuing up to order at Maggie's Bar, the QMU student union bar and cafe
Freshers blog

My first day at QMU was a scary one, as I’m sure it was for everyone. Having only just moved from... read more

A busy street
Life as a mature student: why go to university?

For me higher education is about working towards achieving your potential to catapult you into th... read more

Students talking on the benches outside Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
Queen Margaret university fresher’s week: 10 tips for student life

Top 10 Tips for student life read more

A small group of people talking, facing away from the camera, on a sunny day outside
University as a mature student

From where I started my academic journey, like many things in life, I have arrived at a very diff... read more