So what did Nicola Sturgeon ever do for us?
Unlike the Romans, much less than she promised. She failed.
The timing of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation this week was a surprise but her departure was not. For more than 18 months, she has been thinking about her life after politics. Not just thinking about it but talking about it too. She might write a memoir; she and her husband have talked about fostering children.
If Sturgeon was irritated - and I believe she was - by the speculation this prompted, it was speculation she invited herself.
But who can blame her for quitting? She has been a part of Scottish public life for more than half her own life. She first stood as an SNP candidate in 1992 (she lost her first four attempts to win a seat; two at Westminster, two at Holyrood. In the longer-run, this was good for her). She has been a member of the Scottish parliament since 1999 and in government since 2007. Politics is a punishing business and, eventually, enough is enough.
Still, to listen to some of the hymns sung to her this week, you might think Scottish - and even British - politics has lost a Lincoln or some other statesman of comparable stature. As we shall see, this is not actually the case.
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Not all politicians are held to the same standard and it has been Sturgeon’s significant good fortune that she is routinely judged more generously than other politicians. She is indeed (usually) a great communicator but, you know what, so is Nigel Farage. Some of the reactions to her resignation were jaw-droppingly credulous. For instance:
You may always set your compass by Peston, knowing that moving in the opposite direction will invariably be the correct route. Sturgeon’s resignation statement did indeed show some of her finer qualities: human, relatable, frank and much else besides.
Nevertheless, her “call for less irrationality and hysteria in politics” took chutzpah to new levels. Peston may not have spent much time in Scotland since 2014 but some of us have. If Scottish politics is a brutal, often irrational, place it is partly because the tone is set at the very top of the political pyramid.
If you accuse your opponents of wanting to strangle democracy in its crib, you don’t get to complain about other people’s irrationality. If you insinuate your critics are motivated by homophobia, racism and bigotry (which is what Sturgeon said about those opposing her gender reforms) you can’t complain about other people’s hysteria. And when you spend a decade accusing your opponents of “talking Scotland down” and hating their own country you don’t get to occupy any kind of moral high ground. Sturgeon was a “culture warrior” as vicious as any other.
In modern Scotland, you sometimes gain the impression that opposition is not merely mistaken but in some vague sense morally unacceptable. Thus one of our most astute commentators could write, in apparent seriousness, that “if they [Johnson, Truss, and Sunak] had acknowledged the SNP’s overwhelming mandate for a second independence referendum, she would not now be facing criticism for failing to secure one.”
(For the avoidance of doubt, that mandate is far from “overwhelming”. Most Scottish voters do not actually thirst for a referendum. In 2021, Sturgeon was asked what a voter who like her but did not want a referendum should do. “They should vote for me”, she said. Now such votes are reinterpreted as being cast in favour of a referendum. Equally, the argument for a referendum would be irresistible if there had not already been a referendum on precisely the same question just eight years ago. But there was.)
Another London-based commentator gushed that Sturgeon’s politics were “generous and intelligent”. Articulate, certainly, but rarely generous and not always intelligent either. Indeed, she was notable uninterested in ever exploring why anyone might disagree with her. Intellectual curiosity was for other people.
At some point the SNP may choose to be led, once again, by someone who (like Alex Salmond) is actually interested in speaking to people who do not already support independence. In eight years as first minister Nicola Sturgeon devoted no more than two or three sentences to this kind of exercise. Her opponents were Wrong About Everything and beyond comprehension. Their views were, as she put it on another issue, simply “Not valid”. In this sense, she was a “Computer Says No” politician and blinkered to the point of blindness.
But look, she should be judged kindly. Because, as this same gushing columnist put it, “One of the most striking things about her is that she reads. That seems a strange and superficial thing to say, but it is a profound one.” Not only that, but she read fiction! “And that ultimately made her a better leader and a more thoughtful politician”. Could the bar for greatness be set any lower? (Sturgeon is not the first Scottish first minister to be widely-read. Donald Dewar was a voracious reader but few people thought this made him somehow exceptional. Of course, Dewar lived in the age before social media and we weren’t quite such cheap dates back then.)
Still, there is no denying the connection she made with many voters. She could work the room and her ability to engage with ordinary members of the public really was exceptional. She learned, perhaps even willed herself, to do that and it paid remarkable dividends.
Likewise, she excelled within her comfort zone of the public and third sectors. These were her people, her organisations. She was, by contrast, indifferent to commerce and the private sector. This is not a criticism - all politicians have their strengths and weaknesses - merely a statement of obvious reality. This led her to indulge fashionable twaddle about a “well-being economy” at the expense of an appreciation for the fact commerce is what, in general, funds the parts of society Sturgeon actually did care about.
But, in a time dominated by Conservative governments of dubious accomplishment, it is fair to allow that Sturgeon offered a glimpse of euro-style social democracy largely unfashionable in Britain as a whole. Her chief accomplishment, domestically, was the introduction of a new social security system for Scotland (itself the fruit of the post-2014 devolution of new responsibilities to Scotland. The Vow was delivered). Amongst these, the most significant, and substantial, was a £25 a week Scottish Child Payment delivered to some of the poorest families in Scotland. This was Barnett-financed redistribution of which she could be proud. Those families really are better off in Scotland than they would be in England.
We shall come to the constitution in due course but let us first consider other aspects of Sturgeon’s record.
Here’s a graphic widely-shared on social media including, in this instance, by one of Sturgeon’s staffers. It is not an official tally of achievement but it is unintentionally useful nonetheless. (Ignore, please, the funny bits: “Highest unemployment rate in the UK” and “Music tuition scrapped”, though for many children in many parts of Scotland this has actually happened, partly as a consequence of Scottish government-imposed cuts to local authorities which have then been passed on to schools.)
Note, however, that this is the context in which these “achievements” should be considered:
If - and it is a mightily disputable “if” - public services are better in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK it is because they should be (assuming you believe more spending = improved outcomes). Scotland enjoys a uniquely privileged place within the United Kingdom: it is one of the wealthiest parts of the country but funded as though it is one of the poorest. (London and the south-east of England provide funds transferred to everyone else; Scotland and the East of England are the next wealthiest parts of the country.)
The Baby Box - a kind of “welcome pack” delivered to every new born in Scotland - is a pleasing symbol of national community. But it is no more than that. It is certainly not a means by which infant mortality might be reduced even though this, typically, is what the Scottish government once claimed. As such, it is a perfect example of the SNP’s weakness for gesture over achievement, symbol over substance. You might say the same about “delivering” the “first gender neutral cabinet in the UK” or being the “first in the world” to declare “a climate emergency”. Fine, if you like such things but, again, these are the spasms of gesture politics not genuine achievements.
Other items on the list are simply laughable. A “national islands plan” (like its marine counterpart, also “national” of course) is not the same as actually delivering anything. “Best performing NHS in the UK” and “Best performing A&E in the UK” are contestable claims that even if accepted tell us nothing about the actual quality of the Scottish NHS. “Record health funding” and “Record high investment in education”, likewise tells us only about nominal inputs, a criticism which could be extended to most other public spending boasts on the list.
Then there is treble counting. “Record low crime - lowest in over 40 years”, “Violent crime down”, “Weapon/knife crime significantly down” - these are all variants of the same claim which is, in any case, hardly unique to Scotland. Typically, even this is not enough. Thus, SNP cheerleaders take credit for Glasgow’s (important and successful) Violence Reduction Unit which was established in, er, 2005 when Scotland was administered by a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. It’s one thing to claim achievements from Alex Salmond’s era, quite another to poach policies implemented before the SNP even entered government.
And so it goes on. “Helping deliver COP26” (a conference was held in Glasgow), “Queensferry Crossing” (we built a bridge), “Aberdeen Bypass” (and a road), “Building more affordable homes” (but nowhere near enough), “Driving forward land reform” (this will come as a surprise to land reform campaigners), “Free period products” (an idea pinched from Labour), “Keeping Scottish Water in public hands” (nobody has proposed privatising it), “Lowest student loan debt in the UK” (never mind that in 2007 the SNP promised to abolish student debt), “A new progressive tax system” (the previous one was also progressive) and, perhaps above all, “Handling the Covid crisis” (being in government).
On this latter issue, Sturgeon’s much-vaunted communication skills could undoubtedly be contrasted with the more, shall we say, haphazard approach taken by Boris Johnson. This was also a matter of sensibility: Johnson was manifestly uncomfortable with many of the decisions he was compelled to take. He deplored the need for lockdowns while grimly accepting their necessity. Sturgeon, by contrast, was not nearly so discombobulated by the extraordinary, emergency, powers governments across the world granted themselves. In this particular crisis, her enthusiasm for control - for telling people how to behave - met and melded with the needs of a particular moment.
Yet, once again, if these bonnie communication skills offered reassurance they did not deliver manifestly different outcomes. Excess deaths in Scotland during the pandemic years - probably the best available measure we have for covid’s overall impact - ran at just the same rate as excess deaths in England. Sturgeon’s defenders - an indefatigable and creative lot - argue that, like every other inconvenient blemish, this may be ascribed to the fact Scotland was NOT independent. Had it been and had Sturgeon been able to act freely and with all the “levers” and “tools” available to independent states, everything would have been different. And perhaps there is some truth to this. For given complete freedom, I am convinced Sturgeon would have pursued a “Zero Covid” policy long after such an approach was proved both mad and impossible.
Another item on the list of great achievements merits comment, for once again it reveals something else about Sturgeon’s career: the preference for symbols over substance and the privileging of producers over consumers. It is not just her supporters who boast, “Ferguson’s ship yard jobs saved” - it is the first minister herself. A couple of hundred jobs at a Clydeside shipyard are more significant than actually building the ferries upon which thousands of Scottish islanders depend.
The ferry scandal is not an ordinary procurement fiasco. The Scottish government’s own agency, CMAL, told ministers it did not wish to award the contract for two new ferries to the newly-saved Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow. The shipyard had never built ships of this size and could not offer the contractual and financial guarantees typically demanded for projects of this type. Despite this, Ferguson’s was awarded the contract. We all know why this happened - the symbolism of commercial ship-building on Clydeside is considered very important - and there is no need for a trail of documents proving it.
Sturgeon “launched” the first of these ships, the Glen Sannox, in 2017. It was a Potemkin piece of theatre, for the vessel was nowhere close to being finished. Windows were painted onto the bridge to give the impression of completion. Six years later, the ferry is still not in service. A project initially priced at less than £100m will cost at least £250m and probably £300 and be completed more than five years late.
All because of vanity. And nationalism. And putting service users last.
One lost count of the number of eye-catching initiatives launched amidst much celebration that, in point of tedious fact, came to precisely nothing. A single example may suffice, though there are many others. Thus Sturgeon once promised to create a publicly-owned energy supply company. This piggy-backed on a similar pledge made by Jeremy Corbyn. It looked popular, so let’s have a piece of that. Unlike Corbyn, Sturgeon was actually in government but despite this apparent advantage nothing came of her promise. Eventually it was quietly dropped and we were asked to forget the policy had ever existed. It was just public relations, albeit PR delivered with some verve. Feel the style and the ambition; ignore the reality and the actual outcomes.
No government can be perfect. Mistakes, some of them appalling, are inevitable. But some are more consequential than others. Consider this chart:
Scotland has the worst drugs problem in europe. It is a calamity closer in scale to the United States’ opioid crisis. No satisfactory explanation has yet been offered to account for the fact many more people die from drugs in Glasgow and Dundee than, say, Liverpool and Newcastle. What may be said, with some confidence, is that the Scottish government has failed in its responsibilities. We may say this because Nicola Sturgeon herself accepts her ministry “took its eye off the ball”. Treatment and rehab budgets were cut, freeing up funds for preferred projects. This had consequences, some of them predictable.
It is true that Sturgeon sacked her drugs minister, the hapless Joe Fitzpatrick, and that this was presented as a declaration of seriousness. But nothing else happened. Responsibility was shifted but to no great effect. And, in a demonstration of what nationalism can do, Fitzpatrick was re-elected in Dundee - the city with the worst drug problem in europe - with an increased majority. If that does not demonstrate the decoupling of consequence from performance, what would?
And that is a problem. Sturgeon’s cynicism was never more clearly demonstrated than when she said she wished to be judged on her record in closing the educational attainment gap evident between kids from poorer families and those from wealthier backgrounds. She was unequivocal: she wanted the gap eliminated, not merely reduced.
It is typical of the way in which her government is judged that the pledge to do something was considered sufficient. Asking the Scottish government to actually make good on its promises is considered unseemly. Why should they be held to such an impossibly high standard? Now, naturally, history is rewritten: the promise was to close the gap over time and there was never any commitment to eradicating it by 2026. This is a lie.
Only politicians confident they won’t be judged on their record ask to for voters to do precisely that. Nationalism is the most forgiving kind of doctrine; if your heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter what your brain is telling you. Donald Trump once joked - it was a joke, you know - that his magnificent was so obvious that he could “shoot somebody and not lose votes”. Well, Nicola Sturgeon wouldn’t put it like that but the principle is broadly the same.
The SNP’s success is built on attitude, vibe, and sensibility, not the standard rules of political affiliation. All parties have something of this, of course, for worldview and sympathy matters. But the SNP has it in unusual degree. SNP voters identify with their political preferences more strongly than other voters. It is a core part of who they are. Hence this:
Granted, that survey was conducted in the aftermath of the SNP’s post-referendum landslide in 2015 when the party was in its electoral pomp (it won 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies at that election). But even if this level of identification has fallen a little since, it remains staggeringly, unhealthily, high.
So what really prompted her departure? It was not, despite what some have claimed, the furore over her gender recognition reforms, not the storm over the revelation that Isla Bryson, a double rapist formerly known as Adam Graham, had been sent to a woman’s prison. Admittedly, Sturgeon’s inability to finesse the logic of her own self-ID policy and her consequent disinclination to rule on Bryson-Graham’s sex made her appear ridiculous, but it was not the decisive issue.
That was, and remains, the hole she dug for herself on the only issue which really matters to her party: independence.
It did not have to be this way but Sturgeon lacked the courage to be honest with her own supporters. Instead, and especially after Brexit, she told them what they wanted to hear and then found excuses when her promises were broken on the wheel of inconsiderate reality. Time and time again, she told them independence was just around the corner and time and time again she failed to deliver something that, awkwardly, was not in her power to gift
That led to the absurdity of her promise to fight the next election as a “de facto referendum”. No-one was consulted about this but it took no more than a moment’s thought to appreciate it was an idiotic idea. A tactic, perhaps, but certainly not a strategy. For the first time, Sturgeon faced a significant internal challenge made all the more serious for being on the biggest issue of all.
It was a kind of folly brought on by late-imperial delusion. Sturgeon was right up until the moment her own colleagues - to say nothing of voters - realised she wasn’t. You may always count upon a reckoning at such moments and, once begun, reckonings happen awfully quickly.
And so she slips from the stage, quietly accepting that independence will not be achieved in the next two, three, four, years. That is the final meaning of her departure. Scotland remains an unsettled argument but Sturgeon’s resignation now at least offers the faint prospect of a pause, a moment of recalibration, before a new direction is sought.
The tragedy of it is that a politician of so much potential delivered, in the end, so little substance. All that promise, but to what great purpose?
That’s all for now. Next time, we’ll consider where the SNP goes next plus some other, smaller, issues such as Ukraine’s ongoing fight for survival.
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That is tremendous. I have crossposted
How is she going to manage to write a memoir, when she can never remember anything ?