The Nicola Sturgeon era of Scottish politics, how it will be seen and what comes after?
Politics have not exactly been quiet over the summer break. A Tory leadership contest for the next UK Prime Minister; a zombie government absent when millions of people need support and reassurance; and at the same time flexing its aggressive instincts to take on a panoply of predictable opponents: trade unions, EU and of course the SNP.
Nicola Sturgeon has been making several public appearances. She loves books – and book festivals. At last count she has appeared this year in five Edinburgh Festival events. One which made ripples was her conversation with actor and independence supporter Brian Cox at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Monday past.
There are several layers to this. The first that has been inaccurately reported by The Herald and other sources is that Sturgeon said to Cox that: ‘I can’t wait until I don’t give a fuck anymore.’ Not surprisingly these remarks have caused a stir, with various opposition politicians citing them as proof of Nicola Sturgeon’s supposed arrogance and contempt for the very voters she is supposed to represent. The trouble is, she said nothing of the kind.
The actual exchange between Sturgeon and Cox sees the latter look back at his life from the vantage point of being 76 years old. He says to Sturgeon: ‘As I get older, I just, I don’t know, I feel more free. I just don’t give a fuck any more, you know what I mean?’ to which she responds: ‘I can’t wait to reach that stage.’
Let’s get a second dimension of this out of the way before looking at the substance. The wilful misrepresentation of Sturgeon’s actual comments by once respected institutions such as The Herald is embarrassing. It says something about how far they have fallen in recent years – and this incident could be the product of confirmation bias (they wanted Sturgeon to have said what they reported) or it could be a result of lack of resources.
Then there was the pile-in which is what happens in social media platforms, when public figures are quick to quote and cite things second-hand without checking primary sources or facts. So a host of Tory politicians such as Stephen Kerr come in claiming that this shows Sturgeon’s insouciance and laissez-faire approach to government. For some, and I cannot speak for Kerr here, their dissemination of the imaginary remarks are because they loath Nicola Sturgeon and wish to diminish her and bring her down.
However, the substance of the actual comments from Sturgeon is revealing and worthy of further investigation. They do not need misrepresentation as what she really said says something deeply interested and illuminating. In the exchange between Sturgeon and Cox after she says ‘I can’t wait to reach that stage’, Cox replies affirmingly: ‘Nicola, you will reach that stage.’ She then says ‘I get a bit closer to it every single day that passes, believe me.’
On one level, Sturgeon is responding on a very human level to another person and in this case the internationally acclaimed actor Brian Cox who is looking back on their life. There is an emotional connection in this; there is even some common ground in that both Cox and Sturgeon are working class Scots who grew up in council houses (when most of us did) and have made an impact on the global stage. The exchange between them is filled with insight that what matters in life become clearer as time passes, and the small stuff which used to worry you in younger days, matters less and less.
On another level, Sturgeon is a ferociously private person, whose public persona in part masks this. What is not to like in someone just being authentic and honest about the panoply of emotions which comes with any high-powered job, let alone being First Minister of Scotland?
Making these allowances there is still something going on which is uncovered or suggested by these comments. For a start they cannot be taken as just a slip of the tongue. In the past few months Sturgeon has made remarks which allude to her thinking about life after Scottish politics and that she sees on the near-horizon an end to her period as First Minister.
The words and sentiments of Sturgeon here are not those of someone wholly focused on the current and future challenges, demands and pressures of the job she currently holds: First Minister of Scotland.
Part of her mind is already in the future tense of the world after being First Minister. In this sense, Nicola Sturgeon has already left the building: Bute House. She is thinking of and dreaming of a new life: a job beyond Scottish and UK politics which could be a job with international reach and responsibilities.
Back to the human dimension. A bit of slack should be cut here. Sturgeon has been First Minister for eight years, in government fifteen, and in frontline elected politics for 23 years. She has been First Minister and leader of the SNP through some stressful and difficult times – for government, politics, society and herself as an individual.
There has been the COVD pandemic; the Alex Salmond saga that has been both professionally and personally difficult; Brexit; Boris Johnson’s shambolic, deceitful Premiership and the degeneration of British government; the cost of living crisis and the coming economic storm clouds. Sturgeon has had to navigate all these, while trying to run an administration whose fiscal powers are severely limited, while keeping the torch of independence burning.
Saying this there is also something about Sturgeon’s love of book festival events and conversations. These seem to offer a relatively safe, warm, even affirming, and non-partisan middle class audience and set of surroundings, where she gets the chance to unwind, talk about passions which aren’t all about politics, and which can on occasion let her feel free or relaxed enough to express herself openly in a way that the political arena doesn’t allow.
Countdown to an end of an era?
Allowing for all this the question arises – are we at the beginning of the end of the Nicola Sturgeon era of Scottish politics? There are a number of landmark dates coming up. 2023 is the date she has chosen for another indyref which when (as is more than likely) it does not happen, could offer one exit date.
Another is that the next Scottish Parliament elections will be in 2026 when, if she were still First Minister, she would have been in office for twelve years – which is a very long time in politics, and longer than Thatcher’s eleven years as UK PM. To add to any speculation Sturgeon herself has already cast doubt on whether she will stand again in 2026.
Assuming that there is no independence referendum next year, the retrospectives of Sturgeon’s period at the helm are being written and the balance sheet of successes and failures measured. There have been successes in policy including alcohol minimum pricing; initiatives to reduce child poverty including baby boxes; the creation of Social Security Scotland and the promotion of gender equality across public agencies and life. There has been one notable bigger achievement namely keeping public service, duty and commitment at the heart of the Scottish Government when the UK Government has been burning down its own house to the detriment of everyone.
That cannot be blithely dismissed at critics tend to do. Yet at the same time the roll call of failures and things going in the wrong direction gets longer by the day including education; health; the scandal of the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Glasgow; the rolling disaster of ferries and islands cut off from the mainland; the highest drug deaths in Europe; the war of attrition on the finances and capacity of local government; and the general tatty, declining state of the public realm even before the bin strikes.
That is before mentioning the political capital expended on the issue of trans rights. As one political observer said to me at the weekend, surveying Sturgeon’s years at the top: ‘If only the SNP had spent their time making Scotland a better place and had something to show that said this is what we can do, then lots of people would be happier and the case for independence would be more self-evident.’
Government and politics in stormy times and what comes next?
It is at best a very patchy record without any singular, defining achievements, beyond keeping the show on the road and ship afloat in choppy waters. This is not really what politicians enter public life for.
This has been an era of SNP ascendancy, alongside increasing centralisation and presidentialism of politics and decision-making, where few other prominent SNP figures have got much of a look in – with the partial exception of John Swinney. There has been no collective leadership, real team at the centre, or any succession planning growing the next generation of talent in the way that Salmond nurtured and encouraged Sturgeon. This sometimes from the outside looks deliberate and an act of party management. On closer examination it may well be that is more the unplanned consequences of a regime of accruing more power to the top, resulting in more pressure on Sturgeon. Whatever the motivations, it has been self-defeating for Sturgeon, government and party.
The ethos of government over this period has become more obvious and problematic. Technocratic managerialist centrism only gets you so far. But more than that there has been a defensive, unimaginative Scottish nationalism unable to understand the Scotland beyond it which remains unconvinced of the charms of independence. Added to this has been an increasingly defensive social democracy focused on the middle classes and professional groups which is centre-left rhetorically rather than substantively, and expressly avoids any politics of redistribution or shifting power from the elites who already know how to work Scotland.
Doing things differently could have been an option for Nicola Sturgeon. She became First Minister with huge political support, goodwill and a movement behind her. She had massive political capital, adept communication skills and a sharp political antenna that saw her win the 2016 and 2021 Scottish elections, three Westminster contests, and remain for an incumbent enormously popular after eight years in office. Many across the Western world could only dream of such popularity and electoral success.
She could have chosen to break out of the confines of defensive Scottish nationalism and social democracy. She could have harnessed the democratic spirit and energy of 2014 and utilised it to recharge and remake democracy, local government and public bodies – but damningly not one major public policy initiative emerged from the explosion of political citizenship and education of that campaign.
She could have chosen to tell independence supporters some home truths about the trade-offs inherent in self-government. And at the same time she could have exposed the thin nature of what passed for social democracy and social justice. She chose with all her political skills and advantages to do none of these, and instead to go with the grain of the dominant groups and accounts of society.
When the post-Sturgeon era begins those long put-off debates will at some point have to begin: about the nature of social democracy and the values of public life, and characteristics of independence in an age of interdependence. Serious questions and pressures will come to bear which will illustrate the nature of politics and power dynamics in the SNP, the values of centre-left politics, and state of the independence/self-government project.
This will all happen against a backdrop of some of the most severe crises to have hit Scotland and the UK in several generations: a cost of living catastrophe, an energy price hike blowing millions of UK household finances apart, a systemic failure of the system of Tory privatisation of what should be public monopolies, international instability and an ongoing war in Ukraine caused by Putin’s military aggression.
After she leaves office Nicola Sturgeon will be seen as someone profoundly decent, committed to public service and with many admirable qualities, but like many leaders remembered as a transitional leader who left the big difficult questions for others to address and try to answer.