The Sturgeon Era is Over, Now What?
“The Sturgeon era can be defined simply: never has so little been achieved, with so much power.” – Jonathon Shafi
The statement seems true, but also insufficient. The binary analysis of Nicola Sturgeon’s time in office – between fawning acolytes and and bitter detractors – seem both absurd. The FM and the leader of by far the biggest party has agency no doubt, but such analysis seems reductive, and suggests that if a different person, with a more forceful personality, or a more reckless demeanor would have somehow overcome the obstacles in her way. It’s a bit daft – and largely unexplained how a Salmond, or a Regan, or a Cherry, or a Flynn would have done better. The personal analysis of Sturgeon from the right is understandable, but from left it is less credible. Where is the political analysis of the British state, the power relations that undermined not just devolution but democracy and the deeper systemic forces at play – those that prevented change under Corbyn as well as those that stymied change under Sturgeon? There is very little.
A more centre left analysis – as from Joyce McMillan has it that:
“There were very serious policy failures, too numerous to list here. Yet those now dismissing Nicola Sturgeon’s First Ministership as an outright failure would do well, before they rush to judgment, to talk to those families with young children who, thanks to Scotland’s additional child payment, now find themselves almost £100 per month per child better off than parents elsewhere in the UK; or to those who have benefited from the Scottish Government’s mitigation of scandalous UK benefits policies such as the notorious “rape clause” and the bedroom tax. In the week before Nicola Sturgeon resigned, the UK Institute of Fiscal Studies noted that Scotland’s tax system was now redistributing wealth from rich to poor more effectively than anywhere in the UK over the last quarter century, an achievement of which Nicola Sturgeon can be justly proud.”
But these are ameliorative rather than transformative changes. No doubt they should be celebrated but they need that context. Here’s one bit of context, as the IPPR Scotland announced: “Child poverty stats released today show that 250,000 children – the equivalent of around 10,000 primary school classes – are trapped in poverty in Scotland”:
That is a reality, as is the woeful record on drugs deaths. But the defence record lies on two things: what are we judging Sturgeon on, her domestic record or her efforts on independence? And second the SNP’s Get Out of Jail Free card, ‘we don’t have the levers of power of an ordinary country to do the things we want to do’.
The response to the accusation: “never has so little been achieved, with so much power” – that they didn’t have the power they sought is inadequate. It’s true that the Scottish Government did not and do not have powers they would like, the ordinary powers of any independent country. But they also ceded power to lobbyists, landed gentry, and Charlotte Street Scotland. The SNP were and are in bed with corporate Scotland and if a Yousaf victory will be an escape from the cultural right it will need massive changes if it is to avoid the same old patterns of collusion and subversion by big business and corporate Scotland.
Why couldn’t more progress made – within existing powers – on land ownership; on housing reform, building and regulation; on improving standards in education and on tackling drugs deaths; and on reform of local government? Much if not all of this is devolved. The problem was – and is – an aversion to creating waves and standing up to institutional power.
To be fair Sturgeon’s being judged on both her domestic record and her efforts on independence. As Jonathon Shafi again writes: “For many, she has been a ray of light under the shadow of what feels like permanent Tory rule. But there is precious little of substance to report when it comes to delivering for Scotland’s working class who propelled the SNP to a position of unrivalled dominance in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum. She leaves behind a strategically rudderless party, an inbox full of failed policy and a marooned independence movement.”
For this final point – it is true, a calculation must have been made, whether it was tacit or conscious, that the need to forge relationships and support and collaboration was not across the huge grassroots support but among the business class and corporate sector.
Much of these criticisms are undeniable, but the idea being put about by some, that from Monday everyone will get behind the new leader and (re) emerge united is, frankly ridiculous. There is no unity candidate. There is no peace to come.
Having said all this – the reality is that Sturgeon’s SNP was hugely successful (electorally) and remains by a far distance the largest political party in Scotland. Independence remains the goal of around half the population, even if the route to it remains unclear. A shrewd political operator would reflect on the many lessons learned under the Sturgeon and Salmond era and completely revise and reboot the party and re-connect it with its membership and the wider Yes movement. But far far more important the incoming leader needs to re-connect with Scottish society and the wider electorate. Can that be done?