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?

Comments (17)

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  1. Hector says:

    Sturgeons rein has seen tenant farmers decimated and put into poverty , while landlords have had money thrown at them for nonsensical green schemes and farming payments where no farming is ever done.
    Some legacy

  2. Paul Packham says:

    The left in England were totally behind Corbyn but to ‘wait for Corbyn’. Once he became Labour leader the left had to ‘wait’ for a Labour government’. Corbyn also had to ‘wait’ till he was in number 10. It will never come. They got nothing.

    In Scotland, Sturgeon got to the top after years of apprenticeships. She got stuck into progressive policies while being respectful on her pursuit of independence. The Indy movement ‘waited’ for Sturgeon. Now she has gone, they are still ‘waiting’ but the policies remain.

    The left should stop ‘waiting’!

  3. Graeme Purves says:

    I’m most interested in whether we can roll back the corporate capture of public policy. That’s where much of the real damage has been done and reversing it will, in itself, be a major challenge.

    1. Duncan McLean says:

      Absolutely. A good example is the current ill-drafted Deposit Return Scheme. The SG often describes it as ‘industry led’ but which companies did Lorna Slater meet with in 2022 to consult on it? Coca Cola, Amazon, Budweiser, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s. Additionally, a few group meetings with trade bodies, but many more with the £300k-salaried leader of Circularity Scotland. It’s not a green scheme: it’s a scheme cynically engineered to take money away from the public, and small producers and retailers, and drive it into the bank accounts of ruthless behemoths like the above, and Biffa.

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Is the fact that the electorate in Scotland voted in very large numbers for SNP candidates in Scottish, Westminster and local elections over a sustained period an example of stupidity? Are they incapable of making measured judgements about the person who led the party for half of that period, but need to be ‘put right’ by people like Mr Jonathan Shafi and others who have vomited bile over the past month?

    One of the defining characteristics of the self proclaimed ‘progressive left’ is its arrogance and contempt for ‘the people’, for whom they claim, unilaterally, to speak. They have shown less grace than even the charmless Douglas Ross andJackie Baillie.

    1. Allan Thomson says:

      Well said, Alasdair !

  5. Jake Solo says:

    You don’t really need a deep or left/centre/right analysis of something that happened right in front of your face. What you need is the ability or courage to notice what you missed the first time around so you don’t do it again. The whys and wherefores of the thing are irrelevant. To stop it happening to you again, just learn to see.

    What we need is a lot more informed and sceptical people who know when they’re being lied to and a lot fewer wishful thinkers and hero worshippers. Some of us saw all this coming 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 years ago.

    There was no reason whatsoever – none – to stay on the SNP bus after they pissed away the gift horse of Brexit. Within 2 weeks of the Brexit vote, I knew the SNP had already shat it, and that to justify shitting it they would have to become something else.

    1. SAJackson says:

      I saw it coming in 2011/12

  6. SAJackson says:

    An era that was known as a lot ado about nothing. thank god it over.

    1. sajackson says:

      always a fucking typo.

  7. Andrew Anderson says:

    It is good to try and reflect in a more balanced way. I think a lot of frustration which should be addressed to Westminster is being focussed on Sturgeon by those who are convinced she could have used her magic wand if she had just wanted to enough.

    I agree the SNP have been too timid but I do wonder how much of that stems from the risk averseness of Scottish Government lawyers?

    1. JP58 says:

      Andrew – your comment is far more balanced and reasoned than some of the other contributors. The establishment in Scotland, like much of the middle class, may not support the Conservatives or many of their policies but it is conservative with a small c in outlook.
      Contributors need to remember that since 2010 which encompasses the majority of SNP time in government, Westminster has been implementing a policy of austerity which has impacted on all devolved governments and people in UK. Like it or not a lot of Holyrood time and money has been used to govern against this background.
      We are still a part of UK where Westminster not only holds the significant purse strings but policies pursued by Westminster effect all parts of UK regardless of devolved parliaments. I therefore think the only fair way to measure effectiveness of Holyrood is to compare the impact of their policies in comparison to impact of policies in other devolved governments and Westminster.
      The SNP governments dealings with business have at times been naive (eg Ferries shambles)and they have also been too subservient to vested land interests.
      To all who think they could have been more radical the recent issuing of a Section 35 for GRR reforms and threat to do so for bottle deposit scheme show how limited the powers of an SNP government at Holyrood are. Do you not think that if SNP government had attempted more radical reforms in other areas (eg land reform) which threatened landowners interests that the same tactics by Westminster, aided by media, to create an issue that a Section 35 order would have been forthcoming unless the Scottish electorate were overwhelmingly in support (eg abolition of student fees). Remember the media is overwhelmingly Tory supporting but even non Tory media would oppose Holyrood policies as they are primarily Unionist in outlook. (see supposed progressive Guardian supporting the recent Section35 order on GRR bill.)
      Lastly to all those who are critical of SNP approach to obtaining independence I have heard no coherent plan as to how we can achieve independence without a referendum unless support for independence is at least 60% at which level I think Westminster would find opposition profoundly difficult.
      While I do believe that if Brexit vote was in 2014 and Independence Referendum in 2016 the Scottish electorate would have voted (albeit narrowly) for independence I also think people are more reluctant to vote for change during a time of economic worries.
      Finally, although I appreciate this is a website for the radical progressives in Scotland, you must appreciate that for Scotland to become independent this will require a broad coalition of support including many small c conservatives.
      When independence arrives I have no doubt SNP will split up. I also think there is a far greater chance of a parliament which far better reflects attitudes and opinions of Scottish electorate than Westminster (social democratic in my opinion) which is why I have switched to supporting independence after many years of ambivalence.

  8. Paddy Farrington says:

    A key argument in this piece is that Sturgeon achieved only ameliorative, not transformational change. This is true. But it raises the issue: is genuinely transformational change within the current system really possible? For example, can child poverty be forever eradicated in Scotland through devolution? This is what this argument, phrased as criticism, implies. But then, if such genuinely transformational change is indeed possible with devolution, then why place so much emphasis on independence instead of, say, greater devolution? Indeed one might argue that greater change would be possible within the current system if we set aside the divisions that the pursuit of independence inevitably incur.

    For my part, I do not see how transformational change is possible within the devolution settlement, unless accompanied by matching transformational change at Westminster. The inevitable corollary is that, within the current system, what is at stake is not amelioration versus transformation, but more prosaically how to ameliorate the amelioration.

  9. Alistair Tuach says:


    1. Derek Thomson says:

      Says it all really Alistair.

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