Nicola Sturgeon’s Dominance of Scottish Politics is Waning
Nicola Sturgeon’s allies are beginning to desert her as schisms open in the SNP. Power is slipping away from the First Minister, writes David Jamieson.
Recent months have found Scotland’s political scene stagnant, dysfunctional and chronically unresponsive to the needs of the majority of Scottish people. So, what’s changed, you may ask?
One thing above all – Nicola Sturgeon’s impressive run at the top is finally faltering. The chaos around the passage of Gender Recognition Reform, and the appearance of disunity around a ‘de facto referendum’, are just two signs that power is beginning to slip away from the personality who has defined Scottish politics since 2014.
At least two factional disputes now rend the SNP’s parliamentary groups at Westminster and Holyrood. In London, Sturgeon’s candidate for parliamentary group leadership was defeated by Stephen Flynn and Mhairi Black late in 2022. In Edinburgh, the party’s tally of 9 rebel MSPs, who broke the whip to oppose the passage of GRR, has almost certainly swollen to include more since the government was forced to respond to the outcry around the Isla Bryson case (as an aside, Sturgeon can be thankful for the 2021 split to form Alba – had activists and politicians from that schism remained, the leadership would now be engulfed in all-out factional warfare).
Leading party figures are backing away from the First Minister’s attitudes both to domestic policy and independence strategy. MPs like Alyn Smith, Mhairi Black and Stewart McDonald – once praetorians for the leadership – have failed to defend Sturgeon in recent days. Even John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, has refused to endorse his leaders’ utterings on a de facto referendum. Sturgeon, likewise, seems non-committal.
Party and government communications have broken down completely. What is the Scottish Government’s legislative agenda, its meaning, its purpose? The administration is extraordinarily pointless. Its sole function is to transfer Tory deprivation onto Scottish councils, with effects now felt by millions in dipping wages and crumbling public services.
Until now, the First Minister has proved remarkably resistant to attacks from opponents. Under a pandemic and lockdown that promoted an ethos of national solidarity and political quietism, everything from the Salmond inquiry to care home deaths (that should have been the worst scandal of the devolution era), slid off Sturgeon without leaving a trace. But since the end of lockdown, there have only been bad days for the Scottish Government.
This isn’t surprising; her party has been in office for over 15 and a half years, making it one of the oldest governments in Europe. The SNP shares a longevity league with parties like Erdogan’s Justice and Development party and Putin’s United Russia, but in the heart of western Europe, and against opposition parties just as embedded in the state and establishment as the SNP itself. This, despite a decline in living standards for most Scots across this entire period, and a record of credibility-mashing policy failures during Sturgeon’s tenure.
It is impossible to understand this anomaly, and the wider peculiarities of Scottish public life, without understanding their personification in Sturgeon. She attracts para-social energies like no other political figure in this country, hated and feted in equal measure. To be frank, she’s likely the only serving Scottish politician most could identify on sight.
She has, for more than eight years, carried the popular memory of 2014. It is this, and a juxtaposition to a venal Conservative dominated Westminster, that explains persistently high polling for a party of government over so many years, at a time when power is typically unkind to politicians. But sooner or later, the laws of gravity must take effect. Sturgeon understands this, and is now scanning for the exit door.
Of course, she continues to insist that she will stay on, and cannot do otherwise. Declaring a date for departure would lead to a scramble for position in the party, derailing her leadership completely. Even admitting an intention to leave at any point could trigger calls for a hastier exit among the growing factions of rebels in Westminster and Holyrood, creating an image of her being chased from office (and at this stage, image matters a lot). The longer she waits, the less control she has over how she leaves the stage, and to what reception from the audience.
This fear of being seen to prepare an exit has also meant keeping succession plans fuzzy. Angus Robertson is the heir apparent, as evidenced by his increasing visibility in policy pronouncements, such as an unsurprising but meaningless announcement that Scots will be voting for EU membership if they vote for independence in a future referendum. This would be an insult against the most basic standards of democratic life, were it not for the fact that no referendum is in sight.
Regardless, Sturgeon’s style of rule will leave her party bereft of a leadership cadre when she does finally step down. She will bequeath an exhausted claim to represent the quest for national independence, to an increasingly fractured and disorientated party.
The afore mentioned contradictions of Scottish politics make prediction difficult. The firmament of the post 2014 scene remains in place. Scottish Labour and the Scottish Tories aren’t showing any signs of revival. No political rival with Sturgeon’s authority has appeared. The national question retains at least some of its power for polarisation, if not mobilisation, in the country. But Sturgeon’s role is almost played out.
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