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7 September 2018updated 24 Jul 2021 5:08am

After Labour’s leftwards turn, Nicola Sturgeon has emerged as a true centrist

The Scottish First Minister has more in common with Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson than Jeremy Corbyn. 

By Chris Deerin

The hard left of the Yes movement must really be starting to loathe Nicola Sturgeon. Their dream – their insistence – that an independent Scotland would or could be some kind of lodestar socialist republic has never looked more like the juvenile fantasy it is. And every time the First Minister opens her mouth these days, she only serves to confirm their irrelevance. Nicola ain’t no lefty firebrand no more.

Here she is earlier this week, launching her new Programme for Government: “We will ensure that the business environment in Scotland remains competitive and that we are providing the support that business needs to thrive.” The first half of the speech was (pleasingly) given over to a mind-numbing recitation of plans to stimulate economic growth, exports, employment and productivity, of business rates reliefs, skills action plans, digital and physical infrastructure investment – all to “give Scotland a real competitive edge in the economy of tomorrow.”

Here she is speaking to a CBI dinner on Thursday night: “Brexit… poses big challenges to government and to business. But we are more likely to get through these challenges if we work together to promote innovation, invest in infrastructure, support skills, and encourage our exports. I think if we do that then we can grasp the opportunity to raise productivity and sustainable growth. All of that is not an end in itself. It’s a means to making sure that individuals, communities, families, businesses across our country are more prosperous as a result.”

And here she is, explaining to me a wee while ago why she has adopted a cautious approach to raising taxes on higher earners: “I have independent analysis from the civil service saying ‘this could actually lose you money’. When you’re in government and you actually have to worry about the money to fund your public services you can’t ignore that. You’ve got to have pragmatism as well as principle.’”

She won’t thank me for saying it, but this is the language and posture of centrism – of the decent majority and therefore of electoral success.

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Compare it to John McDonnell’s Gramscian twitching in his fascinating interview with Jason Cowley in this week’s New Statesman. “We’ve got to be prepared for government, know how to operate the state, and then you go within. You get elected and then your state isn’t just a set of institutions, it’s a relationship. You change that relationship, which at present is a relationship of dominance. All our reforms are about empowering people, through new structures that we get established… Hegemony is about dominating the debate, and it’s about transforming the whole reality as well. We go inside the state institutions.”

The man who wants to be Britain’s next chancellor and who would certainly be the major controlling force in a Jeremy Corbyn government is just an ageing version of what he has always been. The smartest member of the Corbyn Corps, perhaps, but smart in a particular way: an ideologue lifer who has read all the books, stayed true to the cause, forgotten nothing, and who still thinks he can bring about revolution in this late hour. He and Sturgeon may share a disdain for the British state, but beyond that they have little in common. In fact – and she *really* won’t thank me for this – the FM has more in common with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson.

It’s habitual to view Scottish politics as being split by huge ideological divides. Of course, that’s true among some, and truest in the debate around independence. But there is also a narcissism of small differences at work. I sometimes formulate it like this: if you remove the constitution from the discussion, Davidson can be seen as an ultra-Blairite; Sturgeon as a Kinnockite. The gulf between those two positions, particularly on the role of the state, is real, but not often huge. Richard Leonard’s shaky sub-Corbynism has wholly failed to find purchase (only last night Labour lost the Inverkeithing & Dalgety Bay council seat in Fife – Gordon Brown’s fief – to the still resurgent Tories). Politics north of the Border, for all its radical traditions and fiery rhetoric, is currently being fought out on the centre ground. England should be so lucky.

Having recently taken over as director of the think tank Reform Scotland, I’ve spent much of the past few months talking to business people, third sector bigwigs, politicians, academics, and others, taking the temperature of what we might call Civic Scotland. There are plenty of grumbles about SNP government policy, usually along the lines of “too extreme on this, not brave enough on that”, depending on personal predilection. There is suspicion among Unionists about Sturgeon’s motives and that she will inevitably seek to manipulate debate back towards the break-up of the UK. On the pro-indy side, Davidson’s ties to the party of May, Johnson and Rees-Mogg is hard to forgive.

These may be fair points of criticism – I have my own – but I’ve also found general acknowledgement that the SNP government looks serious about turning Scotland to face the challenges that lie ahead; that the two most impressive politicians in the UK lead the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives; that Sturgeon is a good figurehead for the nation, and that Davidson would be too; that devolution is helping to protect Scotland from the venalities and civil wars playing out at Westminster; that the First Minister has sought to heal the wounds of 2014 through a welcome change in tone and emphasis. That there is plenty to like and admire, as well as much to worry about.

It’s also accepted that the solutions to many of the public policy problems of the 21st century are not obvious or easily achieved; and that the best way to find them will involve more long-term, cross-party, cross-sector collaboration than we have grown used to. Politicians might hate that kind of thing, but people outside the bubble usually don’t.

Given that four short years ago it was hard to see how Scotland could be pieced back together, it’s to the credit of this generation of leaders that something like a new unity is emerging. Even if they themselves won’t admit it.

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