At her best Nicola Sturgeon is, unusually for a Scottish Nationalist, a unifier. She can ignite the flame in Scottish breasts, both separatist and unionist. After the 2014 referendum, her calm dignity appeared to be what a bruised nation needed from its new First Minister as it sought to heal the wounds inflicted by the alpha warring of Alex Salmond and his Better Together opponents.
Then came Brexit, which saw Sturgeon make a huge and potentially definitive error of judgement. With Scotland having voted heavily to remain in the EU, she viewed the overall UK decision to leave as a moment that would shift opinion on independence. The First Minister declared there had been “a significant and a material change” in the circumstances that led Scots to reject separation only two years earlier. Her government would therefore prepare for a second referendum.
It was too much, too soon – those who had welcomed her less tribal sensibility now saw only another Nat ultra who would pounce on any pretext to break up Britain. She was threatening to ladle uncertainty upon uncertainty. At the general election that followed soon after, the SNP lost a third of its seats.
The whole thing was out of character for a woman who usually operates with Merkel levels of caution. Ever since, her government has pursued a mantra of “steady and stable”.
One activist’s steady and stable is another’s dull and cowardly, though. There will be some heading for the SNP’s conference in Glasgow this weekend who want a dramatic announcement of a second referendum, or at least a timetable towards one. They are almost certain to be disappointed. No one I spoke to in the party’s leadership cadre or wider circle of influence expects anything of the sort. “We need to update the 2014 case and that hasn’t been done yet, so putting dates in the calendar and setting stopwatches doesn’t add up,” says one MP.
A senior party figure agrees: “If she holds it at the wrong time and loses, then what’s the point? Anyway, most of those pushing for this are ex-Greens and Socialist Workers and those in Common Weal [a pro-independence think tank], who aren’t listened to.”
It seems likely that Sturgeon will elegantly skirt round the referendum issue for now. After four years as First Minister she leads a government that is serious about public policy and that hopes to evolve the arguments for independence. “There’s a benefit in waiting a bit longer,” says the MP. “Basically, we need to wait until the Brexit shit hits the fan. Brexit will crystallise the problems of UK democracy for Scotland.” Short-term patience may prove to be longer-term virtue, then. The Tory opposition at Holyrood, led by the formidable Ruth Davidson, admits privately that the Nationalists’ “Standing up for Scotland” message remains an intimidatingly powerful brand. “The fundamental fact about the SNP after 11 years in power is that they are still miles ahead,” admits a source close to Davidson. “If they’re coming to a lower level it’s still pretty high. They’re running about 40 per cent in the polls and it’s hard to get them below that.”
The Nats are helped by the lack of a Corbyn-style bounce for Labour north of the border: they remain the go-to vote for many on the centre left. But can Sturgeon keep the show on the road? The Tory source talks of “a fractiousness about them that wasn’t there in the early days of government, when they were this sleek, confident machine. They’re beginning to fray round the edges. Remember, the [John]Swinneys and Sturgeons have been at this for a decade. That has to take a toll.”
James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, notes a “tiredness and a bit of timidity”. “There are so many deep-rooted policy challenges around the economy, demographic change and so on,” he says. “What they need are new ideas, but they seem frightened of their own shadow.”
There are internal criticisms, too. A common complaint is that Sturgeon’s circle of advisers, which includes her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, is too small for good decision-making.
Her personal leadership style also leaves some unimpressed. Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the party, accuses the First Minister of obsessing over “gender issues” rather than tackling the problems in housing, education, health and the economy that genuinely concern voters. She also lacks a sense of “the big picture”, he says. “The leadership does not think philosophically. This is a major defect. Is there anyone saying to Scottish people that manufacturing, steel and shipbuilding are no longer going to be a major factor in our economy because others are doing it cheaper elsewhere? Or thinking about how to cope with the technological revolution and its impact on the humanity of our society? Sturgeon is more of a technocrat than a leader with the kinds of qualities required.”
Another prominent Nationalist questions whether Sturgeon “is really up for it”, arguing that while the circumstances to make and win the case for independence have never been greater, the First Minister seems oddly becalmed. “She needs a bit of rejuvenation. The times are bumpy, sure, but Labour is shockingly bad, the Tories have a good leader but no prospectus, the status quo is falling apart. She needs to fill that gap: have a cold bath, give herself a shake and get going. But again, I return to the question: is she up for it?”
Allegations of sexual harassment faced by her mentor Salmond “must be bearing down on Nicola at the moment”, explains a senior cabinet minister. Overall, though, the minister’s view is upbeat. “Nicola is cautious, but that instinct is probably right. We are steering the ship carefully, navigating turbulent waters. We are trying to provide good, competent government and do what we said we’d do. When it comes to independence, public opinion will either take it there or it won’t.”
And as for that remarkably enduring SNP popularity? “Look, it’s not our fault everyone else is shit.”
This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right