Nicola Sturgeon had a smart line prepared for Sunday morning’s TV merry-go-round. Responding to Theresa May’s comment last week that there were ‘boy jobs and girl jobs’ around the home and that one of her husband Philip’s chores was to take out the bins, Ms Sturgeon said her own husband did the cooking and cleaning while she did the ‘girl job of running the country’.
A neat inversion, and of a piece with the Scottish First Minister’s admirable determination that her elevation should serve as an inspiration to other women and young girls (though I’m sceptical that Mr Sturgeon – the frenetically busy chief executive of the SNP, Peter Murrell – has much time for cooking or cleaning).
However, critics will argue that ‘running the country’ is a less apposite description of what Ms Sturgeon is about than ‘gaming the country’ – that the purpose of her premiership is proving to be little more than cattle-prodding Scotland towards a second independence referendum. And I must say that more and more often these days, the school-gate political chat I hear is likely to contain a frustrated variant on the First Minister’s own phrase: ‘I wish she’d just get on with running the country.’
If you’re not a convinced separatist – and Scotland remains split fairly evenly on the issue – the SNP’s relentless constitutional game-playing can be both wearying and irritating. Even those of us keen to give Ms Sturgeon the benefit of the doubt, who admire her integrity, passion and wit and who regard her as a fine public figurehead for the nation, can sometimes find it hard not to slip into cynicism about the motives behind some of her pronouncements and positioning.
The truth is that, for all its recent success, and despite the large proportion of seats it will retain at the forthcoming general election, the SNP is in trouble. I accept that on the face of it this sounds ridiculous, given the party’s impressive performance at the 2015 general election, the 2016 devolved election, and the recent local election. But coming first in elections is not what the SNP is for, or what it really cares about. Neither is the opportunity to govern, the aim of its rivals. These can only ever be a means to a very specific end – the end of the United Kingdom. And there are growing signs that this greater goal is slipping away.
In the Scottish Parliament at present there is a majority for a second indyref – indeed, Holyrood voted for such a step just a few months ago. But that majority is tight: 69 pro-independence SNP and Green MSPs, compared to 60 pro-Union members provided by the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems.
Ms Sturgeon saw Brexit – opposed by 62% of Scots – as the game-changer that opened the way to another vote on separation. She attempted to bounce the Prime Minister into letting her hold one either in the autumn of 2018 or the spring of 2019. Mrs May said no. When Ms Sturgeon cried foul to the Scottish electorate, she did not get the response she expected. Scots are no fools, and many understood that a referendum held before the Brexit process is complete and its consequences clearer would give them only half the information they need to vote with any certainty. They’d know the shape of the deal to leave the EU, but have no real sense of what would follow, either in the form of opportunities or problems. Further, piling the risks of independence on top of the instability of Brexit is quite the gamble. And come on, one might add, we’ve only just had the last one!
With every extra vote the Conservatives win in Scotland, with every new poll showing public indifference or outright hostility towards another referendum, the easier it becomes for Mrs May to maintain that ‘no’. And she is aware of two things – that Ms Sturgeon is unlikely to go ‘rogue’ and hold a referendum without legal authorisation, and that it is possible, perhaps even highly likely, that the next devolved election in May 2021 will return a pro-Union majority to Holyrood, which would end any pressure from Edinburgh to grant one.
There was an inevitability that the attritional nature of government would take its toll on the SNP’s popularity. Ms Sturgeon faced a choice between betting the farm on a new indyref and hoarding her political capital to that end, or seeking to develop her civic nationalism into a governing concept that took improving schools and the NHS every bit as seriously as separation.
When I interviewed her in April last year she said that closing the attainment gap in Scotland’s schools would be her number one priority. She promised to challenge the cosy consensus that has seen any real attempts at reform neutered at an early stage: ‘If anybody decides to be a block to making sure we’ve got the best education system then they should be moved out of the way. I’ll be confrontational with anybody if it’s about improving the educational experience of kids that come from the kinds of communities that I grew up in.’
A year on, the reality hasn’t lived up to the rhetoric, and shows little sign of ever doing so. There has been a run of embarrassing statistics around literacy and numeracy levels and a general sense that the policies her administration has brought in to address this grim situation are not up to the scale of the challenge.
She said this to me, too, last year: ‘You only get one shot at being first minister. If you don’t set yourself up to fail you’re not actually trying to use it for anything. If you go into anything you do in life saying I’m not going to try that because I might fail — that’s perhaps one of the things about our entire country that we’ve got to change. We don’t do things in case it goes wrong. Take that attitude and you never achieve anything.’
Given statements like that, her popularity, her dominance of the Scottish political scene, and her obvious leadership qualities, it would be quite an achievement for Nicola Sturgeon to fail on both fronts: an anaemic and unadventurous policy legacy, and a referendum that never happens.
This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies