In the mid-2000s, a conversation began in the inner circles of New Labour. The question that needed answering was how, after almost a decade in power and an unpopular war in Iraq, the governing party could renew and re-energise its offer to the electorate. How could it avoid becoming seen as a stale, bedraggled collection of politicians who had made too many mistakes and overstayed their welcome?
Labour was all too aware of what had happened to John Major’s Conservatives. In 1997, strafed by scandal, appearing ill at ease in the modern era and with the same old ministers provoking voter contempt, the Tories were punished at the ballot box. Was it possible for Labour to avoid a similar fate?
The answer was: not really. The problem of how a party can renew itself while in office went unsolved. Now, after 13 years in government in Scotland, it is the SNP that confronts this conundrum.
The Scottish government is ageing. Seven of the 11-strong cabinet, including the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, have been MSPs since Scotland’s devolved parliament was founded in 1999.
The resignation on 6 February of the finance secretary Derek Mackay, once tipped as a likely successor to Sturgeon, was a double blow. The nature of his offence was tawdry and humiliating – sending messages to a 16-year-old boy, which amounts to grooming. Mackay’s departure deprives the party of one of the better performers among its new generation, a luxury it can ill afford. And, after more than a decade in power, his exit can be added to a list of nationalist politicians in Scotland whose inappropriate, and even illegal, behaviour has seen them ignominiously ejected from politics.
Sturgeon is now exposed to a growing charge sheet of failure. The Scottish government’s flagship education policy, Curriculum for Excellence, is to be investigated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Among numerous problems with Scotland’s education system, a recent Pisa study revealed a sharp slide in maths and science performance.
On health, the building of a new children’s hospital in Edinburgh is behind schedule and costing the taxpayer more than £1m a month. A review is under way into infection-control procedures at Glasgow’s largest hospital after two children died of water contamination in 2017. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has been placed in special measures.
The economy is also declining. Earlier this month it emerged that Scottish GDP had fallen by 3 per cent, meaning the country’s deficit is now £12.6bn, or 7.2 per cent of GDP. There are other controversies, too, including a row over the launch of two long-delayed and over-budget CalMac ferries, which are essential for the economies of Scotland’s island communities.
But the worst is yet to come. In March Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as first minister and SNP leader, will be in court facing criminal charges of sexual assault. There is a real possibility of this causing catastrophic damage to the SNP and to Sturgeon.
Yet amid all the scandal and political ineffectiveness, the SNP continues to poll at around 40 per cent, well ahead of its rivals. There are two reasons for this. The most obvious is the issue of independence. For the majority of Scottish nationalists, independence is a goal that overrides any scandal or policy failure, which means Sturgeon’s SNP has been able to withstand a battering that would devastate any other party.
The other reason is the poor quality of the political opposition. Where are Scots to find an alternative devolved government that offers vision and competence?
The second-placed Conservatives have lost Ruth Davidson, who was both capable and popular, and people remain undecided about her successor, Jackson Carlaw. The Tories have offered the electorate little beyond a resounding “No” to independence. And it is still hard to see Scotland electing a Conservative government, regardless of the political circumstances.
Scottish Labour remains frozen in the Corbyn era, with its unimpressive leader, Richard Leonard, a figure of fun at Holyrood. The Lib Dems have practically vanished from the electoral map.
The greatest threat to Sturgeon, therefore, is internal. She is sticking to her plan that the party must secure a pro-independence majority at the Holyrood election in 2021 to justify a second referendum. But others in her party disagree and are becoming increasingly vocal. Joanna Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West, wants to test in court the right of Holyrood to hold a consultative referendum without seeking permission from Westminster. Others have called for a “wildcat” referendum if Boris Johnson continues to block a legal one.
Sturgeon’s supporters are worried. They point to the breakdown of party discipline and unity, attributing this to Sturgeon operating with a small inner cabinet, which includes her husband Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive. “It doesn’t look great,” says a senior source. “Sturgeon has found it difficult to carry the broader membership because they feel locked out. This has given some of the more populist and extremist elements a way in.”
There is widespread agreement that Sturgeon must “renew” her government. Previous SNP leaders, including Salmond, have tended to remain in their post for a decade; Sturgeon is only five years into her leadership. She needs new faces in the cabinet, greater clarity of direction and a shake-up at SNP headquarters, say allies.
Her supporters argue that whatever the consequences of the Salmond trial, Sturgeon must be protected if independence is to be delivered in the next parliament. “If no one else is left standing, Nicola must be,” says a Scottish independence strategist. “She’s mission critical. She provides stability and international legitimacy. And it’s hyper-important that a popular female leader is not kicked out of her job due to the behaviour of men.”
Governments of other stripes have found it impossible to resist the wearying, degrading nature of time, scandal and error. The SNP, so far, seems to be different. But it will undoubtedly have to change if things are to stay the same.
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose