How Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has strengthened her position

The first minister will fight the 2021 Scottish election as a national leader of real distinction, empathy and competence. 

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Nicola Sturgeon has had a good crisis so far. In part, this is down to her nature and her instincts. Her distress at the unfolding coronavirus pandemic has been apparent at every press conference she has given. Similarly, her determination to be straight and honest has shone through. The fact that, for most Scots, she is one of us in terms of character, class, accent and allergy to bullshit, works well.

Even arch critics are feeling it. “Sturgeon has shown honesty about the emotional impact [of coronavirus], which makes people feel better,” says one prominent unionist, who has previously been no fan of the first minister. “She seems to be making good decisions. She appears calm and focused, while underneath she must be suppressing the biggest silent scream.” The 24-hour scramble over the absurd behaviour of Catherine Calderwood, the Scottish chief medical officer, ending in her resignation, seems likely to be a blip rather than a crisis-defining moment.

The contrast with the response – fairly or unfairly – to Boris Johnson’s handling of the outbreak is marked. Scotland seems less divided, more aware of the bonds that connect us all, and as one in a grim determination to get through this while looking out for one another. The same is of true, of course, across the rest of the UK, but north of the border it has perhaps had a larger political impact.

Setting aside the lingering stench of the Alex Salmond trial, and the small group of nationalists who are determined to wreak revenge on Sturgeon and her supporters, coronavirus is unifying the nation as nothing has in the years since the savage divides of the 2014 independence referendum.

Will it last? Probably not  or at least not entirely. The Salmondistas are not going away, and at some point the other parties will doubtless look to capitalise on any mistakes and present themselves as challengers to the SNP ahead of next year’s Holyrood election (presuming it goes ahead). But we must hope that some big lessons are being learned, and that politicians and voters emerge on the other side of this with a degree of fellow feeling restored, a rewired sense of perspective, and a kinder view of those with whom they disagree.  

There is, after all, a lot more to community spirit and solidarity than the colour of a flag or where you place your X on the ballot paper. We are rediscovering things about ourselves. And, in a way, we are seeing devolution operating as was always intended: governments working largely in sync, with goodwill and a shared goal.

I was struck by Keir Starmer’s sentiments after being elected Labour leader on 4 April, when he promised to work “constructively” with Johnson’s government to tackle the pandemic, and not engage in “opposition for opposition's sake”. Relations between Labour and the Tories deteriorated into mutual hatred during the Corbyn years. Starmer’s maturity and the likely return of Labour to its social democratic principles could open up a new era of properly competitive politics that nevertheless has a degree of decency and dignity at its heart.

This, perhaps more than the Salmond backwash, might in the end prove more troubling for Sturgeon and the independence project. The SNP has thrived on the animosity left over from 2014, on Brexit and on English nationalism. An electable Labour Party operating in the mainstream of politics, with a moderate-radical policy platform focused on the future, has the potential to appeal to Scots who, after all, voted so overwhelmingly for the party during the Blair years. 

There is no reason for its current disastrous position in Scotland to be permanent – at some point in the next decade democratic gravity will require the SNP to be replaced in government, and Labour still has a claim on the hearts and heritage of many voters. If the Starmer victory and momentum seeps north, and the beleaguered Scottish Labour Party can find the people and policies to capitalise on, a comeback needn’t be unthinkable, or even particularly slow. 

Of course, none of this is likely to happen in time for next May’s election – Scottish Labour seems fated to go into that vote under the unimpressive Richard Leonard, its current Corbynish leader. On the upside, Jackie Baillie, the formidable, centrist MSP for Dumbarton, was recently elected as his deputy, and will make her presence felt over the longer term.

Sturgeon is on course to fight the 2021 Scottish election as a national leader of real distinction, empathy and competence, due to her handling of the crisis. The questions about the SNP’s performance in relation to public services over its 13 years in government will remain and fairly be put, but next year may more closely resemble a war election. And Sturgeon’s critics  internal and external  may come to look very small indeed.

But will Scotland come out of the coronavirus crisis determined to rush to independence? Or will there be a pause for breath and a desire for a little less excitement for a while? Will a return to electability of Labour at a UK level turn heads? What, in particular, will be its impact on those undecided voters whom Sturgeon has tried so hard to win over in the past few years and whom she needs to get independence over the line?

I have believed for some time that only a reborn, centrist Labour Party can save the Union. If I was Sturgeon, that looming possibility would worry me more than the angry misogynists sniping from Camp Salmond.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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