Nicola Sturgeon, war leader. Not a phrase that trips easily off the tongue. Scotland’s First Minister is a domestic policy animal, a politician who prioritises social justice and well-being and who fronts a party that has, if anything, leaned towards pacifism.
This week, however, Sturgeon has entered the complex waters of military strategy, becoming the first senior UK leader to talk positively about the prospect of Nato imposing a no-fly zone in the skies over Ukraine. She insisted the step, which has been deemed too risky by many experts in case it draws the West into a hot and potentially nuclear war with Russia, should not be ruled out. While Sturgeon shared concerns it might lead to “direct military confrontation”, she argued that “the West has to keep its mind open to every way in which Ukraine can be helped”.
Her statement has been met with some shock. Is this the zeal of the convert, a politician who has long shied away from defence matters finally unleashed and going all in? Is it the misjudgment of a game-theory naïf? A misguided attempt to export the empathy she displays in areas of social policy into the unforgiving climate of martial brinkmanship? Or is this a new iron lady on show? Can she see a shift in mood coming?
Whatever it is, it has put the First Minister out on her own among Western leaders. It is an uncomfortable position, and it is a new one for the SNP, more used to being criticised for taking doggedly oppositional stances at times of conflict than for hyping a possible Third World War.
It also tells us some important things about the era we are moving into, compared with the one we have so abruptly left. The SNP, as I wrote recently, can fairly claim to be Britain’s most anti-Putin party, and shares a warm relationship with politicians in Ukraine. The leadership has long wanted to put the issue of an independent Scotland’s Nato membership to bed – many party members, anti-nuke to their core, are against joining, but Sturgeon and her ministers see it as a way to offer greater security to swithering “No” voters, and to put Scotland squarely in the international mainstream. They still want Trident gone from Faslane, but have spent time developing a proposal that the new state could offer non-nuclear support on Nato operations, such as in the area of battlefield medicine. Ukraine is a good opportunity to drive home their point.
We are now in a serious time for serious people, and it has been instructive to observe which politicians are doing well and which of them less so. At a Reform Scotland event I hosted this week on the future of the Conservative Party, the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, was given a universal thumbs-up by Ruth Davidson, Jesse Norman, David Gauke and Donald Cameron MSP. As a former soldier, Wallace has a natural sympathy for and expertise in his portfolio, and has been resolute, urgent and consequential in his actions. There was less approval for Priti Patel, the Home Secretary who through either a tin ear, a hard heart or incompetence, is failing to reshape refugee laws to allow fleeing Ukrainians into the UK, leaving most of the country horrified.
Accusations of a similar lack of grip are being thrown at the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, two jejune cabinet ministers who have proved themselves peerless with photo calls and social media stunts, but perhaps less so with the crunching challenges of war. Boris Johnson, so close to losing his job only weeks ago, is attempting to seize his Churchillian moment, with some success – it has certainly bought him time.
This change, the need to step it up, carries risks for the Scottish nationalists too. Over 15 years, they have been a good-egg government in what, even with Brexit and Covid, suddenly appears to have been relatively stable and straightforward times. Sturgeon has positioned herself as a kind heart opposed to Tory wickedness, looking after public-sector workers, topping up stingy benefits, introducing a baby box for new parents and a measurement of national well-being into policy development. She has just apologised for the “historical injustice” of witch hunts and backed a new proposal to criminalise misogyny. This is cosy territory for her, and many will find much to commend, but it is a mode of politics that will surely be squeezed if the Ukraine crisis creates a new normal.
It was with this in mind that Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, suggested on 7 March that proposals for a second independence referendum next year may have to be rethought. Few believed there was much chance of the referendum happening even before Ukraine, but Sturgeon has been quick to contradict Blackford and insists her target of 2023 remains in place.
This ambition might help to explain the First Minister’s robust position on Ukraine. By sending vast numbers of weapons, medical equipment and rations to the benighted country, Britain is illustrating once more the key part it plays in epochal moments such as these. The UK’s position as an important global player – and the loss of heft that Scotland would feel in leaving – was an argument against independence in 2014, though Brexit has since rather undermined that. Now, the ongoing menace of Putin and the impact being made by the British state could be seen as restating the moral argument for belonging to a nation that is one of the few genuinely able to affect matters on the biggest of stages.
Neither can Sturgeon afford to get lost in the noise as the West figures out how best to proceed. It goes without saying that the plight of Ukraine has “cut through” to the public in a way that an apology to dead witches hasn’t. Scots are not looking to the First Minister for solutions, but to the presidents and prime ministers who run the world’s most consequential nations. If independence is to feel like more than an irritating and inconvenient SNP obsession over the next few years, Sturgeon must at least stay visible, engaged and relevant.
The war will also cast a long shadow over domestic policy for years to come. Money will be tighter, energy prices even higher than expected, inflation a constant threat, and meanwhile, pressing spending problems such as social care and net zero have not gone away.
A changed world, then, and the SNP has no choice but to change with it.