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31 March 2022

How will Nicola Sturgeon use her final years in office?

The Scottish First Minister has a rare degree of freedom to shape her legacy.

By Chris Deerin

In his final term as prime minister, and knowing he wouldn’t seek re-election, Tony Blair felt free to follow his instincts as never before. “Every time I’ve ever introduced a reform in government, I wish in retrospect I had gone further,” he declared in 2005. He doubled down on some of the most contentious New Labour policies, including school academies and foundation hospitals.

Nicola Sturgeon now finds herself in a similar position. It is widely accepted that this will be the First Minister’s last term, and it seems likely she will depart office before the 2026 Scottish parliament election, perhaps in 2025 to give her successor time to make their mark. With 11 years in office, she will have been the longest-serving first minister in Holyrood’s history by some margin. 

This gives Sturgeon what Blair had: three more years without the need to square off either the electorate or the grumblers in the opposition, or indeed her own party. If we accept a second referendum is highly unlikely in this period (I explained why this is the case last week) then the issue of her legacy, certainly beyond an inability to deliver independence, must be somewhere near the forefront of her mind. She has a rare opportunity to lead, properly.

There are already some unavoidable contours to the Sturgeon administration. Covid is the most obvious, and despite current arguments over the retention of mask-wearing rules, most voters probably feel that, overall, the First Minister has tackled the virus and its consequences with dignity, energy and compassion. In an interview for the Cultural Coven podcast this week, she spoke of how “lonely” the task had been at times: “as the months wore on and the impact on people became much more difficult and the mental wellbeing impact, the economic impact, the number of people losing their lives, there were days, yeah, where I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’” Her humanity at a time of such societal and personal stress is to her credit.

The human side of politics has been Sturgeon’s perceived strength. Her government has sought to mitigate some of Westminster’s stringencies during the austerity years, creating the Scottish child payment for under-6s and topping up benefits where and when it has been able. She introduced a measure of wellbeing into policy calculations, as well as the baby box for new parents. The First Minister also insists that she will deliver on plans to provide every child with a laptop or tablet to address the digital divide between rich and poor. The political intention, which seems to have been successful with some voters at least, has been to portray Scotland’s political culture as considerably more caring than the one at Westminster, a sort of repository for soft-left opinion. 

Sturgeon has been less successful in her dealings with the private sector. Her determination to give a voice and greater influence to the advocates of social justice has often seen business pushed to the margins, where it has languished, feeling unappreciated and unloved. The public sector has been a first-ministerial priority, but this has had consequences for the economy and for the climate in which wealth creators – of which, read entrepreneurs, employers, taxpayers – have had to operate.

At the launch of the Scottish government’s latest economy strategy this week, Sturgeon admitted her office shelves were “heaving” with previous plans – there have been four during her administration alone. Her critics will have little confidence that much is about to change, especially given the ongoing row over the Ferguson Marine ferries contract. Meanwhile, the nation’s world-class universities, its crucibles of innovation and research and future-proofing, do not feel they owe their success to the Scottish government in any way, other than the fact that it largely leaves them alone. The oil and gas industry is horrified by the way that Sturgeon has suddenly turned her back on it, even as the energy crisis is exacerbated by war in Ukraine.

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Inevitably, as an SNP politician, Sturgeon has done her best to grow a sense of nationhood through the creation of institutions. Social Security Scotland is allowing Holyrood to plot its own path in certain limited areas of benefits. The Scottish National Investment Bank is up and running, though it has yet to prove its long-term worth. Her government is investing, along with universities in Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews, in a foreign policy think tank that is ostensibly intended to be a Scottish version of Chatham House (though Unionists will be watching closely for mission creep towards the development of a discrete Scottish foreign policy). The devolved government has in recent years amplified its voice as an independent actor on the UK and international scene.

Ultimately, is this First Minister simply a social justice warrior with a nice line in self-deprecation? Has she swerved the difficult stuff in favour of pursuing the easy hits, blaming Westminster all the while? Or has she properly primed Scotland for an era of dramatic economic change, while trying to keep the nation in touch with its soul?

History (and Twitter) will judge, but Sturgeon should anyway use her final years in office wisely. A revivifying of local democracy is long overdue, through the creation of powerful, high-profile and accountable leaders, whether in the shape of directly elected mayors or through some other model. Once May’s local elections are over, this would be a substantial reform that would be welcomed across the political spectrum. 

Sturgeon should seek to repair the SNP’s relationship with the private sector by giving her pro-business Finance Secretary (and potential successor) Kate Forbes the freedom to pursue reforms that will open up opportunities in the digital and renewable energy sectors, and to forge a closer and mutually beneficial relationship with Scotland’s outstanding universities.

She might seek to persuade Westminster to allow significant borrowing by the Scottish government, the proceeds of which could be used for greater investment in areas such as education, transport and the digital economy. She could seek to do “levelling up” significantly better than Boris Johnson.

There will always be regrets and missed opportunities – and it seems highly likely that an independence referendum is fated to be one of them. But few political leaders leave the stage without being accused of failure by their critics and of falling short by their supporters. Still, Nicola Sturgeon has the rare chance to go at a time of her own choosing, without being forced, and to choose the terms of her final years. What she makes of it, and how she shapes her legacy, is entirely up to her.

[See also: The SNP has missed its chance for Scottish independence]

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