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30 May 2022

Nicola Sturgeon’s record reign is a sign of stasis rather than strength

Scotland’s longest-serving first minister has overseen a strange stalemate between social democratic rhetoric and neoliberal economics.

By Rory Scothorne

Last Thursday (26 May), Nicola Sturgeon became Scotland’s longest-serving first minister, exceeding the seven years and 185 days tally of her predecessor, Alex Salmond. It is not a particularly hard record to break: Sturgeon is only the fifth person in the role, and just three of them – Sturgeon, Salmond and Labour’s Jack McConnell – have lasted longer than two years.

Scotland’s shortest-serving first minister was Labour’s Henry McLeish, who resigned in 2001 after just 379 days amid a minor scandal over sub-letting his constituency office. Holyrood was still in nappies back then, and there was less tolerance for the kind of open scandal that is becoming a common occurrence in Scottish politics. The Labour Party is also far more cut-throat with its leaders than the SNP, who have had just four changes at the top since 1990 compared with Labour’s ten since 1999.

The SNP’s appetite for long-term stability has been vital to its success, offering the public a steady hand on the wheel throughout the financial crisis, Brexit and the pandemic. That at least is one way of understanding Sturgeon’s reluctance to do anything too disruptive. Her reign has produced many policies but few achievements: beyond the obvious electoral success, she has little to her name that can be said to have emerged from a battle against the odds.

The occasion of Sturgeon’s record-breaking provided Scottish pundits from across the political spectrum with a chance to lament this apparent lack of transformative vigour. “She is unchallenged and unchallengeable but also oddly becalmed,” complained Alex Massie in the Times; “If she is not going anywhere, nor is Scotland.” The Herald’s Kevin McKenna registered his “dismay at the glacial progress towards a second referendum”, suggesting that Sturgeon had wasted the “buoyant and optimistic Yes movement” that had been “bequeathed [to her] by her predecessor”.

Complaints about Sturgeon’s lack of boldness are now so common, yet so passionately exchanged, that they should really be in the running for Scotland’s post-independence currency. They are also a kind of rhetorical investment, of the kind especially beloved by the left, in some future moment when it must all come tumbling down and the prophets will be rewarded. “Perhaps the mask of iron-clad rectitude that’s been carefully constructed around the SNP’s public face is beginning to crumble,” writes McKenna, hoping that “those working-class communities who had felt betrayed by Labour now feel that the SNP has also begun to cheat on them”.

Sturgeon was the main beneficiary of mass disillusionment with Labour, which underpinned her first triumph as leader in the 2015 general election. But I suspect McKenna is wrong about the potential of that dissatisfaction to boomerang against Sturgeon eventually. The SNP didn’t exactly re-enchant Scottish politics after Labour were punished – they have benefited in more sustainable ways from a deeper disenchantment, in which they are never held to the same standards that Labour was.

Nobody expects Nicola Sturgeon to be a “real socialist” in the way that left-wing SNP supporters complain Labour failed to be; she has derived much of her strength from a permanent collapse in the value of policy as a guide to principle, and an accompanying rise in the popularity of well-meaning and unsubstantiated rhetoric. She doesn’t need to actually do much to persuade people she’s on their side, beyond saying the right things to (and against) the right people.

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But political success breeds its own kinds of failure, and Sturgeon has undoubtedly failed to usefully invest the vast quantities of political capital accrued since 2015. Much of it has been wasted on bungled, divisive policies such as the scrapped “named person” child protection scheme and impending reforms to the Gender Recognition Act – both of which were superficial efforts to resolve complicated issues.

[See also: Can Scottish Labour ever hope to challenge the SNP?]

Better investment in gender identity clinics, for example, would have improved trans people’s lives while attracting far less ire from social conservatives, but it would also have cost money (it is now being belatedly pursued, thanks in part to the involvement of the Scottish Greens in government). Across the board, Scotland’s social state is straining at the seams after years of expansive but underfunded SNP promises. The biggest disappointment of the Sturgeon era has been the lack of a meaningful shift towards an economic model that can support Scotland’s professed commitment to social justice. That would mean higher taxes and wages, as well as a larger and more entrepreneurial role for public ownership.

It would be wrong, however, to place too much blame for this at Sturgeon’s door. Her biggest critics link the limitations of her government to the centralised control of the SNP by herself, her husband Peter Murrell (the SNP’s chief executive), and a small circle of advisers. But Sturgeon’s command over Scottish politics has not emerged from her own sheer willpower. If anything, she seems to suffer from a lack of nation-making political steel, the kind of thing that would let her leap ahead of history and drag it kicking and screaming towards her.

But that kind of power can’t spring out of nothing. Nor does it go missing by accident. The strange stalemate between social democratic rhetoric and neoliberal economics that characterises Sturgeon’s SNP reflects a genuine impasse in Scottish society. On both sides of the old class struggle, Scotland lacks a truly powerful and self-confident social bloc that can impose its priorities on the nation and remake politics in its image. Scotland has lacked a powerful capitalist class of its own since the nation’s industrial wealth started falling into the hands of Whitehall planners and foreign multinationals; the working class, briefly ascendant in the postwar era, has also been disempowered by deindustrialisation and neoliberalism. Both sides have lost ground to forces that are transnational in scale and ambition, and their weakness has handed ever-greater influence to that strange middle section of Scottish life that it is now fashionable to call the “professional-managerial class”.

Sturgeon – a former lawyer, who governs in close collaboration with the third sector – is undoubtedly an “organic” representative of this class, but this is exactly why she seems so underpowered. Her class are power-brokers, not power-makers – the things they produce are not material objects but the intangibles of consent and consensus. They exist to represent and mediate between the real sources of dynamism in society, but with so little dynamism forthcoming from either labour or capital in Scotland, Sturgeon has had to fill the vacuum with warm words and little else. If bourgeois and proletarian Scotland feel like the country’s leadership isn’t properly speaking for their interests, maybe they should focus on finding their own voice.

[See also: Surely the SNP can do better than Ian Blackford?]

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