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10 November 2022

The problem with late-period Nicola Sturgeon

The First Minister has moved away from pragmatic, moderate governance and back towards the radical left-wing activism of her youth.

By Chris Deerin

Twitter is currently consumed by tweeters announcing to other tweeters that they are leaving Twitter, or at least preparing to leave Twitter, or alternatively declaring they will probably be staying on Twitter. It is a heightened performance of what that platform does best: numbing self-absorption.

The future social media plans of regular Twitter user Nicola Sturgeon may currently be unknown to us, but from her performance this week she seems to be going nowhere. And it’s not as if the First Minister is a stranger to numbing self-absorption these days. A snap of her sitting on a couch with Catherine Colonna, the French foreign minister, at Cop 27, presumably taken by a staffer who was lurking behind a nearby fern, has been tweeted and retweeted from every possible SNP-linked account. “LOOK AT ME MEETING SOMEONE IMPORTANT FROM A BETTER BIG COUNTRY THAN BRITAIN,” the image screams. 

And fair play. It wasn’t so long ago that we were giggling at Gordon Brown for chasing a reluctant Barack Obama into the UN kitchens to secure a chat. Be they ever so high, all politicians lust after the grip-and-grin with someone that bit further up the global chain who will sprinkle a little sparkle.

There are those who criticise Sturgeon for attending these summits, as if she is somehow overstepping the boundaries of her position. This argument is as tiring as it is silly. In relation to Cop, the UN climate conference, the battle against climate change is being fought at every level, and in fact sub-national and even local innovations are every bit as important (and often more effective) than the international agreements. The Scottish government is among the most powerful devolved institutions in the world, and has made big commitments around net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Of course it should be involved, and of course the First Minister, whoever holds the office and whichever party they represent, should be seen and heard.

What interests me more about Sturgeon’s performance in Sharm el-Sheikh, though, is how it fits into what we might describe as her emerging late period, these final years of her first-ministership. She has spent the conference agitating for rich countries to pay what would surely in the end amount to billions if not trillions in reparations to those nations most affected by climate change. She has, thoughtfully, set aside £5m in “loss and damage” cash from the overstretched Scottish budget – well, it’s a start. It’ll be interesting to see what impact her outspoken generosity on behalf of the skint West has on any future job prospects.

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Whatever you think of the reparations proposal – and there are of course arguments in its favour – it is of a piece with Sturgeon’s recent move away from pragmatic, moderate governance and back towards the radical left-wing activism of her youth. Like other leaders in the last knockings of their time at the top, she seems to be casting off the compromises that marked her early years in the job in an attempt to be more fully herself and to shape her legacy into something she can live with.

[See also: Munira Mirza: “The constant briefing at Westminster is corrosive”

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Tony Blair did much the same in his final term, though this involved intensifying reforms of the school and health systems. Sturgeon’s failure in these technically difficult policy areas has been so total that there is little point starting now. Instead, she is focusing on the kind of social justice issues which have always interested her more.

The consequence of this is that late-period Sturgeon more closely resembles a Scottish Green Party first minister than a mainstream SNP one. My initial judgement on her absorption of the Greens into government last year – that it was a fairly cheap bid to strengthen the pro-independence movement and freeze out the troublesome Alex Salmond wing – now seems wrong to me, or at least only part of the point. Since then Sturgeon has abruptly turned her back on Scotland’s oil and gas industry, has shown even less interest than usual in economic growth despite the abject state of the Scottish economy, and is driving through gender self-identification legislation while rather brazenly ignoring the reasonable concerns of many women about its potential impact. This version of Sturgeon – and perhaps it’s the most authentic one we’ve seen – has more in common politically with Patrick Harvie than with many of her backbenchers. No wonder the Green co-leader seems so comfortable as part of her administration – he’s barely having to try.

When I mentioned the tail-end Blair comparison to one politically astute friend, she disagreed. “I think Sturgeon’s far more like Thatcher was towards the end,” she said. “Blair was always trying to take people with him, even at the death. But she’s just doing what she likes, is being dismissive and even rude to those who have alternative views, and seems to have given up on trying to persuade people. And I tell you what, that rarely ends well. It didn’t for Thatcher.”

Sturgeon’s staggeringly ill-judged public response to the resignation of Ash Regan, the community safety minister, over the gender reforms last month would seem to confirm this: she is a leader who has forgotten how to treat people and who is growing ever more arrogant and self-absorbed. She states openly that she “detests the Tories and all they stand for”, which is both insulting to large parts of the electorate and verging on the juvenile.

She has been ill-tempered in television interviews and parliamentary appearances, as if these forms of accountability are beneath her. Perhaps the unwelcome prospect of a Labour government at Westminster and the vanishing prospect of Scottish independence have spooked her. Whatever, the early years of her leadership, during which she often spoke of reaching out to those who didn’t necessarily share her politics, seem very distant.

Sturgeon’s post-government prospects are her own concern, and her most likely role is probably as some kind of social justice campaigner. There are worse things to be, and plenty of well-funded NGOs that would doubtless be happy to have her. But one might argue that her recent behaviour has shown a talent for closing minds rather than opening them, and that, for as long as she is going to remain in office, this makes for a rather grim national prospect. Advocacy at any level requires passion and belief, but also the art of persuasion, personal humility, and the ability to understand others’ points of view. It’s hard to recognise much of that in late-period Nicola Sturgeon, which, for me at least, is a curious and saddening thing.

[See also: Rishi Sunak can’t escape the Tories’ post-truth policies]

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