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20 January 2023

The tragedy of Nicola Sturgeon

As she enters the winter of her first-ministership, the gap between Sturgeon’s ambition and delivery is ever clearer.

By Chris Deerin

I saw a friend for the first time in a while at an event this week. “So you’ve finally given up on the SNP,” she said to me. “About time.”

I get that a lot – Unionist pals who, not unfairly, have regarded me as one of their own, accuse me of being too soft on the Nats. This probably draws a wry laugh from the latter. But it’s true that in much of my writing in recent years I’ve tried to understand Scotland’s governing party rather than simply condemn or shout at it. I’ve attempted to give it the benefit of the doubt, and approach it much as I would any other mainstream political organisation.

I’ve felt this is necessary in part because the SNP has been so dominant and so popular for so long – there’s clearly something going on there that appeals to a huge section of the electorate, most of whom have little in common with the woad and saltire whisky-teared heroes of social media. Just telling people they’re wrong has diminishing returns.

Further, some of what the SNP does in government is unobjectionable to a centrist with social democrat leanings like me. I didn’t mind the baby box. I support the thinking and the motive behind the Scottish child payment. I liked the idea of the Scottish National Investment Bank. The SNP was quick to support Ukraine. And there’s simply too much reflexive anti-Nattery in the media, where nothing they do is considered on its own merits.

I also – and this is probably what draws the most flak – have a healthy respect for Nicola Sturgeon. She is now in the winter of her first-ministership, which is all too apparent, but the personal commitment she has shown to her job over the past nine years, the steadiness with which she has carried on in what at times have been difficult and draining circumstances, the burden she has uncomplainingly borne, is not to be lightly dismissed. She has shown greater personal integrity than Boris Johnson, more skilful management of her party than Theresa May, and, well, better everything than Liz Truss.

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[See also: The gender reform bill is about something broader than trans rights]

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The resignation this week of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, saying she has “nothing left in the tank”, is evidence of the toll national leadership can take – especially in recent years. Julia Gillard, the former Australian PM, tweeted that Ardern had sought to “foreground kindness and empathy”, and I think the fair-minded should be able to say something similar of Sturgeon. Leaders like her and Ardern have tried to do things differently in the traditionally masculine world of politics.

I’ve already mentioned the baby box and the child payment. Similarly, the named person proposal came from a place of wanting to provide greater protection to vulnerable children. The Promise, one of the central policies of Sturgeon’s time in office, is a noble effort to transform the lives of children in care. The First Minister’s speech to SNP conference in 2016 promising to put “love” at the heart of the reforms, was a genuinely – and rare, in politics – affecting moment.

Her controversial gender reforms are again an attempt to improve the lot of a precarious, marginalised section of the population. Again and again, when you look at the policies pursued by Sturgeon, at the legislation that has mattered most to her, care for the vulnerable has been her motivation. You might disagree with some or all of it, but you can see where she is coming from.

Too often, though, she has fallen short in delivery – probably because she has allowed her heart to take precedence over her head. The named person plan promised to be a gross invasion into the private life of every Scottish family, and had to be abandoned after falling foul of the courts and human rights law. The Promise is way off schedule and those charged with delivering it talk of civil service inertia and a lack of robust ministerial support.

The gender proposals are almost an archetype of how not to do politics – Sturgeon adopted a radical position from the outset, failed to build public support for the changes, all but ignored the concerns about women’s rights, and stuck her fingers in her ears when warned about a potential clash with the reserved Equalities Act. The result is that her reforms have been blocked and the courts will rule on whether she has a right to introduce them. The weight of legal opinion seems to believe judges will side with the UK government. So where does that leave the trans community? Have they ultimately been helped or hindered by Sturgeon’s blunt strategy?

I’ve found it harder, as the gender reform process has unfolded and as the First Minister has repeatedly hyped up the pro-independence movement, to give her and her party the benefit of the doubt. The first just seems to me unforgivably bad politics and leadership, the second an obsession that overrides all common sense and judgement. The strategic patience with which the SNP has traditionally approached the pursuit of independence has been jettisoned and replaced by continued, rather abject and desperate lunges.

And her social justice priorities have led her to neglect the most fundamental engine of social mobility – the education system. During 16 years of SNP government, the effort put into improving the quality of Scotland’s schools has been minimal, and a generation of children have been failed as a result. 

It’s possible, therefore, to understand where Sturgeon’s coming from, even to sympathise with some of it, and to admire her steadfastness, but still think that her legacy will be rather thin, and that she has largely failed as a reforming first minister. The lessons are there throughout history – in politics, too much heart and not enough head almost always ends like this. It’s too late now.

[See also: Rishi Sunak has every right to block Scotland’s gender bill]

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