There are few Scottish cabinet ministers who would be missed were they suddenly to vacate their well-remunerated jobs. Even 16 years into SNP government, many of the big ministries remain in the hands of the time-served and the friends of, politicians whose main task – at which they have failed spectacularly – is to keep their department off the front pages.
Nicola Sturgeon’s departure would be a major change, of course, though a growing number might argue it would not necessarily be to the detriment of the nation she leads. John Swinney would certainly be missed as Sturgeon’s gaunt confidante and general-purpose firefighter.
But there is one other minister who would leave a significant and very obvious hole – and in a way we already have evidence of this. Since she began her maternity leave last summer, the nimble intellect, political courage and impressive competence of Kate Forbes have been notable by their absence.
Prior to her leave the finance secretary, 32, had spent 18 months trying to bring an accountant’s rigour to the Scottish government’s standard hosepipe approach to public money. Despite her youth Forbes showed steel in demanding departmental spending cuts from her cabinet colleagues, who – to say the least – were unused to such strictures. She has saved millions by taking a red pen to the many building rents built up by a civil service and various state agencies whose employees now largely work from home. She was keen to do a deal with the UK government on free ports, and Treasury officials speak highly of her as a fair-minded and sharp interlocutor who is able to “get negotiations to yes”. She is practical, has an instinctive caution with the taxpayer’s pound and is robust under internal challenge.
Forbes admires Sturgeon’s fortitude and charisma but has a mind of her own. The senior and junior ministerial pool is stuffed with ultra-loyal social justice activists who have shaped themselves in the First Minister’s Green/Nat image, which is all the more reason for some grit in the oyster.
This is not to say Forbes is any kind of cuckoo in the nest. She is committed to achieving independence, and is far from the Tory-lite politician that some on the party’s left try to paint her as. I’d judge her politics, constitutional matters aside, would put her pretty much in the Labour Party mainstream. Realism, clear-headedness and a willingness to think for oneself rather than simply parroting the latest centrally dictated guff are marks of all successful politicians.
Here’s the other thing. I have genuinely lost count of the number of people, unionists and nationalists, business veterans and third-sector enthusiasts, who have come away from dealings with her hugely impressed, and who mention Forbes’s temporary absence as a matter of regret. Those dealing with the civil servants in her department in recent months speak of an evident return to caution when it comes to decision-making and moving policy forward – meetings about meetings are back in fashion. This is the kind of institutional inertia that Forbes had been challenging. I suspect she will find an ally in Gregor Irwin, who is joining the Scottish government as director-general of the economy department from Peter Mandelson’s consultancy Global Counsel.
Sturgeon knows all this, respects her colleague for it, and rates her highly as a potential successor. This is where the SNP needs to do some hard thinking.
It’s no secret that the First Minister is looking to life after Bute House. She may go after the next general election or hang on until the Holyrood election in 2026, but mentally she is clearly focused on her exit and her legacy. What comes next is increasingly occupying the minds of those she will leave behind.
I will be some way down the list of those the SNP look to for political advice. But I would posit that Sturgeon must represent the last knockings of an era that began long before Holyrood came into existence. She is the tail end of a political generation that includes Alex Salmond, Mike Russell, Kenny MacAskill and many of those nationalist guerrillas whose identity was forged in electoral and cultural adversity, when the number of SNP MPs at Westminster rarely troubled double figures, the media treated the party as something of a quirk, and the prospect of independence seemed far-fetched.
Many of these die-hards are talented strategists – hence everything the party has achieved in the past two decades – but their defining motive in politics was to break up the UK, and anything else was secondary. The advent of devolution, and the arrival of the first SNP government in 2007, was therefore a steep learning curve. A health service had to be run, schools governed and an economy managed. There was no previous ministerial expertise to fall back on, or any real depth of party policy in these areas.
Does this explain the anaemic record and missteps of the SNP in government? Or is this caused by the constitutional obsession? Salmond has admitted running his administration on the principle that “everything we proposed should be designed, de minimis, to do no damage to the independence cause, which was then, and still should be, the SNP’s raison d’être”. This has hardly changed under Sturgeon, and it’s hard to do much good – certainly when it comes to the tougher bits of governing – if your overriding aim is to avoid compromising a single, narrow objective.
Forbes and her generation came to political maturity at a very different stage of the party’s evolution. The SNP was already in or near government, with support for independence up and rising. The idea of leaving the UK is today supported by around half of Scotland’s population and the Nats have a huge majority of Scotland’s MPs and, by some margin, the largest proportion of its MSPs. No one can afford to treat them as a quirk these days.
But where the old guard has failed is in the core project. Its ingrained chippiness, which in too many cases recently has become an entitled arrogance, puts off as many voters as it attracts. It should be clear by now that Scots will not be frightened or bellowed into independence.
[See also: What is behind the fall of Nicola Sturgeon?]
The opportunity offered by Sturgeon’s departure – it is surely unthinkable that the SNP won’t still run the government after the 2026 election – is for a reset. At some point I suspect the electorate will tire of the relentless constitutional sharp practice, the shouting and whining, and the constant repairing to the Supreme Court, especially as the health service teeters on the brink, schools decline and economic growth remains both low and an apparent ministerial afterthought.
A new leader can do something about all this. There is no guarantee the swing voters in middle Scotland will ever be persuaded by the case for independence, but more might be willing to listen to a government that put all its efforts into transforming public services, supporting the economy and doing the hard things well. Show that Holyrood can be a highly effective powerhouse and perhaps the next step becomes a little less daunting. Work constructively with the incoming Labour government in Westminster. In time, make Scotland one of the best and most dynamic places in Europe to live, rather than just telling us this is so, contrary to the evidence of the data and our own eyes. If this stretches the timeline for independence, the impatient should realise that separation isn’t coming anytime soon and that building a confident and solid majority for such change is in everyone’s interests.
I have no idea if Forbes, with a young child and a distant Highland constituency, would be willing to wear the sacrifices and the challenges that come with being first minister. Her socio-religious conservatism would have to be managed, but this is not beyond her. And look where she has got to, and where she has succeeded, already. In my mind she is the outstanding candidate to replace Sturgeon, with the right instincts, qualities and personality to do the job well. There are a number of smart young politicians at Holyrood and Westminster who should already be thinking about building Team Forbes.
The SNP will do what the SNP wants to, of course, and in electoral terms they have hardly been unsuccessful. But times – and electorates – change, and smart political movements read the runes and change with them. Now’s the time and now’s the hour.
This article was first published on 3 February.
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