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15 February 2023

What will Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy be?

Given the favourable circumstances, the SNP should arguably be much closer to achieving independence than it is.

By Chris Deerin

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 26 May and is being repromoted following the news that Nicola Sturgeon has resigned as Scotland’s First Minister.

The music writer Greil Marcus argued that “rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed their talent so completely”.

There will be those who applied a similar analysis to Nicola Sturgeon this week as she became Scotland’s longest-serving first minister – not as a singer, of course (she admits she can’t hold a tune), but as a politician.

Critics on the pro-independence side believe Sturgeon is wasting a golden opportunity to hold a second referendum and has instead become mired in the daily grind of governing. She has grown too comfortable in the neoclassical surroundings of the Robert Adam-designed Bute House, they say, with an army of civil servants and underlings to do her bidding. Meanwhile, there is no real progression towards the movement’s ultimate goal, and the likelihood of Scotland leaving the UK recedes as each year of this long SNP reign passes.

On the pro-Union side, she is accused of obsessing about independence to the exclusion of everything else, with the consequence that Scotland languishes in constitutional stasis. I have heard more than one senior figure muse over the years that Sturgeon might otherwise have made a fine Labour first minister. Without the constant need to judge policy on whether it advances the case for independence or not, she would have been liberated to pursue badly-needed reforms to public services and the Scottish economy and work much more closely and positively with governments at Westminster.

There are few on either side of the debate who dispute Sturgeon’s star quality, or her formidable political abilities. Since 20 November 2014, when she took over the top job from Alex Salmond, she has dominated the national debate and public life, and has been so secure and fixed in her position that it has become hard to imagine or at times even remember Scotland without her. On Wednesday 25 May she passed the seven years, six months and five days mark that took her beyond Salmond’s duration in the post. Sturgeon was unable to celebrate – she is struggling with Covid, with her deputy John Swinney standing in at this week’s First Minister’s Questions. Scotland, meanwhile, for better or worse, has a case of Long Nicola.

There are those who are obviously built to lead and those for whom it makes an awkward fit. It could be argued that Gordon Brown and Theresa May were in the latter category, neither seeming comfortable under the burden of the top office. Tony Blair and David Cameron wore the mantle lightly. Sturgeon has been both: in her first years as a politician she cut a withdrawn and tetchy figure, but in time blossomed into a substantial and confident frontwoman. This was particularly evident during the 2014 independence referendum, when she regularly held rallies of thousands of Yes voters in the palm of her hand, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, when her particular mix of hard work, empathy and honesty were appreciated by a traumatised population.

It helps, too, that Sturgeon comes across as a relatively ordinary Scot. She has a typically irreverent Glaswegian sense of humour and can be very funny, and looks and sounds like the people who elect her. There is no Old Etonian class divide between the leader and the led in Scotland. She spends what little spare time she has reading novels, and regularly tweets about her favourite books. There is a humanity and normality to her that is not always visible in her Westminster equivalents.

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But for at least half the population she is also utterly infuriating. During her time in office, there has been concern about opportunities lost and fights avoided. The education system is withering under what feels like a lack of care and imagination, and an unwillingness to institute the kind of bracing reforms that might upset the teaching unions even if they were welcomed by pupils and parents. Sturgeon has a poor relationship with the business community, which feels unvalued and ill-served; it is certainly true that she is driven by a belief in social justice and the importance of the state, and lacks a natural sympathy with wealth creators and entrepreneurs. Taking the anti-growth, far-left Greens into government was only the most egregious example of this.

Indeed, her government’s engagements with the private sector have rarely been successful, whether relating to the catastrophic commissioning of ferries from the Ferguson shipyard – the ships now years late and vastly over budget – the purposeless nationalisation of a dormant Prestwick Airport, and now ScotRail, which within a month of being taken under government control has moved to an emergency timetable, cut 700 services a day and made travelling a risky business for commuters.

If the overriding purpose of Sturgeon’s administration has been to secure another referendum then this also looks to have been a failure. She insists a second vote will be held in the next few years – by the end of 2023 if she gets her way – but this seems unlikely. And if the SNP’s electoral success finally begins to wane after 15 years of pre-eminence, the chance could be lost for decades.

Where the First Minister has perhaps had more success is in gradually peeling Scotland away from the Anglo-Saxon neoliberal model and towards a Nordic social democratic one. She has done this subtly, by introducing measures of well-being into policy development, pursuing inclusive growth, introducing the Scottish child payment, and by making the Scottish income tax system marginally more progressive than Westminster’s. She has also set up a separate social security system, a state investment bank and other institutions that give the Scottish state a more developed and capable look. The war in Ukraine has been used to signal a maturing approach to foreign policy.

But without major achievements in the key mainstream policy areas – where reform rarely comes without risk, a scrap and a loss of political capital – it’s not clear what Sturgeon will ultimately leave behind that could not be easily reversed. She has a reputation for ducking fights and for pursuing easy victories. She has in a sense been a lucky leader: she has only ever governed while there has been an unpopular Tory administration at Westminster, and Labour has spent much of the time having a Corbyn-induced panic attack. Arguably, given the favourable circumstances, the SNP should be much closer to achieving independence than it is.

Sturgeon is now closer to the end than the beginning of her ministry. As her legacy begins to take shape she might consider whether she has fully lived up to the talent that has made her the defining Scottish politician of the era.

[See also: What’s behind the fall of Nicola Sturgeon?]

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