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15 February 2023

Why Nicola Sturgeon was destined for failure

The First Minister’s overriding obsession with Scottish independence led to the neglect of other policy areas.

By Chris Deerin

Earnest, honest, at times emotional, and often good humoured, Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation statement was a display of the First Minister’s finer qualities.

If there was also the occasional flash of ego and self-regard, then that might be forgiven in the circumstances. If not now, when? As oratories of departure go, it was certainly more human and reflective than anything we saw from, say, Boris Johnson or Liz Truss in similar circumstances. 

Of course, there were moments her critics will disagree with – her thoughts on polarisation in politics didn’t take into account the impact of her own pig-headedness, particularly in her latter years in office. The early ambition to reach across the independence gap by seeking to understand the concerns of the pro-union bits of middle Scotland was long ago abandoned. Likewise, Sturgeon’s handling of the gender reform debate only served to push its advocates and opponents into silos.

But we should look beyond this. Sturgeon was self-aware enough to point out that by now everyone in Scotland has a fixed view of her. It would be increasingly hard for her, this far into her leadership, to persuade people to change that opinion, and therefore perhaps to change their view of the country’s constitutional future – “to reach across the divide in Scottish politics… my judgement now is that this needs a new leader,” she said. As I’ve argued before, the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond and their like has had a good go at winning the independence debate, but has ultimately failed. Time, then, for change.

The First Minister talked a lot about the human cost of leadership, which was a welcome drawing back of the curtain. Like Jacinda Ardern before her, she felt that although she might have carried on for a few months or even another year, she knew “in my head and in my heart” that she could no longer give the job “the 100 per cent it needs”. She had been “wrestling with [the decision] , albeit with oscillating levels of intensity – for some weeks.” Her mind seems to finally have been made up when she attended the funeral yesterday morning of an elderly friend who had spent much of his life campaigning for Scottish independence. “Politicians come and go. The cause is so much bigger than one individual,” she reflected, “and there are many ways to support it.”

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Her decision to go was not down to the many challenges and controversies her government currently faces, she insisted, but was about “a deeper and longer-term assessment.” Given her ability to battle through the trying experience of leading Scotland during Covid and lockdown, and to endure the brutal nature of the court case involving her predecessor, Alex Salmond, this is probably true. She is, simply, mentally and physically weary. After eight years in the top job, and nearly 16 years in the cabinet, the explanation is surely a reasonable one.

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Sturgeon will continue as First Minister and SNP leader until her successor is elected. Given the lengthy, laborious nature of the contest between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the party is likely to want a relatively quick conclusion, so we might see a new leader by April at the latest. The SNP likes to portray itself as an especially friendly and cohesive unit, but that is really only for public consumption – the campaigns will soon be underway and the knives will already be getting sharpened.

There will be much written in judgement of the First Minister’s record in office – as she acknowledged – and there is much to be critical of. Perhaps the harshest thing to say is that in too many areas the Scotland she leaves behind her is in no better shape than the one she inherited, and in some cases its condition is worse. She flunked too many difficult decisions and focused far too heavily on the campaign for independence – in the end she was more fixated and relentless in this regard than any of her predecessors as SNP leader.

But Sturgeon’s strengths were real too. She was disarmingly human and straightforward, most of the time. She is a social democrat who sought to improve the lot of the disadvantaged by creating a more progressive tax system and instituting the Scottish Child Payment. She stood up to the excesses of increasingly extreme Conservative governments at Westminster.

In the end, though, she could not escape the limits imposed on any SNP First Minister: independence must always be put first. It is governing with one hand tied behind your back. For that reason, even for someone of Sturgeon’s gifts, the failures are always more likely to outstrip the successes. So it proved.

Read more:

What’s behind the fall of Nicola Sturgeon?

Nicola Sturgeon is running out of time – and her rivals know it

The tragedy of Nicola Sturgeon

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