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The undoing of Nicola Sturgeon

The SNP reached its electoral zenith under the First Minister but she leaves office humbled by Westminster and alienated from the public. Where did it all go wrong?

By Chris Deerin

In 1996 I was a green, young political correspondent making my first visit to SNP HQ. The party’s cramped base was appropriate to its status at the time: it sat above a slightly desperate-looking pawn shop in central Edinburgh, was quite hard to find, and was shabby in a way that spoke to minimal resources and limited prestige.

The Nats were little more than an electoral afterthought: they had a grand total of three Scottish MPs to Labour’s 49, the Conservatives’ 11 and the Liberal Democrats’ nine. Alex Salmond was midway through his first tenure as leader and was still sculpting a rebellious rabble that blew left or right – depending on who was speaking and to whom – into a more alluring shape: as business-friendly, pro-European social democrats who sought to align more closely with the preferences of most Scottish voters.

The mood in the office was confident and determined. Salmond swung by briefly between meetings, gave me that cat-to-a-canary grin, and issued a few wisecracks. In his small, fuggy office, the SNP’s then chief executive, Michael Russell, puffed on a cigar and quickly exposed my callow limitations. Angus Robertson, who would later lead the party at Westminster, and Andrew Wilson, who would author the 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission report on the economics of independence, were bustling wannabes making themselves useful.

Three years later, the first election to the new Scottish Parliament was under way. The SNP’s campaign was not going well. In an attempt to counter what it saw as unfair treatment by the press, it had launched an expensive and ill-fated daily “newspaper”, Scotland’s Voice, which each morning could be found trampled into muddy shreds on train station concourses around central Scotland.

[See also: Britain’s GDP figures are a fudge that hides the true state of our economy]

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I’d recently reported that this and other tensions had led to a falling out between Salmond and Russell. At the morning media briefing, the SNP leader was in a foul temper. He glared at the assembled hacks from his lectern, then left the stage, picked up a chair and put it down next to me. “I’ll sit among my friends,” he said, and slapped me on the back with such venom that I was almost knocked to the floor. He then scrapped the daily press conferences. Still, the election result would improve Salmond’s mood: although the first Holyrood administration would be a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, the SNP came second, securing 35 of the 129 seats (to Labour’s 56).

A new era in Scottish politics had begun. For the SNP, after seven decades in fruitless pursuit of the independence chimera, devolution would prove a gift. As Labour, Scotland’s dominant political force for decades, grew weary in office in London and Edinburgh, Salmond’s long game of positioning his party as an alternative left-of-centre option, but one that was wholly focused on Scottish interests, finally delivered. By 2007 he was first minister. He chose as deputy his shy but ambitious and able protégé, 36-year-old Nicola Sturgeon.

Between them, the pair would occupy Bute House for the next 16 years. The warnings of the pre-devolution sceptics – that Holyrood would be “a motorway to independence with no exit routes”, in Labour MP Tam Dalyell’s formulation – would no longer seem so far-fetched. Under the hooves of the nationalist charge, unionists have struggled to find a coping strategy, far less a winning one. As Scots have wrestled with a recursive and often fractious debate about whether to walk away from a partnership that is more than three centuries old, the rest of the UK has looked on with a mix of concern, empathy and irritation.

[See also: What is the most important lesson from Nicola Sturgeon’s time in power?]

In 2007, of course, the SNP was only getting started. At the subsequent Scottish Parliament election in 2011, Salmond swept all before him, winning Holyrood’s first, and so far only, overall majority. As prime minister, David Cameron bowed to the inevitable and allowed a referendum on independence. We didn’t know it then, but that divisive campaign in 2014 was a precursor to a wave that was about to engulf not just British but Western politics: anger at elites and rising inequality, extreme democratic polarisation, online rage and abuse, outlandish conspiracy theories, unfulfillable populist promises, and arguments about “taking back control”. Scotland did it first.

Though most of the energy and passion was on their side, Yes campaigners failed to persuade enough Scots of their case, losing the referendum by 55 to 45 per cent. Salmond, ever the smart strategist, realised his race was run and gracefully made way for Sturgeon. A reset, a change of tone and a new style of leadership seemed the order of the day. And, indeed, they were, if only for a while.

Sitting down with Sturgeon in 2016, 16 months after her elevation, there was still something like freshness and optimism in the air. I liked her, I told her, and asked her why she thought this was. Her response echoed the sentiments of the resignation speech that would follow years later. “I hope it’s because, whether you agree with my politics or not, you get the sense that I’m sincere in what I believe in and what I’m trying to do and that while I’ve been a politician for all of my adult life, I’m not just a politician. There’s a human being there that’s not that different to the kind of people you grew up with.” I entered a single caveat at the end of my article: “Lord knows what she’ll be like after ten all-powerful years in Bute House.”

Clearly, plenty of my fellow Scots liked her even better. At the 2015 general election they had delivered the first of Sturgeon’s many electoral triumphs, giving the SNP an astonishing 56 of the country’s 59 Westminster seats and nearly 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland, while reducing Labour by 40 seats to just one. The Nationalists were floating on what would be a sustained democratic transcendency, to the extent they barely needed to acknowledge the existence of the opposition parties.

Sturgeon was, however, not just First Minister but leader of the SNP, a job that in the end has a single purpose. She had total control of the party – her husband Peter Murrell was, and remains, its chief executive. Personal popularity and electoral dominance would ultimately count for naught if she couldn’t free Scotland from the clutches of the Union. But the first referendum was still only a couple of years behind us. If she was to re-enliven her case, Sturgeon needed a trigger, a game-changer, a big, transformative moment.

Here, again, Cameron proved accommodating. In the Brexit referendum, England voted to leave the EU and Scotland voted to remain (by 62 per cent to 38 per cent). English weight was decisive, and we were all heading out together. This was a challenging moment for unionists, who had warned during the independence referendum that leaving Britain would exile Scotland from the EU and heavily diminish its role in global affairs. The xenophobia and nationalistic swagger of Nigel Farage and his like even left some nauseously regretful of their 2014 No vote.

Sturgeon had her trigger. This was the “material change in circumstances” that justified a second vote on independence. In March 2017 she called a press conference at Bute House and announced she intended to hold another referendum at some point between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, before Britain had formally Brexited, which she claimed would give Scots the opportunity to leave the UK but remain in the EU.

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon is the author of her own misfortune]

It was at this point that something seemed to crack in the First Minister – it was her first major misjudgement and, looking back, she never again recovered the poise and ecumenicism that had preceded it. Polls showed that, though unhappy about Brexit, Scots didn’t want another referendum so soon. They felt Sturgeon was rushing them.

In June, at the general election called by Theresa May, they punished the SNP and its leader by reducing the party’s Westminster haul to 35 seats, and boosting the number held by unionist parties. Under the formidable Ruth Davidson, the once reviled Scottish Conservatives gained 12 seats.

This warning seemed to go unheeded. Sturgeon had lost her appetite for pluralistic governance and, crucially, the strategic patience that had served the SNP so well over the years. From now on, she would be a greyhound chasing a hare. A leader who had once come across as refreshingly ego-free ­suddenly appeared determined to have her personal date with destiny, whether Scottish voters wanted it or not.

There was, however, trouble to come. In January 2018 the Scottish government received complaints of sexual harassment against Salmond, relating to his time as first minister. As the first woman to lead Scotland, Sturgeon had made much of her feminist credentials and the example she hoped to set for young girls. But she had been raised to her political maturity and then the top job by Salmond, they were friends, and he was the most important figure in SNP history.

The situation was a toxic mix of the personal and political that could not end well. Informal early meetings between the pair to discuss the complaints would come back to haunt her. Her husband had played a controversial role. Salmond, who was acquitted of all charges after a trial in March 2020, would claim there had been a Sturgeonite conspiracy to bring him down. She came close to resigning. It was the bitterest of ends to an enduring and fruitful relationship.

If problems were accumulating, the SNP continued to triumph in every election it fought – national, devolved, local and European. Scottish Labour was in disarray, still outraged by the nationalist hegemony but with little sense of how to counter it. A conveyor belt of Scottish Labour leaders passed through without making much impact, and the Corbynite promise of a socialist revival north of the border proved delusional. Davidson seemed for a while to have rekindled Tory fortunes, but effectively quit in disgust when Boris Johnson became prime minister. The Conservatives at Westminster were fixated on their Brexit neurosis, shifting ever rightwards. Sturgeon was good, but she was also lucky – she had the field to herself.

Then came Covid-19, and politics as usual was suspended for nearly two years. Hard as this period was, it suited Sturgeon’s strengths. She was communicator-in-chief, appearing at daily press conferences to tell the population what it could and couldn’t do. She was straightforward, empathetic and reassuringly human.

[See also: Kate Forbes emerges as early favourite for SNP leadership]

On the charge: the launch of the SNP’s 1999 Scottish Election Manifesto in Inverurie. Photo by Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images

Though mistakes were made – the data around care home deaths is horrific – there was a general feeling that the First Minister cared deeply, was working non-stop under an immense burden, and was doing her best. The contrast with Johnson was often drawn, and Sturgeon’s popularity rose even higher.

In the Holyrood election in May 2021, the SNP sustained and even marginally improved its position. Salmond’s breakaway party, Alba, was humiliated, winning just 44,913 votes (1.66 per cent) and no MSPs. But with 64 seats, the SNP was still one short of the overall majority that would have forced Downing Street to concede a second referendum. To establish that majority, Sturgeon took the Scottish Greens, a pro-independence but radically left-wing and anti-economic growth party, into her government. This, she claimed, entitled her to call a new independence vote.

Westminster disagreed, so Sturgeon decided to force matters. She passed the Referendum (Scotland) Bill through Holyrood and even proposed a date for the vote: 19 October 2023. Without waiting for an official response from the British government, she referred the matter to the UK Supreme Court. So, where did devolved power start and end? Did the road to Scotland’s self-determination run directly from Edinburgh, or did it have to make a 400-mile detour through London? Did Holyrood have the right to call a referendum or not?

It did not. The Supreme Court ruled in November last year that such a step lay outside the competence of the Scottish Parliament. It needed the Prime Minister’s permission, which wasn’t going to be granted any time soon. A furious Sturgeon already had her plan-B ready: the next general election would be a “de facto” referendum instead. If pro-independence parties secured more than 50 per cent of the vote, it would be a mandate to begin secession negotiations.

But the Scottish public wasn’t as outraged by the situation as their First Minister was. Voters faced a cost-of-living crisis, an overwhelmed NHS Scotland, and growing signs that this long era of SNP governance had failed to tackle deep-rooted problems such as chronic drug abuse and educational decline. There were mounting examples of basic administrative incompetence, such as a profligate and unfulfilled contract to provide lifeline ferries to Scottish islands, a controversial bottle-return scheme and a proposed ban on alcohol advertising that had enraged the whisky industry. The public was starting to wonder about Sturgeon’s focus on the day job.

[See also: How to remake the Union]

There was, though, one issue beyond independence that had her full attention. Sturgeon was always looking for ways to improve the lot of vulnerable minorities, and had become convinced that the rules around changing legal gender needed to be reformed to make the process simpler. She came to see opposition to her proposals – which included removing the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria to change your legal sex, and reducing the permitted age from 18 to 16 – as transphobia.

A high-profile campaign driven by feminists including JK Rowling and leading members of the SNP, such as Joanna Cherry MP, who were worried about the potential impact on women’s rights and safe spaces, only made her all the more determined to get the reforms through. The First Minister dismissed their concerns as “not valid”.

With the help of Scottish Labour, the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill was passed by Holyrood. But then Westminster intervened. Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, issued a Section 35 order that prevented Holyrood’s legislation from receiving royal assent, claiming it would affect the UK Equality Act. It was the first time in the history of devolution that such a step had been taken. An outraged Sturgeon was once again preparing to turn to the Supreme Court – then calamity struck.

Isla Bryson, a transgender Scottish woman, was in January convicted of the rapes of two women, committed prior to her transition, which she began after she was charged. When it emerged that she had initially been sent to Cornton Vale, a women’s prison, there was a national outcry. Polls showed the ­public were firmly opposed to the Scottish government’s bill and approved of Jack’s intervention. Sturgeon was unable to give a straightforward answer to the question of whether she regarded Bryson as a man or a woman. Her reputation for plain speaking was crumbling.

Illustration by Edmon de Haro

The debate coincided with the imminent collapse of the de facto referendum plan. Again, Sturgeon found herself on the wrong side of public opinion, with voters opposed to using a general election as a battering ram to achieve independence. She had called a special conference next month to secure support for her policy, but as it approached it became clear there was significant opposition within her party. Even the usually ultra-loyal MP Stewart McDonald spoke out against it. Poll ratings for Sturgeon, the SNP and independence all plummeted.

The end was nearer than anyone realised. Debate had inevitably begun about whether Sturgeon had lost her touch and had stayed too long in Bute House. It was discussed whether she might step down after next year’s general election, or hang on until after the Holyrood election in 2026. Potential successors were mooted. But with her grip slipping, her famed resilience fading, this was one decision that, for now at least, remained solely in her hands. Sturgeon stunned Britain when she called a press conference on the morning of 15 February and announced her resignation.

[See also: Kate Forbes emerges as early favourite for SNP leadership]

It is intriguing to consider what she will do next. She is self-aware enough to understand that her time in office has not ended on the high she would have wished for, and that there are harsh judgements being made on her record – including by some of those who have worked for her in government. But at 52 she is still relatively young and has a good international reputation. Sturgeon is not the type to accept pocket-stuffing directorships – nor is she likely to be offered many – and so her next steps will likely involve championing causes close to her heart, such as tackling climate change and helping society’s most vulnerable people.

In the latter years of her ministry, as the bunker mentality took hold, our only real contact was sending each other recommendations of novels we’d enjoyed – despite the pressures of office, Sturgeon never lost her appetite for reading. But eventually even this dried up. When I interviewed her for what would turn out to be the last time, ahead of the 2021 Holyrood election, she seemed on edge, the freshness and optimism a distant memory.

The SNP will now continue in government without her, but a long political era has undeniably drawn to a close. The old guard achieved much, yet on independence – the party’s reason for being – they have fallen short. The Nats’ greatest generation now passes the torch to a new one, which is young, raw and untested, and which has its own distinct views about how Scotland should be run and how independence might be won.

As the battle to succeed Sturgeon began, there was immediate evidence that the future is unlikely to run smoothly for the SNP. The Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, the early favourite, found herself in a crisis after confirming her opposition to equal marriage. It’s unclear whether her campaign will recover from this troubled start, given the SNP’s commitment to its progressive credentials. The other main contender, the Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, might seem a safer choice but he is a relatively uninspiring figure without much of a record of achievement. Yousaf is being supported by the party machine as the continuity candidate and is threatening to continue to push Sturgeon’s gender bill all the way to the Supreme Court, which will bring its own tensions.

Change is coming, one way or another. Polls taken since the First Minister’s resignation show Scottish Labour is finally closing in on the SNP. It’s not unthinkable that the dream ends with Nicola Sturgeon.

This article was originally published in February 2023.

Read more:

Why the battle for the Union is far from over

Is Kate Forbes’s SNP leadership campaign over already?

After Nicola Sturgeon’s departure, Scottish Labour can win big

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon