Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to step down as First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the SNP took everyone by surprise, including most of her Cabinet. At a hastily called press conference in Bute House, she explained that having given ither all for eight years, she did not feel she had enough left “in the tank” to continue in the jog.
Given the rough-and-tumble at the top of politics, compounded with the stress of Covid and cost-of-living crisis, this should perhaps be taken at its face value. Her opponents and even Westminster (with the churlish exception of Douglas Ross) have praised her skill, competence and stamina in the job. Despite their antipathy to her cause, many unionists have acknowledged her stature as an outstanding politician.
Pardon the cynicism, but can that be it? The whole story? Ah hae mah doots..
It is unheard-of for a leader as electorally successful as Ms Sturgeon to leave at the peak of their career, no matter how much she protests that the time is ripe. It seems particularly untimely, given the fact that she has groomed no obvious successor the way Alec Salmond groomed her.
More likely, despite her being rated as the most capable UK politician and her party enjoying a stonking 20-point lead in the polls, a number of her political chickens are coming home to roost. Some of the most raucous roosters are detailed below.
Although her ministers are always at pains to put a positive spin on their “achievements” and are quick to point out that other parts of the UK are doing worse than Scotland, the truth is that Educational achievement has deteriorated, according to PISA scoresl Health has not performed even close to targets, despite a funding boost; public transport remains an disconnected guddle, with no single ticket like London’s Oyster Card; capital investments have been poorly managed, resulting in overspend and delays, like the ERI Children’s Hospital and the Fergusson ferries. Yet no-one’s head has rolled.
Dearth of Ideas
While nobody thinks the free “baby box” scheme for new mothers is a bad idea, it comes from the stable of social policies that has dominated SNP tenure. Like free tuition, prescriptions, etc. they can be seen as electoral bribes. But, more importantly, they do not inspire as a vision of a new future and have little traction among the affluent unionists the SNP need to convert to achieve independence. Her competence is functional, but where is the vision for her country that created dynamic Singapore out of a swamp?
Loss of Political Nous
Capitalising on public anger over the 2014 referendum result, and the 2016 Brexit vote, as a new leader, Ms Sturgeon deftly surfed that wave and SNP membership soared over 100,000. Running a tight ship meant little sign of dissent as to where she took both the Scottish government and the party. But her deft instincts seem to be failing her, with the Gender Recognition Bill, jailing procedures for transgender women and the container deposit legislation each getting a different segment of the public upset with her government, with no sign of contrition on her part.
Picking a Fight with Friends
When the SNP first achieved power in 2007, then-Finance Minister John Swinney took pains to go to CoSLA and pledge a new “Parity of Esteem” between central and local government. Since then, a succession of Local Government Ministers (several of them ex- council leaders and so should have known better) kept councils on a tight fiscal leash, including forbidding them any rise in Council Tax during austerity. The reason they could do that is 80% of council funding comes from central government in the form of the Revenue Support Grant (RSG). The mere threat of withholding even part of that has kept all 32 councils in line.
A secondary trick is to force councils into being executors of government policy by “ring-fencing specific funds to be spent in a specific way. As an example, this year’s total RSG is supposedly increased by £570 million. But some £500million of that is ring-fenced.
Because of the above, while autonomous in theory, councils can’t afford any initiative. Say a council with a £500m budget wanted to fund a schools initiative costing £25m, that would be a 5% rise, right? Wrong; because council tax only supplies 20% of the budget, it would have to rise by 25% to fund the scheme.
Last autumn, all 32 councils—including the nine run by the SNP— wrote to the government, saying the settlement being discussed was inadequate, and estimating a further £900 million would be necessary, just to maintain services, because of inflation. There will be a series of public slanging matches over the next month as councils set their 2023-24 budgets.
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All of which adds up to a formidable flock of chickens. Any sensible occupant of Bute House seeing their approach may well think this a perfect time to step aside while the plaudits are still loud and a good time to find a less stressful billet—like chairing a charity or filling an ambassadorial role.
Because whoever tries to fill her shoes will have been handed a live hand grenade, quite apart from suffering a barrage of “who the hell is (s)he?” for those of lower profile. Nicola played mostly to the 50% who already want independence. Shehad little traction (may even have alienated) the 50% who don’t. With no poll over 60%, London can keep ignoring pleas—however democratically justified—for a referendum, and get away with it indefinitely.
None of the likely candidates have the profile, the drive and the vision to counter this (possible exception: Angus Robertson). The most likely outcome will be weaker leadership, a loss of around a third of their MPs in 2024and the loss of the Scottish Government in 2026.
London governments can’t help their imperial fixations, so independence is still out there. But, until someone revives the Independence Convention as a broad chunch of all those who wanyt it, the cause will be waylaid by the foibles of internal SNP politics and ambition—such as have led Ms Sturgeon to resign.