Is Sturgeon's legacy really worthy of applause?
Over a week on and I am still trying to understand the rationale behind Nicola Sturgeon turning up at the SNP conference and being lauded for her greatness.
Who brokered the bizarre spectacle of the former first minister arriving ahead of her successor’s first conference speech as leader, striding along a first-floor walkway at TECA, flanked by the former leader of the SNP Westminster group and three female cabinet secretaries, like a scene from a Poundshop Robert Palmer video? Pausing on cue to lean over the balustrade to wave from above to the throng of journalists waiting for her to descend a stairway decorated with claims about the party’s achievements in government – this was truly Trumpian in style.
Sturgeon stood down when the going got tough and she left her successor to deal with the mess. None of this is to be applauded. And certainly not at this stage of proceedings. Not with an ongoing police investigation. Not when her party has just been hammered in a by-election in which trust and said police investigation figured high. Not when questions remain about the missing £600,000 or when a campervan, allegedly bought with party funds, is held in police custody. Not when party membership numbers remain a focus of contention and which saw journalists vilified and their stories branded “drivel” by party apparatchiks who denied the truth.
Not when those lies led to the resignation of the party chief executive (her husband) and also its head of communications (albeit rather curiously, he returned to party HQ as the top dog some months later). Not when her misstep on calling for a general election to be a proxy referendum led to immediate confusion among her own MSPs, put independence on the back burner, and ended with the ultimate U-turn of her having to vote against her own proposals at conference. Not when the party is plummeting in the polls. Not when rival factions within the SNP are already war-gaming when and how to unseat her successor. And certainly not when eyebrows are truly raised over the details of her six-figure ‘tell it all’ book publishing deal.
Tributes to Sturgeon are surely premature, and she would have been better advised to have stayed away, if only out of respect for Yousaf, who is still to make his mark as his own man.
But for the SNP members, and they must surely be the true diehards, who gave her a standing ovation, does any of that matter? Does the fact that their new leader was forced to answer questions about whether he felt undermined by Sturgeon’s presence even figure in their thinking?
Tributes to Sturgeon are surely premature, and she would have been advised to stay away if only out of respect for Yousaf who is still to make the mark as his own man
For his first six months as Sturgeon’s successor, Yousaf has had to live in her shadow. He has been buffeted by events not of his making and even his first appearances in parliament as first minister were overshadowed by the arrests of Sturgeon’s husband and then the party treasurer, both released without charge, but which led to him having to deny, in a real In the Thick of It moment, that the SNP was a criminal operation or that he had ever used a burner phone. This was then followed by the arrest and subsequent release of Sturgeon herself. And there is no denying we all remain braced for what might or might not happen next.
The plight of the SNP is a raw one and there is surely nothing worse than being the butt of a Tory prime minister’s conference joke. So, why did she choose to appear at the SNP conference, like Banquo’s ghost, with an entourage of high-ranking government ministers, the familiar security officer, and the ever-present comms support? Why alert the media to the grand arrival, knowing the attention it would receive, being fully aware of the speculation it would create, and cognisant of the questions that Yousaf would have to face about this peculiar pageantry?
I am still trying to work out what the message was meant to be, who instigated it, who sanctioned it, or was it even motivated beyond it exemplifying the very basics of her own narcissism? And I am not alone. It is the first question that other politicians have asked me in the week that followed, both at Holyrood and Westminster. Questions have ranged from who choreographed the moment, to who is actually running the SNP?
This is a party that used to be envied for its political nous. It was on message and had its finger on the pulse of the nation. But not any more. This is a party in denial, its head truly stuck in the sand, and the appearance of Sturgeon and the complicity that must have gone on to nod that through is just emblematic of how bad things have really become.
And when the best deflection from your own party’s woes is to welcome the fact that the rise – the rise! – in child destitution in Scotland isn’t quite as fast as the rise in other parts of the UK, there is something wrong with your view of your own successes. There should be no child going hungry in Scotland. No child homeless. No child failing to reach their potential. No child suffering from illnesses that should have been relegated to a century of old. Sturgeon pledged to make Scotland the best place for a child to grow up in. After 16 years in power, it’s a very poor show if her legacy can only be shoehorned into a low base electioneering slogan – ‘Come to Scotland where destitution isn’t quite as bad as it is elsewhere’.
It’s clear the SNP is at a critical juncture. It is tired, out of ideas, its failures are coming home to roost. A number of its MPs have announced they have had enough while others are already canvassing around for jobs. There are splits at Holyrood where MSPs have rebelled against the government’s gender recognition reforms, its plans for Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) and the deposit return scheme (DRS). The atmosphere is not a good one. And key figures are already calculating what it could mean to lose at the general election. The most positive thing I heard at conference was, ‘well, it might not happen’, and the most hopeful was a wish for an early Westminster gubbing so the party has time to rebuild for 2026. Is that a legacy worthy of applause?