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by James Mitchell
06 February 2023
Nicola Sturgeon's SNP has failed to deliver much of what it promised

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP has failed to deliver much of what it promised

A common explanation for Nicola Sturgeon’s current problems, especially amongst erstwhile supporters, is that the years in high office have taken a toll. The SNP leader insists that she still has “plenty in the tank” and there is no reason to disbelieve her. There is ample evidence that she remains on top of her game. The problem is which game.

Nicola Sturgeon is the best campaigner in British politics today, having displayed remarkable skills from her early days in politics. Anyone observing her as a parliamentary candidate in 1992 could see she would go far. Her debating skills improved on becoming an MSP, honed especially when she oversaw the SNP referendum campaign from September 2012. At First Minister’s Questions she usually came out on top when she led the opposition between 2004 and 2007 but also after becoming First Minister. When it comes to the theatre of politics, few come close to outperforming the SNP leader.

But the skills and mindset required for campaigning are not the same as those required for governing. Campaigning is immediate, adversarial and uncompromising. It is binary – them vs us. Exaggerated claims and promises are made alongside dismissing alternative views. 

Governing requires very different skills and mindset. The world of governing is grey to the black and white of campaigning. Evidence needs to be weighed up, unintended consequences considered, long-term implications taken into account. Alternative ways of achieving a goal will likely exist and must be heard. Certainties and absolutes need to be replaced by nuance and doubts not as “discouragement, but rather an incitement… to attempt to something more full and satisfactory”, to borrow from Humean scepticism. 

Policy making and delivery is complex and can be messy. Public pronouncements, debates and simplified messages are the stuff of campaigning. But delivering improved outcomes for citizens is much more challenging.

Nicola Sturgeon excels as a campaigner, recognised by her party as essential in any future referendum campaign. None of the SNP leader’s cabinet colleagues have her debating skills to parry, deflect and evade the holes and contradictions in the SNP’s case for independence.  She is, in this respect, irreplaceable.

Campaign skills have use when governing. They help project public messages. Nicola Sturgeon’s news conferences during the pandemic compared very well with the bumbling unseriousness of Boris Johnson. But the differences in substance north and south of the border were less obvious.

The SNP was not always stuck in the hamster wheel of a permanent campaign. It won the 2007 and 2011 elections on a message of competent government. It went out of its way to avoid the impression that it would seek fights with London. The lack of priority attached to independence annoyed many in the SNP but most accepted the strategy that assumed gaining a reputation for governing competence as a crucial step towards building support for independence.

Independence fell as the most important issue in the election from 26 per cent in 2007 to 15 per cent in 2011 and support remained static at around quarter of the electorate.

But the commitment to a referendum in every SNP manifesto since 1999 could not be ignored and David Cameron willingly agreed to a referendum believing independence would be easily defeated and thereby damage the SNP.  The SNP has been, more or less, in constant campaign mode since.

The Yes side lost the referendum, but its support exceeded most expectations, not least due to the campaigning skills of Nicola Sturgeon. In 2015, for the only time in its history, the SNP fought an election campaign explicitly excluding independence and achieved its best-ever election result.

The SNP leader has not become tired, as some commentary suggests, though time has certainly caught up with her. Every campaign pronouncement will now be treated much more sceptically. Delivery is where she has fallen down time and time again and this is where she is vulnerable.

As the manifesto stated, “The SNP will always support independence - but that is not what this election is about”. This eased the transition to voting SNP amongst Yes voters who but had not previously voted for the party. For a brief period, it looked as if the SNP would take up where it had left off in 2011 emphasising governing competence. Another referendum seemed likely but not in the foreseeable future.

Nicola Sturgeon was elected unopposed as leader of the SNP in late 2014, depriving her of the opportunity to show off her skills in an internal competition. But it was if she could not come down from the sugar rush of the referendum campaign. A series of mass rallies were organised by Peter Murrell, SNP chief executive (and Sturgeon’s husband), whose organisational and presentational skills perfectly complement those of the party leader.

In August 2015, the SNP leader committed herself to closing the educational “attainment gap completely”.  “Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this.”  It was campaign rhetoric with insufficient thought as to how it would be delivered. Anyone with a smidgeon of public policy knowledge knows that such an admirable objective could not begin to be realised without razor sharp focus, massive shifts in resources and real partnership with and listening carefully to an array of people and organisations. 

Pronouncement has followed pronouncement, perhaps in the hope of keeping ahead of any questions about delivery. 

The Brexit result returned the SNP to Nicola Sturgeon’s comfort zone of full throttle campaign mode. The assumption was that Remainers would flock to support independence and bring support comfortably and consistently to 60 per cent.

To rapturous applause in October 2017, Nicola Sturgeon promised that “by the end of this Parliament – we will set up a publicly owned, not for profit energy company”. It never happened.  It proved, according to the minister left to explain its abandonment, “very, very challenging to do under devolution”.  Perhaps, but government ought to have known this before a commitment was made. 

The ferries saga is another example of seeking a headline without due consideration to delivery. The ease and professionalism with which announcements were made contrast starkly with the incompetent manner in what followed.

In announcing a review of adult social care with the aim of creating a National Care Service (NCS) in September 2020, the SNP leader invoked the creation of the National Health Service “born out of the tragedy of World War Two.”  Even the name was designed to invoke comparison. While the founder of the NHS used every rhetorical device available in pursuit of its establishment, enormous effort, engagement, listening and negotiating with those left to deliver the service went into the development of the service. Political commitments and strong advocacy are essential, but the follow-up is when the hard work really begins. Nicola Sturgeon is no Nye Bevan.

The announcement that the next UK election would be treated as a “de facto referendum” last June appears to have awakened many in her party to Nicola Sturgeon’s weakness for grandstanding. There are so many obvious problems that even otherwise loyal supporters of the SNP leader have raised concerns, though it took time for private concerns inside the SNP to find a public voice. She has had to resort to the uncharacteristic device of allowing her party to hold a special conference in the hope of getting out of this deep hole.

The handling of gender recognition exemplifies the same problems. Reform that should have won support across progressive Scotland has instead created unnecessary and tragic divisions. The intention was well motivated. Many old hands in the SNP will remember Sandra Macrae who stood as an SNP candidate in Glasgow Provan in 1992 - the same year coincidently that Nicola Sturgeon stood in the neighbouring constituency. Macrae had previously contested elections as a man. She was the first trans candidate in a Scottish parliamentary election and won 21.7 per cent of the vote, almost identical to that won by the SNP across Scotland as a whole, disproving any suggestion that a trans candidate undermines a party’s support.

But good intentions are not enough when it comes to policy making. Unintended but predicted consequences were ignored. Treating critics and sceptics as opponents has resulted in important voices being marginalised, traduced and treated in the most heinous manner. Populists have been quick to take advantage of a situation that should never have arisen, delighting in divisions that should never have been allowed to happen.

In his most recent book, Michael Barber, who invented the notion of “deliverology”, writes of the need for vision, clear goals, a good plan and sheer bloody-mindedness to accomplish ambitions. The SNP leader has vision and bloody-mindedness but lacks the other vital attributes. Promises that receive rapturous applause and generate huge media attention need to be accompanied by careful, considered and contested planning and delivery.

The SNP leader has not become tired, as some commentary suggests, though time has certainly caught up with her. Every campaign pronouncement will now be treated much more sceptically. Delivery is where she has fallen down time and time again and this is where she is vulnerable.

The SNP’s reputation for governing competence did not translate directly into support for independence but without that reputation, support for independence in 2014 would have been unlikely. As its record in government is increasingly questioned, its reputation for competence will decline. It may not immediately affect support for independence, but it will make it much harder to convince sceptical voters to support that goal.

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