Plus ça change
On polling day, watching Nicola Sturgeon hold her ground and tell the far-right candidate who had travelled from England to stand against her for election in Glasgow Southside that she was a fascist, a racist and that voters would reject her, it was a timely reminder, for jaded political hacks like me, of what exactly the USP is of Scotland’s First Minister.
On that day, in that moment, on that street in Glasgow, and in the rain, Nicola Sturgeon was what we all aspire to be. A Warrior Queen. Unafraid to turn round, stand tall, and to tell bigotry tae get tae.
It’s not too whimsical to say Sturgeon cut a heroic figure. Stripped down, she was just a feisty wee wifie refusing to be cowed by the much larger and clearly more animated Jayda Fransen, a convicted racist and former leader of Britain First, who loudly confronted the First Minister in the street, accusing her of being a “fraud”, “a Marxist”, “a disgrace”, and someone who had “flooded the country with immigrants”.
And on that day when thousands of immigrants, many of whom will have fled persecution, who have made Scotland their home and would be preparing to exercise their right to a democratic vote for the very first time, for Sturgeon, it was more than just an uncomfortable attempt at her very public assassination by a real outsider; it was a tipping point, a watershed.
And she was having none of it.
How much easier it would have been for Sturgeon to flee from the torrent of abuse and the threatening positioning that Fransen had adopted in invading her personal space.
But unlike other political leaders who have purposefully run from such encounters by hiding like a coward in a sandwich shop, in Iain Gray’s case, or in the sanctity of a ministerial car surrounded by aides, in Gordon Brown’s, Sturgeon stepped right up to it.
She was in her favoured territory, both geographically and on principle. She had the weight of righteousness on her side. She was calling out a bully and in solidarity with her constituents. She was taking a stand for all of us who say racism has no place here.
And I admit, I cheered. It was a personal aide-memoire to the asset Sturgeon is to Scotland. A reminder to me of how far she has come and how little she has fundamentally changed when it comes to standing up against oppression.
And while I, like many others, have been scathing in my recent critiques of Sturgeon’s policy failures on the home front, I have sometimes forgotten to give credit where it is due. And that time is now.
Sturgeon is undoubtedly the most popular political leader in the UK, certainly the best communicator, and arguably, the most talented politician of her generation.
She has just taken her party back into power after 14 years of it being in government. She has increased the SNP vote, upped her seats, and in a parliament designed not to allow it, missed out on a majority by just one.
And amid it all has probably just been through the most professionally bruising and personally painful of times – a year in which, she says, she was near broken.
And while for the rest of us this has been the most momentous parliamentary term, five bizarre years in which we have witnessed a tsunami of extraordinary political events, from Brexit to Boris to a global pandemic and everything possible in between, Sturgeon herself has faced down serious political censure and in the process, dealt with the unravelling of a friendship that has endured for over 30 years.
And given the most excruciating of circumstance, has, presumably, faced demons that she would have preferred to have left unseen.
As a backdrop to an election, it could not have been more dramatic. And while it was being hailed as the most historic of devolution, in the final analysis, the seats in the chamber required little rearranging. A couple pushed over to the Greens, Labour gave up two, and Willie Rennie was pushed to the sidelines as a leader of a party of just four.
But the numbers on their own belie a subtle but potentially more radical shift that could prove this sixth session of the Scottish Parliament to be the most transformative ever.
The result has delivered on some memorable and historic firsts. The first woman of colour to become an MSP in the parliament’s 22-year history, a permanent wheelchair user, a Sikh woman, and Labour’s first out gay male MSP – yes, that caused me to double take too – and an Asian Tory GP.
The parliament is now made up almost equally by men and women, and looks more like the country it represents. And is also a parliament united in one common endeavour: to get through this pandemic and recover. But it is split, as ever, by the constitution.
There is now, as there was back in 2016, a pro-independence majority of MSPs and it will be up to Sturgeon to navigate her way to that much-promised second referendum whilst also delivering on policy changes that have so far failed to illustrate the kind of Scotland an independent one could be, but that could also tip the balance towards ‘Yes’.
Sturgeon’s popularity as a leader of a devolved nation is undeniable but to move the dial on independence, perhaps she needs to channel some of the gallusness that she showed last week on the streets of Glasgow when standing up to a bully that represented everything that is an anathema to a fairer, more equal Scotland.
In that fight, the result was clear – Sturgeon: 19,735, Fransen: 46. Telt.