In Limbo: Under Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland is stuck in a rut
Later this month, Nicola Sturgeon will become Scotland’s longest-serving first minister, capping a remarkable tenure at the helm of the country’s now-dominant political force.
The SNP has been in power for 15 years at Holyrood, long enough that the generation approaching the end of secondary school has never known anything different.
And yet what has actually been achieved by the SNP during its time in office? What has Sturgeon, Scotland’s self-appointed “chief mammy”, done to improve the lives of ordinary Scots?
The past decade and a half could have been a time of national renewal, of radical ideas, of reforming zeal. Above all, it was an opportunity for Sturgeon, and her predecessor Alex Salmond, not only to govern in the here and now but to offer a glimpse of a brighter independent future.
But if the party’s early years in power under Salmond were about the need to demonstrate competence and good governance, the latter have seen a slide into managerialism and mediocrity.
Where supporters see a seamless transition between Salmond and Sturgeon, others see the fault line of an independence referendum and a fracturing which has come to define Scottish politics ever since.
Much of what the SNP considers its achievements in power are heavily contested, such as the case in support of the Baby Box or the overall benefit brought by scrapping prescription charges or of maintaining free tuition as Scotland’s universities struggle for cash.
Meanwhile, well-meaning attempts to tackle deep-seated problems such as the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol have so far had mixed results.
But if the successes have been modest, the list of failures is beginning to stack up.
From the £250m ferry fiasco to the £586m taxpayer-backed guarantee for the Lochaber smelter offered to Sanjeev Gupta (who is now under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office) to the diminishing of educational standards under Curriculum for Excellence and the recent debacle of the Scottish census.
On Sturgeon’s watch, life expectancy is falling, while levels of child poverty are on the rise. The educational attainment gap – supposedly the first minister’s defining mission – has widened once more, while the rate of drug deaths in Scotland is not only three-and-a-half times higher than the rest of the UK but higher than anywhere else in Europe.
And yet if you listen to the party’s rhetoric, it’s as if the past 15 years never happened. The level of scrutiny the SNP quite rightly applies to the Conservative government at Westminster shouldn’t be applied to the government at Holyrood, it seems. Like justice minister Keith Brown, who recently ducked into the Scottish parliament canteen to avoid journalists’ questions, the SNP is hiding from its record in government.
Many of its supporters have adopted a weird form of doublethink where the party in power is responsible for Scotland’s successes but not culpable for its failures, where a minister who was sacked for his incompetence in tackling Scotland’s drug-death scandal can be returned with an increased majority in one of the country’s most deprived cities.
After forming a minority administration in 2007, the SNP consolidated its grip on power in 2011 when it was returned with a majority at Holyrood. But while those early years in power showed doubters they could be trusted with the day-to-day running of the country, the years since the 2014 referendum have been dominated by the constitution.
James Mitchell, a professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, says that where the SNP could once attribute its electoral success to competence in government, it now relies on a polarised constitutional debate.
“The reason the SNP did so well in 2011 was not because they supported independence as such, but because they were perceived to be competent across everything, all the issues,” he says. “The perception that they’re competent is gone.”
While the pro-independence blogger Wings over Scotland has described the SNP’s 15 years in power as a “game of two halves,” comparing Sturgeon unfavourably with her predecessor, Mitchell says the change is less about the leader than the referendum itself.
“They’ve been in office now for 15 years. There comes a point where you have to say, what about delivery? It’s not just a change in leader. Since 2011, the whole idea of the referendum has been overshadowing Scottish politics.
“The independence question is like a screen for the SNP. They can hide behind that screen. So long as the referendum is a big issue in politics and people are going to vote thinking about independence, you can win elections very easily.”
But if the SNP has failed to deliver for Scotland, then the same is unequivocally true of the Tories. For most Scots, the government at Westminster is neither one they voted for nor one which busies itself with the issues that matter north of the border.
Like the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1990s, this is a Tory administration which is perceived as aloof and out of touch with the lives of ordinary Scots. And like those governments at the fag end of the pre-devolution era, it is mired in sleaze.
While the Sue Gray report may yet finish Boris Johnson off, polling has shown that the majority of Scots thought the prime minister should have resigned by now after breaking his own government’s lockdown laws alongside Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Even since the police issued fines to Johnson and Sunak last month, a further Tory MP has been forced to resign after being convicted of sexual assault while yet another has quit after looking at porn in the House of Commons, at first inadvertently and then on purpose, all after apparently Googling tractors.
After initially calling for the PM’s resignation over partygate, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross has managed to squander a considerable amount of political capital by backtracking, saying that to unseat Johnson would “destabilise the UK Government” during the war in Ukraine.
But if Ross has ultimately been hobbled by shooting himself in the foot, the initial response to his previous stance on the PM was instructive of how many Westminster Tories see Scotland.
Back in January, Michael Gove said: “My instant response is [Ross] is in Elgin and the national Tory leader is in London,” while Jacob Rees-Mogg referred to Ross as a “lightweight,” admittedly not something the Scottish leader was likely to lose much sleep over.
It’s all very far removed from the “love bombing” Scotland was promised when a series of polls published from the summer of 2020 onwards showed a narrow majority in support of independence.
Yet despite Brexit, despite Johnson, despite partygate, despite tractorgate and all the rest, the dial has barely moved on independence. According to the most recent poll by Savanta ComRes for The Scotsman, 49 per cent of Scots would vote Yes in a referendum, compared with 51 per cent for No.
Despite repeated pledges from Sturgeon to the contrary, Mitchell says a second referendum looks incredibly unlikely to be held next year.
“I can’t recall in my lifetime circumstances being more in favour of independence than at present,” he says, “and given that you’ve got this high base from the referendum in 2014, the question you’ve got to ask is, what’s gone wrong?
“If you can only get 49 per cent when you’ve got Boris Johnson then, how can I say this without swearing... it’s not great. If they think this is the best chance they’ve got, with the polls as they are, then they really are in trouble. It’s one hell of a gamble.”
But Kevin Pringle, a former director of communications for the SNP, rejects the suggestion that the dial hasn’t moved on independence and says the party should be in no rush to hold a second referendum.
“It was never the case in Scottish political history that independence was in a potentially majority position until very recently. Compared to the historic pattern, the dial has shifted.
“There’s a very clear democratic mandate to hold a referendum in this parliamentary term. I don’t think it follows that it has to take place in the first half of the parliamentary term. If there is limited enthusiasm for a referendum by the end of next year, then there’s a risk that if people are uncomfortable with that timescale, that might translate into being uncomfortable with independence itself.”
While he rejects the idea Scottish politics is stuck in a rut, Pringle admits we’re in a “holding pattern” that will only come to an end with a second referendum.
“Scottish politics is stuck in a pattern, which is all the more reason to respect the mandate of last year’s election. That is the one thing that would effect change one way or the other. The way to unstick things is to respect the mandate and let both sides take their chance. On the basis of the polls, either side could win.
“My view in 2014 was that in the event of a No vote, independence would recede as a live issue for a considerable time. That would have been the case had it not been for Brexit which, ironically, was something the SNP was very resistant to.”
Despite losing the referendum, it was the Yes side that had the momentum in 2014, helping propel the SNP to a historic result in the 2015 general election where it won 56 out of 59 seats and all but wiped Labour and the Tories off the electoral map.
But even with the wind at its back, the SNP has become more cautious and “intellectually lazy,” according to Mitchell. On the odd occasion they’ve attempted something substantial, such as with the introduction of Named Person, they’ve come unstuck.
On Sturgeon’s legacy, Pringle is clear: “I think it’s particularly around social policy reform in Scotland.
“She can also take great credit for policies like minimum pricing and equal marriage, in which she played a significant role prior to becoming first minister. In absorbing and deploying additional powers to the Scottish Parliament on welfare and tax, she has pushed the boundaries of devolution.”
Mitchell says the first minister is more likely to be remembered for her gender reforms – the introduction of a 50/50 Cabinet, for example, or reform of the Gender Recognition Act. But on the issue of independence, he says Sturgeon has “treaded water”.
“She hasn’t advanced the independence cause,” he says. “Her electoral performances, compared to what she inherited, haven’t been that great, frankly. On policy, there have been lots of promises but not much delivery.
“She will be remembered as a very skilled debater, the best political communicator in Britain today and a great campaigner.
“The question is how has she changed the outcomes for Scotland’s citizens and that certainly hasn’t been transformative. This is not a bold government.”
With the next general election not expected to take place until late 2024 at the earliest, and the next Holyrood vote scheduled for 2026, we could be waiting a while before a change in the current constitutional impasse.
Scotland is now in a state of limbo, a political purgatory that shows no sign of ending anytime soon.