23 March 2021

Even victory in May could leave a bitter aftertaste for Nicola Sturgeon


Those who observe Scottish politics from afar, like a visitor to the zoo might gaze warily at a vicious and rare beast from a safe distance behind the wire mesh, will have concluded that it is now way past feeding time.

For the beast is indeed becoming very aggressive, more so than usual. Each tiny development provokes it to new heights of fury and outrage. It started devouring its own a long time ago. 

The latest zookeeper to rattle the cage and drag his truncheon noisily across the bars was James Hamilton, Ireland’s former director of public prosecutions and an independent adviser to the Scottish Government on the issue of the ministerial code. Hopes among Nicola Sturgeon’s opponents that this respected barrister would deliver a knock-out blow and conclude, in his internal review of the first minister’s behaviour these last few months, that she had indeed broken the sacred code were always fanciful and – depending on what side you line up on – optimistic. Such reviews initiated by governments themselves rarely produce any big surprises.

Sturgeon will no doubt hope that this report will help remove any dark cloud hovering over her reputation, which has taken quite the pummelling since a Scottish Parliament committee started hearing evidence on the Scottish Government’s incompetent and illegal handling of complaints against the former first minister, Alex Salmond.

Her problem – and it’s a problem for the rest of us too, although she has had more of a hand in creating this culture than many others – is that most of those with an opinion won’t change it just because a barrister says so. What Hamilton’s report will do is guarantee that the First Minister will remain in post until after the May elections to Holyrood. That is good news for the SNP, for despite recent events, polls suggest she remains a valuable electoral asset to the nationalist cause.

More to the point, it is good news for the SNP because there is no longer an obvious successor. When Salmond resigned in 2014, Sturgeon was so obvious a replacement that no one bothered standing against her. Until last year, finance secretary Derek Mackay was being groomed to take over at some point, until it was discovered he was doing a bit of grooming of his own: he was forced to resign after it emerged he had sent hundreds of inappropriate texts to a 16-year-old schoolboy.

The most likely person to take over this side of the election, therefore, but purely on a caretaker basis, would have been Sturgeon’s deputy, John Swinney. Swinney is highly regarded in the party and in the media, but he did the job once before, from 2000 to 2004, and resigned after a series of poor election results. He is reported not to want to shoulder that burden again.

The SNP will win the 2021 Holyrood elections. A fourth consecutive victory after a party has been in office for 14 years is a remarkable achievement and in a normal country it would be recognised as such. But in Scotland, because of the heightened and fevered nature of political discourse, and thanks also to the SNP’s extraordinary dominance of politics in the last decade, a victory will not be enough.

Sturgeon herself has encouraged speculation that her party will win an overall majority – a result that the electoral system was designed specifically to avoid. But it happened once before under the wily Salmond. When it didn’t happen a second time, in 2016, Sturgeon was forgiven by her loyal, patient followers. There will be no forgiveness this time round. Her followers are no longer patient and more of them are less loyal than they once were.

They are impatient for the only thing any of them care about: independence. Having swept the board at UK and Scottish elections, they feel entitled to demand another independence referendum and believe – probably erroneously – that securing an overall majority of MSPs in May will give the party that most sought-after word in Scottish politics – a “mandate” to insist on one.

If Sturgeon falls short – and recent polling suggests she might – of that magical winning line, her only options will be to carry on for another five years in the hope that in 2026 Scots will feel even more inclined to give its support to a 19-year-old administration, or step aside and let the party tear itself to pieces over whether or not to launch various guerrilla strategies to secure what the electorate denied them.

The upside for Sturgeon is that by then one of her closest allies, Angus Robertson, the former SNP leader at Westminster and now a candidate for Holyrood in Edinburgh Central, may be in a position to stand to replace her. He’s certainly experienced enough, having spent 16 years in the Commons, and is as media-savvy as any of his colleagues. Of course, if Robertson becomes an MSP in May, the chances are that his party will have secured that majority anyway, since he can only get into Holyrood by gaining an existing Conservative seat for his party.

Notwithstanding Hamilton’s welcome (for Sturgeon) conclusions that she is wonderful and could never do anything wrong (I paraphrase, of course), the series of unhelpful headlines about the Salmond inquiry and the re-appraisal of his seven-year reign as first minister has come at the worst possible time electorally for the nationalists. Despite the stubborn resistance of a large section of the public to consider voting for any other party, the Scottish public might just be starting to have some doubts about exactly what the priorities of this administration have been.

The fact that the two most successful and well known politicians in Scotland now have nothing but contempt for each other should inject just a fragment of doubt into people’s minds when it comes to the SNP project. That being the case, May’s victory might yet prove to come with a bitter aftertaste for Nicola Sturgeon.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.