19 February 2023

Weekly Briefing: Nicola Sturgeon, vibes politician


In an era of high-velocity politics, it can be tricky to sort the genuinely significant political moments from the chaff of hyperbole and faux outrage. Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation on Wednesday morning, however, was certainly the former.

The reaction in some quarters has been startlingly generous. ITV News’ political editor called the resignation speech ‘truly remarkable’, while columnists queued up to explain why Sturgeon had followed Jacinda Ardern’s example by supposedly bowing out when the time was right.

It would be churlish to dismiss the First Minister’s remarks about the job being personally exhausting – and 16 years of high-level politics would take its toll on the best of us. But the idea she  is only resigning for noble reasons, rather than because the political wicket has recently gotten much stickier, deserves closer examination than some of this week’s Sturgeon hagiographies have offered.

The gender recognition row may be the proximate cause of her recent difficulties, but the broader problem is that the SNP’s raison d’etre – secession from the UK – looks less likely now than it has at any point since she took the top job in 2014.

That so many took her speech at face value wasn’t all that surprising though. There’s long been a section of the English commentariat who have feted Sturgeon for the most superficial of reasons. Our guest on this week’s podcast, Alex Massie, describes this mindset neatly: ‘Nicola Sturgeon hates the Tories and she hates Brexit, and I hate the Tories and I hate Brexit, so Nicola Sturgeon must be wonderful’.

Indeed, the fact Sturgeon is talked about in such glowing terms is testament to her status as one of the greatest exponents and beneficiaries of what Janan Ganesh calls the ‘vibes theory of politics’. She projects a mixture of calm common sense, vaguely ‘Scandinavian’ political leanings and a hostility to all things Conservative. Combine that with her undoubted presentational and interpersonal skills and you have a fearsome political competitor, as the SNP’s sweep of election victories attests.

But nationalism with a calm demeanour, a slew of progressive bromides and a monochrome skirt-suit is still, well, nationalism. Can anyone seriously claim that Scottish politics is not more toxic, more divided and more unpleasant after nine years of her tenure than it was before? Some might see Sturgeon as the ‘adult in the room but her politics is all appeals to sentiment and division, in no small part because the economic case for independence is so frail.

As for her legacy, the more you peer into it, the less there is to see. The SNP talk about throwing off the yoke of Westminster so much, it’s easy to forget that they are in charge of the vast majority of policy in Scotland. And whether its educational attainment, the epidemic of drug deaths, A&E waiting times, the ferry fiasco or its ludicrous alcohol policies, Sturgeon’s time in charge has been one of chronic underperformance.

Still, there’s no doubt that we are bidding farewell to a big political figure. Whoever replaces her, be it Angus Robertson, Humza Yousuf or, most intriguingly, the 32-year-old Kate Forbes, will have a hell of a job replacing Sturgeon’s clout and profile. Therein lies a great irony of Sturgeon’s departure – that after nine years of an ardent separatist at the top of Scottish government, the Union feels more secure than at any point since the referendum.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.