Nicola Sturgeon’s critics must eat their words – she’s a political titan

I DON’T ever remember anyone using the term “Sturgeonism”. But Sturgeonism surely exists and now might be a good time to give it a brand name. For it is impossible to dismiss the political triumph of Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon in last Thursday’s Scottish Parliament elections. And that very success has implications for Scotland, the UK and Europe.

For starters, Thursday gave the lie to anyone still maintaining the fantasy that Sturgeon is a conservative lightweight who simply talks a good game, while keeping her fingers crossed the Tories might accommodate a second referendum. In this view, Sturgeon was lucky to inherit her post as FM from Big Beast Salmond in the wake of the 2014 referendum. The charge is that since then she has abandoned active campaigning for independence because she is risk averse, while covering her retreat by championing issues such as reforming the Gender Recognition Act.

There is a misogynistic element in this criticism, implying that Sturgeon is weak and at best a glib TV performer with an appeal to female voters. Others (I’ve done it myself) note her indulgence to close allies – for instance, her disgraced heir apparent Derek Mackay – which might suggest a lack of political ruthlessness. Then there is the view that Sturgeon lacks strategic politic vision and reacts to events rather than anticipates them.

After Thursday, such criticisms of the First Minister should be consigned to the dustbin of history (which is getting rather full these days). Sturgeon has been in office for six years and five months – just shy of Alex Salmond’s seven years and three months. But her stunning victory means she can stay in office till 2026, making her the longest serving First Minister by a mile.

Of course, she might quit while ahead – say after clocking up a decade in office, in 2024 – and seek a job on the global NGO circuit. Or she could emulate Angela Merkel, who’s done 16 years as Germany’s Chancellor.

Success in electoral politics relies a lot on luck. But luck is a precious commodity, and you don’t survive long in politics without manufacturing some of your own. It is plain silly to describe Sturgeon as simply drifting along, pandering to minority interests, or lacking a viable political strategy. If the latter were the case, we would not have seen the largest-ever voter turnout for a Scottish Parliament election as we did on Thursday. Nor would the SNP have increased its poll share and seats despite having been in office for 14 years – something unheard of in UK politics.

In other words – and I say this as a critic – the lady has political skills and drive that are undeniable. She is not a ditherer nor someone genuflecting before Boris and Co at Westminster, holding out her begging bowl for indyref2. Nicola Sturgeon is as tough and determined as Margaret Thatcher ever was.

READ MORE: Alex Salmond’s return to Holyrood would have been a gift for Unionists

In fact, Sturgeon has more political nous than Thatcher as she exudes the human empathy (real or affected, take your pick) to charm potential supporters, especially women voters.

It is just not possible to gainsay Sturgeon’s performance at the podium during the pandemic. History will inevitably (and correctly) criticise her for sending vulnerable elderly from hospital to care homes, without adequate testing for Covid-19. But Sturgeon’s ability to dominate the crisis – and win popular support – is astounding. Ms Sturgeon is not shy. She took over the Covid television podium and used it day after day, with a relentless eye on her political agenda.

As for political ruthlessness, anyone in the SNP who has stood in the path of Surgeon’s political machine has been bulldozed out of the way. When Common Weal and other dissidents won key positions on the SNP National Executive last year, they were isolated, denied documents, outmanoeuvred and many driven to resign. Denis Thatcher played golf and drank gin. Peter Murrell rides shotgun for the FM in the SNP bureaucracy. If Mrs T had had a Peter Murrell to hand, she might have lasted another decade at Number 10.

The National: First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon votes with her husband Peter Murrell at Broomhouse Community Hall in Ballieston on December 2019, in Glasgow. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images).

WHAT is the essence of Sturgeonism? Under Alex Salmond, the SNP was a movement and an insurgency. Whatever you think of Salmond, his forte was as a mass leader assaulting the British state. Sturgeon is something different.

Once the SNP was in government, the times demanded a figure who could manipulate the political machine and come to terms with the Scottish establishment. Such is Sturgeon. She is not the “nippy sweetie” of cruel caricature but a smooth operator capable of recruiting corporate lobbyists to write her economic strategy or former bankers to prepare her post-Covid recovery scheme.

Sturgeon can be caught off guard as she was by Theresa May’s snap General Election of 2017. But she recovers quickly. After the comparative set-back of the 2017 election (when the SNP lost half a million voters) Sturgeon closed down campaigning for indyref2 and switched to prioritising “good governance” as a strategy. This involves a plethora of modest initiatives ranged along a vaguely progressive policy front – witness free dentistry for the young or the £10 per child welfare supplement.

None of this constitutes radical change. Nor is there a hint of confronting Westminster on any issue. In fact, especially on economic matters, Sturgeon’s administration has been noticeably conservative to the point of failure. A promised 100,000 new jobs in North Sea renewables have not materialised. Instead, the Scottish economy has continued to de-industrialise quietly, reverting to a source of extractive goods for the global market (eg gas, food, tourism).

This suggests there is a time premium on Sturgeonism, which we might now define as brokering a new deal between conservative Scottish establishment circles (especially the pro-EU middle class) and a truculent Westminster. The ticking clock is the weakness of the Scottish economy, further undermined by the negative impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry and Brexit on food and drink exports. But for Sturgeon to go for radical economic change would frighten the middle class interests she panders to with state patronage (hence her refusal to introduce rent controls or force construction companies to disgorge unused land for housing).

Nevertheless, as Thursday proves, Sturgeonism remains popular. It provides modest reforms and presents itself as being at the forefront of a Western, progressive liberalism – a stance fashionable with youth and the professional middles class, while leaving real, exploitative power structures largely in tact. At the same time, Sturgeon’s careful – nay, conservative – approach to confronting Westminster’s intransigence over a second referendum manages to satisfy most independence supporters without frightening the Scottish establishment.

READ MORE: So after all the Yes movement’s tactical debates, what happened to the list seats?

CAN this careful balancing act continue ad infinitum? I suspect nemesis for Sturgeonism must await some future economic crisis. Even then, with the newly populist Tories willing to spend, spend, spend, economic disaster may not arrive soon. Alternatively, the non-appearance of indyref2 must eventually frustrate rank and file nationalists. But with Alba denied a Holyrood presence thanks to a deliberate, ruthless SNP campaign for otherwise useless list votes, those anti-Sturgeon activists are leaderless for the present. Alba’s plan to contest next year’s local elections is hardly a rallying point.

Which raises the obvious question: whither the Alba Party? With more than 5000 paying members, two MPs and a bunch of councillors, Alba is not going away any time soon. It is composed of a lot of veteran SNP activists who are used to the long haul of electoral politics. But outside of its original (failed) plan for a “supermajority” at Holyrood, does the party have a genuine reason for existence?

Alba’s only hope is to evolve to fill the gap left by Sturgeonism in the nationalist camp. Sturgeonism is about reconciling the Scottish establishment to a post-indy future and reconciling the indy movement to accepting an establishment Scotland after independence. Which means an alternative independence party has to be more radical. Alba will have to embrace republicanism in the European, constitutional sense – a rejection of the British hereditary system and an embracing of a modern, non-hierarchical society. I bet the Duke of Buccleuch will not be happy with that.

Contesting Sturgeonism will mean redefining what a new, modern Scottish state looks like, rather than pandering to existing elites. For starters, that means devolving power to communities. That is something we can start even before independence. It means reviving the old SNP plan for a local income tax and transferring powers from Holyrood to the localities. It means giving Orkney, Shetland and other island communities immediate autonomy. Such a radical vision could justify the emergence of a pro-indy opposition party.

One might go further. Re-joining the EU lies at the heart of Sturgeon’s international vision. But it is possible to be European without re-joining the EU. If Marine Le Pen wins next year’s French presidential election – which is not impossible given her current lead in the polls – a rethink of EU membership is definitely on the cards. As it is, Alba has come out in support of Scotland joining Efta, which allows for basic free trade while staying out of the clutches of fiscal domination by Brussels. Then there is the vexed question of Nato membership.

All this suggests that there is a big space to the left of Sturgeonism. But it would be a massive mistake if opposition to the SNP came to define the debate inside the independence movement. Thursday’s SNP success was not possible without the support of more than a million voters – the party’s largest-ever vote. Those wary of Sturgeonism need to remember that. Instead, the immediate priority has to be to unite the divided indy grassroots in active campaigning. That difficult job now falls to rank and file through groups such as Now Scotland, the non-party association of independence activists.

Last Thursday’s vote leaves Sturgeonism victorious for now. This is a unique political victory. It would be churlish for anyone to pretend otherwise.

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