Bonus Edition: Sturgeon Resignation Coverage
A summary of the hottest takes from commentators on Sturgeon's resignation.
Back in 1996 I worked as a media monitor for the Labour Party, quickly summarising newspaper and broadcast content for politicians. I thought I’d give it a go for a special issue of this newsletter. I hope I haven’t lost it! Here, grouped thematically are some of the comment and analysis pieces that stood out for me today.
A Failed Independence Strategy
Most commentators pick up on the fact that Sturgeon failed on the only thing that ever really mattered to her: breaking up the UK.
Paul Hutcheon in the Daily Record notes that her time in charge of the nationalist movement was based on the idea that the barrier to leaving the UK was legal process when it was really public opinion:
She concentrated too much on the nuts and bolts of a referendum, rather than building support for a revamped case for independence. Her focus was on keeping true believers sweet with empty promises on indyref2, instead of trying to preach to the unconverted. The Government she is leaving behind is sagging and the independence movement is drifting.
In the Press and Journal, Euan McColm summarises why the SNP membership had turned against her daft defacto referendum strategy:
Not unreasonably, allies of the first minister warmed her she had picked a fight which offered only one outcome to the independence movement: defeat. If, by some miraculous stroke, pro-independence parties won more than half of the popular vote in the election, the UK Government would – quite legitimately – say this hadn’t been a referendum and refuse to enter into secession talks. If, as seems more likely, the pro-indy vote didn’t make it over the halfway line, the UK Government would say: “Well, you had your de facto referendum and you lost.”
In another column McColm astutely recognises that Sturgeon set herself on an inevitable path to disaster years ago:
As membership of the SNP soared — from 25,000 to more than 130,000 — she decided not to be fully frank with these enthusiastic new supporters. Rather than explaining that winning the opportunity to stage a second referendum would be incredibly difficult, she led her followers to believe the prize was within grasp. One more heave, lads, was the message.
The Scotsman’s leading article concludes that the First Minister has made the dissolution of the UK less, not more likely:
the greatest advertisement for Scottish independence would be a devolved Scotland making a clear, positive difference for its population. But under Sturgeon’s SNP, devolved government has failed to achieve anything like that success. The irony is that Sturgeon’s time in office pushed the goal she has chased all of her adult life – independence – further away, and the policy mess she leaves behind will take huge effort to untangle. But her departure, and the loss of the presentational discipline she could apply at the peak of her powers, will also have huge, negative impact to that cause.
Similarly, Brian Wilson in the Scotsman imagines what could have been:
She made her reputation by treating politics as a bloodsport, with little regard for the quarry. A harsh tongue took her a long way. It could all have been different in the hands of a different personality. For that, the prerequisite was to accept that the pro-independence side lost in 2014 and it would be a long way back, requiring patience, persuasion and a degree of consensus building. She had the ball at her feet, bequeathed by her mentor, Alex Salmond, and a very generous budget at her disposal to pursue that strategy. Briefly, she acknowledged that another referendum was off the table until there was consistent evidence of 60 per cent support. If she had stuck to that, it might be a different Scotland today.
A Polarising Politician
Wilson’s theme is a common one among commentators today. Sturgeon resigned bemoaning the very divisions she herself has created in Scottish politics, Magnus Linklater writes:
Her style of government — the concentration of power, the ideological inflexibility, the inability to build bridges with those who do not share her views — has been a large contributor to Scotland’s polarised politics and the divisions that have hardened since the referendum of 2014 [...] Sturgeon drew around her a close-knit group of family and advisers who found it not just hard to reach out to critics, but a positive distraction from the cause. It meant she embarked on policies that had more to do with establishing political platforms than listening to the mood of the country.
Meanwhile, Alex Massie in the Times thinks that Sturgeon never showed enough interest in the big policy questions that hold voters back from supporting independence. More damningly, he says, she didn’t have enough interest in understanding why the majority of Scots feel as we do:
“We must reach across the divide in Scottish politics,” Sturgeon said. The greater tragedy of her own leadership is not so much that she failed to do this herself but that she rarely even tried. Her leadership was marked by perspiration but little inspiration. She lacked the emotional intelligence to appreciate why a majority of Scottish voters rejected independence and, this being so, she never succeeded in speaking to them. She was a tribal politician for tribal times.
A Legacy of Crisis
Martyn McLaughlin in the Scotsman wonders why, with the world at her feet, she was not more radical:
It is hard to shake the sense that lesser first ministers, who occupied the office for shorter periods than her lengthy stint, could have been said to have achieved more. Certainly, under Ms Sturgeon’s watch, there was nothing as transformative as such as the free personal care policy pursued by Henry McLeish. In that regard, it is perhaps no surprise that one of the most stinging accusations levelled at Ms Sturgeon by some SNP supporters is that, for a professed social democrat, she has been far too conservative.
A return by veteran political editor Andy Nicholl in the Scottish Sun says that Sturgeon has burnt the reputation for competent governance that was meant to be the platform for an independence campaign:
Scotland’s educational results have plummeted and the gap between rich and poor has widened. Scotland has the worst drug deaths record in Europe — again. The Scottish NHS is in tatters, carrying out 24 per cent fewer operations than it was before Covid. Back in November, there were 474,600 people on the waiting list, with more than 2,000 having endured delays of over two years. ScotRail was so disastrously managed by Abellio that the railways were renationalised — and the same man was put in charge. The publicly-owned, not-for-profit energy company which Nicola Sturgeon promised us never turned up. The vow to give free bikes to Scottish kids has so far cost just under £1million and provided fewer than 1,000 cycles. That’s £500 per wheel. She pledged free laptops for every school pupil. Has your kid got one yet? The promise to make the deadly A9 a dual carriageway has come to nothing. The deposit return scheme — set to see Scots charged a refundable 20p to recycle drinks containers — looks like it’s about to crash and burn. Then there’s the whole ferries fiasco. Gross mismanagement has cost the Scottish taxpayer hundreds of millions in return for zero boats.
An Uncertain Future
David Bol in The Herald shares the view of many commentators that Sturgeon leaves the next leader of the nationalist movement with a poisoned chalice:
With the Yes movement stuck in the mud, the next first minister will need to bring forward a new direction in the foggiest circumstances since the 2014 referendum. The Scottish Government and Ms Sturgeon have exhausted calling for a referendum – so new ideas are desperately needed. Domestic troubles for Ms Sturgeon have dented support for independence, if recent polls are to be believed. But you could argue that support for Ms Sturgeon’s leadership of the Yes movement has peaked.
Neil MacKay in The Herald thinks that the nationalist campaign needs to separate from the SNP entirely as a distracted party of government is dragging down the cause:
As things stand, however, if the SNP cannot find a leader who unites the party, then it will be beaten at the ballot box. If the SNP falls, then independence is over for decades. If Ms Sturgeon's departure throws the SNP into such disarray that it tanks at Westminster and Holyrood, then she’ll have killed off the Yes movement, the very movement she dedicated her life to; that’s the definition of tragedy, or comedy, depending on your politics.
Kenny Farquharson in the Times notes that Sturgeon’s successor will need to come up with a strategy for dealing with an incoming Labour government:
Sturgeon has similarly failed to process the likelihood of Starmer taking up residence in Downing Street. A Labour victory will change fundamentally the power dynamic of the UK. But Sturgeon persisted with the fiction that Labour would just be a pale imitation of the Tories. The truth, acknowledged by many in the SNP, is that a Starmer government opens up a range of opportunities for Scottish self-government within the UK. Starmer’s big pitch at the election will be decentralisation of power and reform of the institutions at the heart of the British state.
John Curtice writes in the Scotsman that Scottish Labour are the most likely benefieries of any splintering of the coalition of voters Sturgeon assembled, but notes:
while Labour’s aim is to transcend the constitutional divide by winning over Yes and No supporters with its vision of more powers for Holyrood and a better relationship with Westminster, so far the party has found it relatively difficult to persuade Yes voters to join this enterprise.
While the SNP leadership election will be the focus of discusssions about what comes next, the really important determinant of the future may actually be Labour’s strategy. Can the party communicate to 2014 Yes supporters who were change-voters rather than nationalists that change is coming and that they should be part of a new, different journey.