Music writer Greil Marcus argued that “rarely has a singer had such a complete and unique talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so much”.
There will be those who applied a similar analysis to Nicola Sturgeon this week as she became Scotland’s longest-serving Prime Minister – not as a singer, of course (she admits she can’t hold back an air), but as a politician.
Critics on the pro-independence side believe Sturgeon is missing out on a golden opportunity to hold a second referendum and has instead become mired in the daily grind of government. She became too comfortable in the neoclassical setting of the Robert Adam-designed Bute house, they say, with an army of servants and underlings to do her bidding. Meanwhile, there is no real progress towards the movement’s ultimate goal, and the likelihood of Scotland leaving the UK diminishes as each year passes of the SNP’s long reign.
On the pro-Union side, she is accused of being obsessed with independence to the exclusion of everything else, with the result that Scotland languishes in constitutional stasis. I have heard more than one senior official muse over the years that Sturgeon might otherwise have made an excellent Labor Prime Minister. Were it not for the constant need to judge politics on whether or not it advances the case for independence, she would have been freed to pursue much needed reforms to public services and the Scottish economy and work much more closely and positively with the Westminster governments.
There are few on either side of the debate that dispute Sturgeon’s star quality or his formidable political abilities. Since November 20, 2014, when she succeeded Alex Salmond, she has dominated national debate and public life, and been so secure and fixed in her position that it has become hard to imagine or sometimes even to remember Scotland without sound. On Wednesday, May 25, she passed the seven years, six months and five days mark which took her beyond Salmond’s tenure in the post. Sturgeon was unable to celebrate – she is struggling with Covid, with her deputy John Swinney taking part in this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Scotland, meanwhile, for better or worse, have a case of Long Nicola.
There are those who are obviously built to lead and those for whom it is not suitable. One could argue that Gordon Brown and Theresa May fell into the latter category, neither seeming comfortable under the burden of senior management. Tony Blair and David Cameron wore the coat lightly. Sturgeon was both: in her early years as a politician, she cut a withdrawn and irritable figure, but over time she blossomed into an important and confident singer. This was particularly evident during the 2014 independence referendum, when she regularly held rallies of thousands of Yes voters in the palm of her hand, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, when her peculiar mix of hard work, empathy and honesty was appreciated by a traumatized population.
It also helps that Sturgeon comes across as a relatively ordinary Scotsman. She has a quintessentially Glasgow irreverent sense of humor and can be very funny, and looks and sounds like the people who elect her. There is no Old Etonian class divide between leader and ruled in Scotland. She spends what little free time she has reading novels and regularly tweets about her favorite books. There’s a humanity and normality to her that isn’t always visible in her Westminster equivalents.
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But for at least half the population, it is also downright infuriating. During his tenure, there was concern about lost opportunities and avoided fights. The education system is withering away under what appears to be a lack of care and imagination, and an unwillingness to institute the kind of life-giving reforms that could upset teachers’ unions even if they were welcomed by students and parents. Sturgeon has a bad relationship with the business world, which feels devalued and underserved; it is certainly true that she is driven by a belief in social justice and the importance of the state, and that she has no natural sympathy for wealth creators and entrepreneurs. The entry into government of the far-left, anti-growth Greens was only the most glaring example.
Indeed, his government’s engagements with the private sector have rarely been successful, whether it be the disastrous commissioning of ferries from the Ferguson shipyard – the ships are now years behind schedule and well over the budget – the aimless nationalization of a dormant Prestwick airport, and now ScotRail, which, less than a month after being placed under government control, has moved to an emergency timetable, has cut 700 services a day and made travel a risky activity for commuters.
If the overriding goal of the Sturgeon administration was to secure another referendum, that too appears to have been a failure. She insists a second vote will take place within the next few years – by the end of 2023 if she is successful – but that seems unlikely. And if the electoral success of the SNP finally begins to wane after 15 years of pre-eminence, the chance could be lost for decades.
Where the Prime Minister has perhaps had more success is in gradually peeling Scotland from the neoliberal Anglo-Saxon model to a Nordic social-democratic model. She did this subtly, introducing welfare measures into policy-making, pursuing inclusive growth, introducing the Scottish Child Payment and making Scotland’s income tax system slightly more progressive. than that of Westminster. She also set up a separate social security system, a state investment bank and other institutions that make the Scottish state look more developed and competent. The war in Ukraine has been used to signal a mature approach to foreign policy.
But without major achievements in key traditional policy areas – where reform rarely comes without risk, a waste and loss of political capital – it is unclear what Sturgeon will ultimately leave behind that cannot easily be reversed. She has a reputation for dodging fights and seeking easy wins. In a way, she was a lucky leader: she only governed while there was an unpopular Conservative administration in Westminster, and Labor spent most of its time having a Corbyn-induced panic attack. Arguably, given the favorable circumstances, the SNP should be much closer to independence than it is.
Sturgeon is now closer to the end than the beginning of his ministry. As her legacy begins to take shape, she might wonder if she fully lived up to the talent that made her the defining Scottish politician of the era.