Artillery Row

Sturgeon walks into the sunset

The overwhelming figure of Scottish politics is human after all

So farewell Nicola Sturgeon, departing at a time of her choosing, to spend more time simply being a human. Her statement announcing her departure was typically graceful, moving in its humility, inspiring in its quiet dignity, penetrating in its intelligence. It is at moments like this that we should put political differences aside and realise that we are all united by deeper ties. 

Well, up to a point. The Scottish First Minister has always inspired a gushing kind of prose from people who would apply rather more critical thinking if the words were coming out of the mouth of, say, Liz Truss. All her talents were on display at Bute House on Wednesday morning. There was the trademark body-bob from side-to-side as she dismissed the idea — the very idea — that her departure was the result of “short-term pressures”. There was the charming self-deprecation as she acknowledged that while some would be upset by the decision, there would be “others who will — how can I put this — cope with the news just fine”.

But it was also a rambling statement — eighteen minutes by the clock — covering everything from the age of her nephews and nieces to the strain of governing during a pandemic. She refused to discuss the police probe into her party’s finances or her swerves on the question of whether a rapist belonged in a women’s prison. There was a selective tour of her achievements in government, and no acknowledgement of the bits, from roads and ferries to schools and hospitals, that have proved more challenging. 

Sturgeon has long been an immensely attractive figure to people who don’t follow Scottish politics closely, but enjoy watching someone insult English Tories. More importantly, she’s had sustained support north of the border, at least in part because of her skill at running the SNP both as a government and as an opposition to the evil Westminster Conservatives, with their courts and their judges and their laws. 

Her great cause, of course, has been independence

Her great cause, of course, has been independence. It’s generally assumed that support for Scottish independence benefits from her undoubted political skills. But some of the traffic may be in the other direction: a willingness of pro-Indy Scots to back the leader of their cause come what may. 

And there are a lot of Scots who support independence, though not as many as she seems to think. “I am firmly of the view that there is now majority support for independence in Scotland,” she said. Sadly she didn’t have time in her long, long statement to expand on that idea. A majority of who? Readers of The National? People with more than two copies of Alex Salmond’s memoirs in their house? 

The last few years have not been short of leaders’ resignations. We’ve seen Theresa May quit in tears, Boris Johnson in denial, Liz Truss in humiliation. Sturgeon, it became clear, was resigning in triumph. She was leaving because, as another leader with a firm grip on reality once said, people had got tired of all the winning.

As she went on, there was an increasing feeling that, even for a personal statement, Sturgeon was talking an awful lot about Sturgeon. People’s opinions about her had, she said, become “barriers to reasoned debate”. This meant that “statements and decisions that should not be controversial at all quickly become so” while “issues that are controversial end up almost irrationally so”. Was this coded language for something? It’s hard to know what, but remember that her opponents are irrational, and that issues are viewed “not on their own merits, but through the prism of what I think and what people think about me”. Or maybe they had assessed issues on their merits, and had simply come to different conclusions from her. But no, that couldn’t be it. 

The implication that anyone who disagreed with her was blinded by personal hatred sat uneasily with her next message, that she hoped Scotland’s politicians could “reset the tone and the tenor of our discourse”. Presumably the irrational people, the people who disagree with her, won’t be able to do that. But it might be worth spending a moment or two considering whether the people who do agree with Sturgeon have always done all they could to improve the tone and tenor of public discourse. 

Sturgeon had a further thought. She wanted to “to focus more on issues than on personalities”. This is the kind of line that usually comes from politicians who are sick of being overshadowed by someone with megawatt charm. But Sturgeon has been the overwhelming figure of Scottish politics for nearly a decade. “I’m not expecting violins here, but I am a human being as well as a politician,” she had told us. We should be wary of taking politicians at their word, but there must be truth in that. 

There is surely more behind this resignation than she said, but perhaps Nicola Sturgeon, auntie to teenagers, a woman who wants to go for a walk or have a coffee with friends in peace, is also tired of being overshadowed by Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister and never-wrong power in the land.  

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