Nicola Sturgeon leaves after a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh where she announced she will stand down as First Minister of Scotland on February 15, 2023 Picture Credit: Jane Barlow - Pool/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The party that refuses to govern

Sturgeon’s resignation is indicative of the SNP’s failures

Today the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced her resignation as head of the SNP and leader of Scotland’s devolved government. I have no special affection for Sturgeon, whose government has signally failed to seriously improve the quality of public services in Scotland, or improve the life chances of Scottish people. However, none of these failings are why Sturgeon is resigning. 

Indeed the SNP (as Nicola was at pains to emphasise in her speech), is on track to once again secure a majority at Holyrood, and the majority of Scotland’s parliamentary seats in Westminster. By any reasonable or normal standard, Sturgeon should be politically secure. For the SNP, however, a clear mandate to govern is not good enough — it wants a mandate for independence. 

As the 2014 referendum amply demonstrated, there is a majority in Scotland to elect an SNP government, but no majority for a fully independent Scotland. This referendum, held only eight years ago, had the highest turnout for any election since the advent of universal suffrage. Though fiercely contested, it was in the end decisive, with 55 per cent of Scots voting against independence. Unlike the Brexit referendum, people as young as 16 had a vote, meaning that younger generations had a clear say. 

This should have been a moment for the SNP to reconsider its approach, commit to demonstrating what a devolved Scotland could achieve, and accept that the question of independence was closed for a generation. 

Instead almost from the moment of this unprecedented democratic mandate for Scotland remaining in the union, the SNP was hard at work agitating for another vote. As early as 2016, following the results of another democratic referendum the SNP didn’t like the results of, Nicola Sturgeon called for another vote on independence. 

In her time in office, Sturgeon’s government has failed to live up to commitments to close the attainment gap in schools, and its educational and industrial strategies have proved chaotic and ineffectual. None of this however seemed to matter much to the SNP. No, Sturgeon is getting the chop because support for independence has once again plunged in the polls, alongside her own approval ratings. 

Sturgeon bewailed in her resignation speech that she had become a polarising figure, plaintively reminding the audience that she was only human (thus disappointing those amongst the viewers at home who thought she was some sort of superhuman being). How was she going to become anything else, when she made the focus of her time as First Minister the immensely divisive question of independence?

Despite being given the power and resources to change Scotland for the better, despite a decade of near total political freedom to direct and shape policy, Sturgeon and the SNP have achieved next to nothing, whilst blaming Scotland’s deep social and economic problems on England and Westminster. 

Much as the Brexit referendum poisoned and distorted Westminster politics, removing questions of record and competence from elections, and transforming governments into permanent campaigning bodies, so has the question of independence locked Scotland into a state of frozen divisions and endless ressentiment.

The SNP prioritises independence above improving the lives of ordinary people

Rather than seeking to govern, the SNP has shown again and again that it prioritises independence above improving the lives of ordinary people. Regardless of whether it is intentional, it is clearly in the interests of the SNP to keep Scottish independence as the central issue of Scottish politics, because it does not have a record in office that can be defended on its own merits. By keeping the issue of independence alive it not only advances its ideological obsession with fragmenting the union, but maintains a hegemonic role in Scottish politics by framing every election as a battle between Scottish and English interests. 

This is not an atmosphere conducive to sensible policy-making; indeed it is a context in which egos and arrogance flourish without challenge. It can only have been arrogance and a fatal failure to consider public opinion that could have led Sturgeon to try to make an extreme piece of pro-trans legislation a constitutional battle with Westminster. No non-binary William Wallances came howling out of the highlands to tear down the hetero-patriachy on her behalf. Instead, she faced unusually fierce questioning about just why she was unable to rule out biologically-male sexual offenders being sent to women’s prisons, and what pronoun she would use for a male rapist claiming to be a woman. 

Sturgeon says she hopes that a future SNP leader will be able to fight for independence whilst being a less polarising figure than herself. It is precisely the commitment to independence over governance that rendered Nicola Sturgeon so toxically divisive, however. In England and Scotland alike, we desperately need to break out of the artificial and airless battles that politicians choose to fight, and instead focus on the existential economic, environmental and geopolitical challenges that Britain faces today, which no party or politician has properly addressed. 

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