Wednesday 15 February 2023

Goodbye Nicola Sturgeon

It was meant to be a big day for Keir Starmer. With no news happening because the MPs are on half term, the Labour grid was hoping to hog the politics headlines. His message, that the changes he'd made to the party were "irrevocable", any left wingers who didn't like it knew where the door was, and that antisemitism was dead as an issue, was meant for the media, business elites, and right-leaning floating voters who are still iffy about the party. But within moments he was upstaged and, save for the rounds of discourse on Twitter, proceedings became dominated by Nicola Sturgeon's unexpected resignation. In her statement, Sturgeon admitted this was something she'd been thinking about for a long time. As well as asking whether carrying on as First Minister was right for her, she said
... more importantly, is me carrying on right for the country, for my party, and for the independence cause I have devoted my life to?
What a marked contrast to Boris Johnson and the tawdry spectacle of his doomed efforts at clinging on while the Parliamentary Conservative Party went on strike against him. Sturgeon was self-deprecating and honest about the toll a front rank job exacts from those who take it up. Coming not long after Jacinda Adern stepped down as party leader and Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand for similar reasons, it's likely her departure from the political stage helped focus Sturgeon's mind as well.

Timing, however, is everything. In recent weeks Sturgeon has been under pressure for her support for trans rights and gender recognition, an issue that finds plenty of the "genuine concerns" brigade in the SNP. Closer to home, there's been a long-running sore concerning the conduct of her husband, Peter Murrell, who happens to be the party's chief executive. A couple of years ago, questions were raised about the pressure he allegedly put on the police to press charges against Alex Salmond. And there are allegations of fraud in the air. A £600k party fund ring fenced for independence referendum campaigning was variously diverted into other spending, while Murrell provided the SNP a £108,000 loan that was not declared properly. Hardly the sorts of troughing and corruption we see with the Tories, but it doesn't look good either and could only tarnish Sturgeon's image. In politics assets can become liabilities in the blink of an eye, so who can blame her for retiring from the field while her ratings remained positive.

With no obvious successor with a similar profile to her when taking over from Salmond, the Westminster parties - despite the due decorum - feel that they might find a way back. Jim Murphy, the architect of Labour's 2015 disaster, thinks Labour's Anas Sarwar will have the credibility of insurgency in his sails, and can now claim the title of Scotland's best known politician. Really? Better known than Mhairi Black, Joanna Cherry, and Angus Robertson? Scottish Labour are doing a bit better in the polls lately, but largely thanks to the collapse of the Tories. The idea of contesting the SNP for the return of its base still doesn't figure in party strategy, beyond a bland economism that alibis unionism through the old "there are more pressing problems to deal with". If that was the case, why did Keir Starmer make such a big deal about constitutional issues in the middle of an acute cost of living crisis? I digress. The idea Sturgeon's resignation opens the road to Labour gaining 25 Scottish seats is the dumbest official optimism heard in some time.

That said, her successor is likely to have a tougher time. None of the names in the frame have the singular appeal Sturgeon cultivated. She was straight talking, empathetic, and easily tough enough to parry and fling back insults during Holyrood argy-bargy. And at 16 years at the top of Scottish politics, a canny and versatile politician that astutely played the game to victorious conclusion - save her ambition to be the first leader of an independent Scotland. For a time she embodied the Yes movement and Scottish nationalism's best face - that which is socially liberal and social democratic, honest about the challenges but, rare in UK politics, resolutely and non-cynically optimistic. The would-be heirs are variously compromised. Robertson and Stephen Flynn might have left many bloodied bodies from internal fights in their wake, Cherry is in the SNP's transphobic minority (and, like Flynn, is tied to Westminster and therefore cannot stand), Humza Yousaf is carrying the can for the Scottish NHS's refusal to meet the demands of striking nurses, and Kate Forbes's overt old school religiosity doesn't chime with the civic inclusivity ot the Sturgeon SNP. No wonder then that there will be a toasting of her resignation in Westminster tonight. Without her fronting it up, the campaign for Scottish independence has been set back and with it the union is that little bit more secure.

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Duncan said...

Sturgeon's departure as leader will have an impact on the independnce movement, but it is a movement that didn't start with her, and it doesn't end with her. The younger generation are by large margins in favour of independence, and as Anthony Barnett has argued, the Supreme Court decision that the Scottish government couldn't plan and run a second indy referendum was a blessing in disguise, as a poll this year (or in the next five years) would most likely be a no vote to indy. Therefore, with time to wait, an indy ref big win is there with patience.

David Lindsay said...

Nicola Sturgeon has resigned because the long-running Police investigation into the SNP's finances is about to move in. It needs to do so before Peter Murrell has charge of the election of his wife's successor.