Nicola Sturgeon should not be eulogised as some benign influence on Scottish politics. She ran-down the independence movement, and presided over the decline of Scottish society, argues David Jamieson.
Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, has announced her resignation. The shock this delivers to the national political scene is immense, and will have ramifications for years to come.
Sturgeon’s ascent to the peak of Scottish politics in 2014 was driven by the energies of that years’ independence movement, which swept aside Scottish Labour hegemony and blandished her government with anti-establishment credentials. These carried her to five successive Scottish and UK General Election victories. For eight years she has been Caesar of Scottish politics, peerless within her own party and facing little meaningful opposition from parliamentary benches.
Already, admirers and hangers-on in Scotland’s stuffy public scene are eulogising a modernising, compassionate and progressive leader. But Sturgeon represents, above all, the stifling of the democratic energies which secured her in power. Exit, after months of mounting difficulties, threatens the complacency of Scottish institutions at a time of hardship for millions, as the economy shrinks and working class incomes tumble.
Why is she going now? Controversies, both in her party and in the country, were rapidly mounting against her.
Much of the enduring strength of the SNP (in power since 2007) derives from popular attraction to the independence cause. The movement which emerged between 2012 and 2014 for Scottish independence, consequent upon the 2011 Scottish election victory of Sturgeon’s mentor Alex Salmond, recast politics as a struggle for national rights and a democratic alternative against a conservative dominated Westminster.
The 2014 referendum, which the independence campaign lost by 45% Yes to 55% No, was part of the wave of ‘populist’ shocks that struck political establishments around the world. Defeat proved a boon for the SNP, which experienced a surge in members and voters, clearing a path for the dramatic ascent of Sturgeon to power.
But even at her peak in late 2014, Sturgeon’s deep ambiguity to the independence movement was on show. She organised the unveiling of her leadership to take place in the Glasgow Hydro – a 14,000 seat stadium right next door, and on the very same day as, a pre-planned 3000 strong Radical Independence Conference. This sent a signal: there was to be no challenge to her leadership, especially from the left of the independence movement.
The years between 2016 and the Covid pandemic saw dozens of major demonstrations all over Scotland, many in the tens of thousands, demanding the right to self-determination against an intransigent Westminster. Sturgeon attended not one. She ignored protests outside the door of her official residence in Edinburgh but did fly to London to take part in the British establishment ‘People’s Vote’ movement to overturn the 2016 Brexit referendum.
This choice of street movements says much about Sturgeon’s political profile. Generally hostile to real popular mobilisations, she has always signalled fidelity to the foreign capital that dominates the Scottish economy, and to the EU, US, Nato and the British state as guardians of the international order.
For years, independence was taken out the hat at election times and waved before an increasingly frustrated party and voting base. As demoralisation and schism set-in, Sturgeon would increasingly centralise her party, right down to its atomic core – herself and her husband, party chief executive Peter Murrell. Party conferences were increasingly managed to restrain democracy. Popular initiative was ignored or denounced, critics smeared by a patronage network extending from the Scottish government into the media, arts and NGO sector. Loyal politicians jumped on transatlantic anti-Russia sentiment after the election of Donald Trump, and warned of Russian meddling in Scottish affairs, and specifically in the independence movement.
The strategy of harvesting votes and money from the independence movement whilst simultaneously repressing its development speaks to the class contradictions on which Sturgeon’s power rested. She needed both a popular base, and good terms with national and transnational power brokers, to maintain office. For years, the projection of frustrated anti-establishment feeling onto Sturgeon’s increasingly illusory struggle with Westminster created stability in Scottish politics. But in recent months, this contradiction had begun to erode Sturgeon’s grip on power
Plans for a Scottish-organised referendum were rebuffed by the UK Supreme Court late in 2022. A forthcoming emergency conference to debate Sturgeon’s plan for a ‘de facto’ referendum, which would see the SNP stand on an independence ticket without manifesto at the next General Election, looked set to break the long-standing tradition of stage-managed conferences with pre-determined outcomes.
Sturgeon’s case for independence has been haemorrhaging credibility for years. It too has been infected by the class contradictions of Sturgeon’s project, becoming a muddle of mutually contradictory policies, tying Scotland to the institutions of transnational capitalism and threatening to denude any independent state of sovereignty. The business lobbyists she put in charge of the blueprint for independence mandated ‘Sterlingisation’ – continued use of the pound through the Bank of England, without access to monetary powers. This jarred with the SNP policy of automatic EU membership upon independence. The anti-establishment messaging of the independence movement in 2014 has been culled; in its place a conservatism which satisfies few parts of the actual establishment.
The party was also starving of funds. The SNP faces, again, a class problem when it comes to financing its election campaigns and routine work. It is neither an old-school social democratic party with access to union support, nor a traditional centre right outfit with many large business donors. The modern party is a product of a populist wave, and these small donors became its main financial resource. This necessitated the strategy of diminishing returns by milking independence sentiment.
In 2017, something called Ref.scot appeared. It presented itself as a campaigning hub for an independence referendum campaign. Close inspection found it to be an SNP venture. It gathered data and funds from independence supporters, before abruptly shutting down months later.
With members leaving and local branches dying, desperation for funds grew. In 2019 another funding and data-mining campaign was launched, again on the false pretence of an independence campaign. This time, the deception was even more callous. The new website was called ‘Yes’ – an obvious attempt to stoke nostalgia for 2014. Though the small print informed the careful reader that this too was an SNP front (“you are donating to a political party”) everything about the website was designed to give the impression that it was the resurrection of the 2014, cross-party Yes campaign, a huge decentralised movement with great emotional resonance for tens of thousands of people.
Some £600,000 was raised between these two cynical ventures. The monies disappeared into the SNP cashflow, and up to £500,000 remains unaccounted for to this day.
After complaints from members of the public, a Police Scotland investigation began. With no solution to the party’s money problems in sight, Murrell – Sturgeon’s husband and the leading officer of the SNP – made a personal loan of £107,000. Sturgeon denies any knowledge of when this loan was made, and two days before the press conference announcing her departure, reports speculated that the police investigation had spread to Murrell’s loan. Sturgeon adamantly refused to answer questions on party finances as she left the podium.
With the prospect of an independence referendum rapidly diminishing, the appalling failures of Sturgeon’s time in office are becoming harder to obscure. The policy record of her government is a scene of desolation: local authorities starved of funds, public services in meltdown, workers on strike against falling pay, a country for sale to international monopolies.
As head of a devolved national parliament, Sturgeon struggled with shrinking budgets from Westminster. But she made little effort to challenge the parameters of her power. Unjust taxes dating to the Tory John Major government of the 1990s went unreformed, despite frequent promises to introduce a progressive alternative. Radical policies were often announced, then quietly abandoned or dramatically downscaled. A National Energy Company, that could have aided many Scots through spiking energy prices, was ditched. A National Care Service turns out to be another boon to private corporations. A National Investment Bank, specifically envisaged by campaigners as something that could buck the market domination of devolved structures, has gone the same way. Even a bottle and can recycling scheme has come acroper.
A spring 2022 budget from Sturgeon’s finance minister, Kate Forbes, declared war on the public sector – threatening to significantly shrink its overall size, and massacre between 30-40,000 jobs. Pay cuts quickly followed, leading Sturgeon into conflict with teachers and low-paid local government workers.
The deputisation of the Scottish Greens into a co-operation government from 2021 was a cosmetic procedure to cover for a fire-sale of Scottish national assets to multinational corporations, that culminated in the obscene auction of leases to develop Scottish sea beds to British Petroleum, Shell, and a host of other giants, ostensibly to develop offshore wind power. The ScotWind project offered these ten year leases at knock-down prices, and with little in return for local communities or industries. It was an object lessons in the economic vassalage to which Sturgeon has helped reduce the country.
The SNP in danger
The professional and managerial class voters Sturgeon courted through these conservative policies, and by embracing an ultra pro-EU and pro-Nato attitude, have proved fair weather friends. She leaves office with her own approval ratings dipping, and with support for independence on the slide.
Her ultra-centralised leadership style means she has no clear successor. Indeed, the country appears to have little idea who her key ministers and the candidates for future first minister even are. A Times poll places ‘don’t know’ ahead of the pack with a massive 69%, with austerity enthusiast Forbes a distant second with 7%, and another figure on the right of the party, Angus Robertson, on 5%.
Schisms in the party have been widening in recent months. Late in 2022, Stephen Flynn MP displaced Sturgeon’s placemen in the party’s Westminster parliamentary group. In Edinburgh, a record number of MSPs rebelled against Sturgeon’s Gender Recognition Reforms. Recent weeks have seen the party leadership continue to be dogged by the controversy, which has bedded into party ranks, the wider independence movement and Scottish society. The UK Government has blocked the reforms, alleging a breach of devolution rules. Sturgeon quitting now means she flees the gauntlets thrown down by the UK Government and the Supreme Court.
This is, then, a disorderly route. Sturgeon is nothing if not a methodical and calculating politician – skills which have served her well for years. Her sudden abandonment of composure, and with it any real succession plan or care for legacy, implies that some convergence of events has compelled her to jump now. Coming days may cast light on exactly what has happened. For now, those in Scotland who desire independence from a faltering British state must regroup and reflect on the disasters of the SNP leadership.
All those determined to halt the miserable decline of Scottish society, must repudiate the myth of her enlightened leadership. Sturgeon presided over this decline and worked to undermine the mass movement that rose to resist it. This is how she must be remembered.