A minute out of the limelight won’t kill you First Minister

by | 11 Mar 2022

Usually the First Minister's comments on international politics are mostly vanity; this time they were dangerous and they must not be repeated

In mid-August of last year the Scottish Government-run ferry service to Arran was hit by the serial failure of the ferries in the fleet. This left about 40 passengers stranded at the ferry terminal with no accommodation and after the last bus into the main town on Arran had gone. Facing sleeping on a pier overnight, people got restless and the police were called.

This did not prevent the First Minister a week later offering advice to the US President Joe Biden on how he should go about evacuating troops from Afghanistan. Generally, the inability to get 40 people off an island close to your biggest city might give you pause before offering advice on getting thousands of people out of a battle zone a little bit further away than that. It didn’t.

Broadly, what looks popular on her Twitter feed has been the driving ‘ideology’ of the First Minister’s interventions on international politics – from telling Americans who to vote for (a clumsy breach of diplomatic protocols) to the student-level antics in Brussels around Brexit.

This week was no different but also completely different. When the First Minister offered military advice to Joe Biden, the world shrugged (in as far as it noticed). When she is, in public, effectively calling for a shooting war with Russia to be given serious consideration, we are in different territory.

In case you missed it, that (inexplicably) is what Nicola Sturgeon said to Borders TV in an interview this week. There was no ambiguity in what she said; a no-fly zone over Ukraine must not be taken off the table.

She framed this with a comment claiming “I understand and I share the concerns about a direct military confrontation between Russia and Nato that a no-fly zone may lead to”. But it is as plain as the nose on your face that she had absolutely no understanding of the implications of what she was saying, of a direct military confrontation with Russia – or she would have kept her mouth shut.

Don’t get confused here; the most hawkish of US military advisers is not keeping a no-fly zone open for consideration. Sturgeon has positioned herself where only a small number of the furthest right of the increasingly deranged US Republican party can be found, miles out on the fringes.

It doesn’t even make any sense. I’m no military strategist but I’m guessing that if Nato ever decides to start a full-blown war with Russia, daring Russia to ground its planes over Ukraine is not how they would go about it.

Just for once, just this time, please, please First Minister – accept this isn’t your moment in the limelight

Remember, the Scottish Government does not have professional foreign policy advisers because foreign policy is outside its brief. If people associated with government are making comments they are doing so with the same knowledge as you and me, things they read in the newspapers. That is no basis for making public statements.

This isn’t another one of those boilerplate statements she makes to the National to try to pull back in a kite she had someone fly yesterday when she discovers it is unpopular. We’re in the middle of Europe’s biggest crisis very probably since 1945 and so loose talk can be fatal.

A cursory glance at the tale of the Cuban Missile Crisis tells us what happens when two sides in a stand-off start guessing what the other is going to do based on the fragments of information which get through. A Western leader flying a kite for shooting down Russian military aircraft is the kind of thing that gets noticed.

It is really quite shocking, really quite chilling to hear this kind of talk. This is one of the few occasions on which Alastair Jack is spot on – this was utterly irresponsible and very naïve. Iain McWhirter takes the First Minister apart on this and is right to.

The First Minister looks at her Twitter feed, sees who is getting praise and who is being criticised, proposes to do more of whatever the person being praised is doing and much less of whatever the person being criticised is doing. That’s it, that has been her entire strategy for seven years now.

It may have been remarkably effective in terms of PR but is has delivered no substance. It’s the Father Ted Problem. In one of the greatest satirical takes on protest movements I’ve ever seen, Father Ted stands outside a cinema protesting something or other with a placard which says ‘down with this sort of thing’. It is a biting take on the imprecision of many protest movements, knowing they’re against something but failing to articulate clearly what it is exactly.

But there is a world of difference between protest and being in a position of power. Right now the world does not need powerful people making dangerous, poorly-conceived statements which risk inflaming or escalating a deeply serious, critically important crisis with deep and wide humanitarian and geopolitical implications.

Just for once, just this time, please, please First Minister – accept this isn’t your moment in the limelight. Stop trying to crowbar yourself into a crisis where you don’t belong and if you absolutely must, if you really cannot see any chance to be on TV go past you, please think very carefully about what you say.

Because this was madness, madness the world really, really doesn’t need right now.

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