The Sturgeon Era: control, paranoia and vanity

by | 22 Mar 2023

Few politicians have seen their reputation collapse so completely so quickly as Nicola Sturgeon. There is a very good reason for this - behind her endless rhetoric her real legacy was failure.

Come Monday there will be (god willing) the start of a new era in Scotland. That new era is most certainly not without its challenges and that is what I will focus my time on. But given everything it would be odd for me not to do a brief political obituary for Nicola Sturgeon and since I’m away for the rest of the week I’ll just do it now.

This is a cramped field. I knew that when Sturgeon goes her reputation would start to dissolve given that it was based on nothing but hot air in the first place, but I couldn’t have predicted how quickly.

Honestly, Adam Tompkins’ analysis is hard to improve on (especially his take on Yousaf), Iain Macwhirter is brutal but incisive on why her departure is shameful and why the leadership election result is patently unsound and Kevin McKenna does a well-justified take-down of her enablers and hangers-on.

I just want to add two things in this piece – what did she get away with and how did she get away with it? I’ll address them in reverse order.

So why did everyone think Sturgeon was such a brilliant politician? There are four primary answers to that. The first is social media. In many ways Sturgeon operated basically like an AI for elite liberal Twitter – she was adept at working out what was the most popular opinion on any subject and repeating it as if she came up with it. That’s why she has no memorable quotations to her name – there was no originality in her words. Sturgeon didn’t once challenge ‘the London Liberal Consensus’ but rather waited to see what was popular and then shouted it really loudly.

Second, she was an incredibly accomplished ‘Gish Galloper’. A Gish Gallop is for when you don’t have a strong argument. Take questioners on a long, circuitous route,bombarded them with superfluous information and then stop without addressing the original question. It leaves a vague sense that you tried really hard to answer the question when actually you simply ignored it. She did this every time she had to answer when under pressure.

Third, she was an appalling ‘ego hoover’. This is what sickened me most. She wasn’t serious, she was greedy. In 2014 she saw the excitement and inspiration created by the independence movement and she wanted it all for herself, none for anyone else. (Sturgeon had hee haw to do with the independence movement – her contribution was running Yes Scotland and no-one has a good word to say for Yes Scotland).

Seeing the post-referendum buzz she simply cut the independence movement off at the knees and almost literally stole the buzz for herself by organising ‘rock concert’ gigs where her husband organised the printing of giant bits of glorification merchandise which were handed out as if it was a spontaneous message of love from the people of Scotland.

It never finished. By the time she was instructing her MSPs to vote down a motion that would make the Scottish Parliament the first in the world to announce a climate emergency so that a couple of months later she could do it and claim she was the first in the world, it was so common people didn’t notice. She announced all good news, some poor hapless minister stood up to deliver the bad news.

Every time Sturgeon was challenged even slightly (whether real or in her head) she created a new fault-line, a new conflict

That is also part of her fourth technique – to control either through bribery or aggression. If she could directly control it either through government or party she did. If there were checks and balances in her way she just removed them.

But if she couldn’t control things directly she used a system of patronage and money-dangling (the Scottish Government is a warren of utterly pointless grant schemes there only to make people dance for money and keep their criticism down). If that wasn’t possible she had them viciously attacked in social media pile-ons.

(It should also be noted that Sturgeon had an impressive facility to well up or start crying whenever she was under serious pressure or needed to regain public sympathy.)

All of this was transparent and shouldn’t have worked. But, for reasons I suspect I’ll only ever partially understand, she managed to utterly mesmerise most journalists and almost all of the commentator class to a stupendous degree.

This is a long way short of a list of all the objectionable practices she brought into government. She would make lectures about raising the tone of politics while she herself was among the most vituperative senior politicians in British public life. She was shameless in hiding information, covering up failures, closing down transparency and ‘forgetting things’.

She was simply brutal towards anyone who caused her even mild embarrassment, throwing anyone to the wolves if it made her look good (Michelle Thompson, Natalie McGarry, Mark McDonald). She was unpleasant to colleagues and punished anyone who said no to he. She cut almost everyone else out of decision-making. First person plural (we, us) were alien to her.

All of this was about her insecurity, paranoia and resulting vanity. From day one it was ‘me me me’ and nothing wasn’t tradeable if it meant her image was bolstered.

It has been a terrible, toxic time in Scottish politics. You all know how much the events of the independence referendum and its movement meant to me but I don’t deny there was toxicity. Rather than trying to reduce that toxicity in its aftermath, Sturgeon simply harnessed it for her own ends.

But keeping Scotland polarised between her and other political parties wasn’t enough. Every time she was challenged even slightly (whether real or in her head) she created a new fault-line, a new conflict. This reached a crescendo when she became convinced Alex Salmond was eyeing up a Holyrood seat. She escalated a simmering feud into a full-on civil war and she tore her party apart in the process.

But she couldn’t stop herself. She kept escalating conflict further. The gender recognition legislation debate didn’t have to be bitter and nasty, but it suited Sturgeon to polarise the debate in an attempt to isolate a few more critics.

Sturgeon traded Scotland’s chance to become an independent country for the sake of her own vanity and we will never get that opportunity back

It is now time to sweep all of this away. Strip back the shallow showwomanship, the bluff, the grand statements that were substance free, the posing and the posturing and what is left? Or to put it another way, what got better and what got worse?

Is civic Scotland stronger or weaker for Sturgeon’s eight years? Is government more or less transparent? Has the quality of government got better or worse? Has the pool of talent in Scottish politics grown or shrunk? Is the tone of Scottish politics better or worse? Is local democracy stronger or weaker? Is Scotland more centralised or less centralised?

Is the SNP stronger or weaker? Does it have more members or fewer? Is it more united or less united? Is the independence movement in a better place or a worse place? Are we closer to independence or are we further away? Is independence seen as a more credible option or a less credible option? Is our nation more united or more divided?

What is her policy legacy? Before the excuses begin, let’s just set the baseline. Yes, Sturgeon had Covid. But the previous administration came to power in the massive financial crisis of 2007 and faced biting Tory austerity for its entire duration. Sturgeon faced two years of adversity, the previous regime faced adversity from start to finish.

So is education in a better or worse state than when she started? Is the NHS more or less secure? Are Scotland’s carbon emissions rising or falling? Is the civil service more respected or less? Is legislation improving in quality or deteriorating? Are Scotland’s islands better served or worse served? Is transport more reliable or less reliable? Is Scotland’s economy in a better state or a worse one?

And what exactly was done? Baby boxes? Seriously? Do I have to explain yet again that this was based on a transformative policy from Finland with a wide package of measures for supporting parents and improving the knowledge of what good care for a child is through training – with a baby box a perk at the end. The Scottish Government butchered this policy so badly that all that remained was the gimmick.

How many other leaders can say they’ve announced a full four defining missions in an eight year term (expanded childcare, closing the educational attainment gap, leading the world on climate change and introducing a National Care Service) yet when asked now what her legacy is she can’t even cite one of these because of the mess she made of them?

In fact the only real policy legacy she has is the Scottish Child Payment. This is a genuinely marvellous intervention, but one Sturgeon actively blocked seven years earlier when one of her Cabinet proposed it. And marvellous it may be, but it is very, very expensive. Sturgeon introduced it but has done a runner before the first budget in which those she leaves behind will need to wrestle with its affordability and what they can cut to keep it alive. Brave that is not.

Her defenders will fall back on the fact she won elections. She did – over the medium term the Sturgeon Show was persuasive. But the SNP would have won those elections anyway and it is debatable how much she added to results that weren’t going to lead to a Labour Scottish Government anyway. Plus she went on to convert those wins into… nothing.

No. Take away the bluster and what is left is worse than a total lack of substance. It is almost uninterrupted failure from start to finish with hardly a positive anyone can come up with. Even her final ‘defining mission’ of gender recognition reform has been not only fluffed but probably fatally damaged.

Sturgeon has been an unmitigated disaster for this country. The rate of collapse of her reputation and credibility once her power and control were removed tells you everything. Nothing is better. Scotland is in a mess, its reputation harmed along with hers.

But there is one thing more than anything I resent her for and that is what she has done for the cause of independence. Between Brexit and Boris and Truss and the state of the UK, it is really hard to think we’re going to get a more propitious time to progress the cause of independence.

Unfortunately rather than do that Sturgeon chewed up that cause, absorbed its vitality and spat it out undigested. She traded Scotland’s chance to become an independent country for the sake of her own vanity and we will never get that opportunity back.

For that, for all of it, I will never forgive her for what she has done.

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