An essay by Jim Sillars to mark Nicola Sturgeon becoming the longest serving First Minister since Holyrood was created.
Nicola Sturgeon is now the longest serving First Minister. That fact in itself means nothing. The measure of her is in what she has or has not accomplished, in building rock solid majority support for independence, and whether under her leadership, in the areas of legislative and executive competence available to a Scottish Government, she has improved Scottish society.
As a convert to independence (I was first elected to Westminster in 1970 beating an SNP opponent) I would be delighted to record here that under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership Scotland has become an exemplar of what a good society should be – vibrant with a debate noted for its respect for others who differ, free to think and speak openly, our youngsters leaving school well educated, endowed with the ability to think critically, entering an economy offering them wide opportunities, all inspired by a government at Holyrood sparkling with talent drawn from back benches whose members have the spunk to hold their own to account. That Scotland would be a self-confident nation, with a large majority ready for the next step to full sovereignty.
I cannot write and say that is so, because it is not. In 2014, when Nicola Sturgeon took command of the SNP, party and government, Scotland was vibrant: we had just had a great debate with the voter turn- out in the September referendum the highest ever. Today, however, Scotland is widely regarded to be in a state of stasis, with the SNP party’s internal democracy emasculated, its members in thrall to the cult of personality, and Scotland’s government, politics and economy stuck in the quagmire of mediocrity.
Nicola Sturgeon is in total control of the party and government, so the responsibility is hers for failure to build that rock solid independence majority, for the deplorable state of Scotland’s education, health service, transport infrastructure, blunders on energy, and all round dispiriting incompetence.
Scotland, the source of much of the Enlightenment, now has a people, due to her legislation, afraid to think and speak freely, because speech can now be a crime. On the constitutional issue, her inability to be a genuine national leader who makes explicit that both positions are legitimate, and so entitled to command respect as between opponents rather than as enemies, has allowed the debate to become toxic, and the nation bitterly divided. “A nation divided cannot stand,” does not mean in our case the nation annihilated. It means what we have now – a nation so at odds with itself, that its division on the constitution trumps everything, with the result that we are not even standing still, but going backwards in a world where, with the rise of the Indo-Pacific region, we face the most intensive competition for trade and wealth creation.
I am not surprised that Nicola Sturgeon is a failure where it matters. I have never had cause to reconsider the view Margo MacDonald and I held of her when she was part of the Alex Salmond coterie: an articulate expounder of a brief, an effective attack dog on the opposition, but narrow, dogmatic, lacking imagination, and without that sweep of the intellect, and breadth and depth of thinking, that marks out politicians of the first rank from the rest. She is a machine politician: tomorrow’s headline hunter, the pursuer of the celebratory selfie, the aficionado of political fashion – reluctant to define a woman – and incapable of thinking big. She has been a major speaker at umpteen party and other conferences over many years, but I doubt if anyone can remember even one that contained an original idea, or formed a phrase that inspired them to a new level of belief, and will always be remembered.
Yet, she has won election after election, so is there some hidden genius that I and other critics have missed? I don’t think so. At Holyrood she has “won” elections, but not a majority of seats and votes, something due more to the split in the unionist vote, and the abysmal level of the opposition parties both inside and outside the Holyrood chamber, than to her own abilities and record in government. Opposition party leaders don’t seem to understand that FMQs are about questions, penetrating, persistent questions, and that starting off with mini speeches is a gift to a minister, who can pick and choose which bits to answer. Nor do they seem to get it, that you need to attack a government not only in parliament but outside, among the people, day-in-and-day out. Hitting the First Minister’s ego and temper now and again, is nowhere near enough. Nicola remains lucky in her opposition
: Labour still hasn’t got its head around why it fell from power, and so remains in a tangle over the Scottish question, while the Tories have yet to find someone with the popular touch to replace Ruth Davidson, and so get people to listen to them.
Another factor explains the SNP electoral success despite its failures in government. I doubt if she was the originator, but has certainly been the electoral beneficiary of the “Wheesht for Indy” mantra that says ignore all the faults and failures of the SNP government because they are for independence, and that to criticise them will only help the unionists. I have met people who can recite all the failures, but say we must remain quiet lest we damage the government’s image, and so in turn damage the very idea of independence. Nicola has kept around forty per cent of the people in that trap of being deliberately silent, by managing their desire through her never ending boasts of delivering another referendum. Neither she nor they seem to grasp that there is no point of a referendum unless you are in a position to win, and that you don’t win unless you campaign and build the independence vote. That is precisely what Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP has not done.
The burst of the independence vote beyond the fifty per cent mark in opinion polls, when Boris Johnson was at his worst during the pandemic, was never real and did not last. Support for independence is roughly where it was in September 2014, almost 8 years ago. Back then a national organisation was in place, people were, surprisingly, not down hearted and many of the local groups stayed in being. Taking over from Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon was in a perfect position: maintain that nation-wide base, engage it in continuing the campaign, and use its energy to build upon the forty five per cent gained in the referendum. But, of course, that would have meant she and the SNP only having a say, not total control, because there was more than the SNP in that national effort. But Nicola and control go together. And so that great national machine, embracing thousands, was allowed to decay and die.
Today’s independence movement is made up of disparate groups, who march instead of thinking, split and splintered, with no threat to the grip of the SNP.
That grip is a negative one. Wicked Westminster is the bolt hole she invites her followers down when it would be uncomfortable to face the reality of Scottish failure. Without doubt, she is the author of the grudge and grievance policy that is injurious now to Scottish-English relations, and will poison the atmosphere when Scots sit down, post-independence vote, to negotiate a treaty with England on our exit from the UK. I often wonder if Nicola gets it: that Scotland will not be independent on the day after a Yes victory, no more than the UK was out of the EU on the morning after the Brexit vote. A treaty will be required, to set the day of independence and much else of supreme importance to both states.
Create and continue bitter relations now, and you may well get bitter people on the other side of the negotiating table.
Scotland is a nation of five million, England a nation of sixty million, by far our largest export market. We are bound by geography in one island. Good relations in devolution times should pave the way to good relations when and if we separate and map out how we co-operate on security, borders, trade, foreign, defence, energy, free movement of people, and cultural relations policies. That kind of expansive forward thinking, which includes understanding England’s national interests, is beyond our First Minister who revels in difference, and manufactures it when it doesn’t exist, even to a petty level, as was the case with the national census, now rendered useless. Hostility between Holyrood and Westminster has become her creed.
She is in the class of what I call big N nationalists, who define themselves in relation to England, and are moulded by the feeling that Scotland was dealt a bad hand in 1707, and seem glued to the idea that the grounds for independence must be complaint of being deliberately ill done by, by our large neighbour. During my sixty years in politics I can point to the negative consequences, the ignoring of a special Scottish interest, in policies made in London, the political and economic centre of a country badly divided in terms of wealth between the South East and the rest. The discovery of oil in the 1960s, and the centralisation of North Sea policy in the UK capital, with calls for a specific Scottish share scornfully rejected, is a classic example.
But the case for Scottish independence does not need to be based on antagonism towards England. It can be better expressed in a positive way as a matter of Scottish state interests which, in the 21st century, as distinct from the position in 1707, leads us away from union with a larger country now divested of empire, its relative influence in the world diminished, and whose economic management in these circumstances has proved less than dynamic.
Those are post-empire forces born of historical development, with sometimes damaging consequences for Scotland economically, for which no contemporary English group, being unable to reverse them, are culpable. People in North East of England could make the same observation, but unlike Scots, who joined the union as a state, and have remained a distinctive polity, they do not have the same options as us. I have yet to see Nicola Sturgeon and those she is leading, express the case for independence in that way. She appears to prefer inventing Westminster as a malign bogeyman from whose clutches we must escape.
But let us now turn and deliver judgement on those areas where devolved power makes the Scottish government as autonomous now as it would be were Scotland fully sovereign – where the buck stops not with Boris Johnson, but the First Minster. We could pick out the CalMac ferries fiasco, and ask how Nicola Sturgeon could launch a ship with painted windows and, apparently, a false funnel, and not ring the alarm bell within her government that something was seriously wrong. We could pick out the juvenile handling of our Saudi Arabia of wind status, with the government pocketing only £700 million while others will waltz away with many billions. Or the current lesson on how not to take public ownership of our railway.
But it is in the educational management of our greatest national asset, our young people, that we find failure heaped upon disastrous failure: a moral and economic catastrophe the responsibility for which rests with she, who once asked to be judged on her education policy.
Hogging the limelight back then, it was the First Minister who bragged about closing the attainment gap between schools in deprived communities and the more affluent. This week, hiding in the shadows, through the mouth of her education minister, she shamelessly abandoned the children of the poor.
Education must be seen in two contexts. One concerns the child for whom, on moral grounds, the education system should stimulate a desire for knowledge, with the gift of a growing level of literacy creating the ability to expand that knowledge, and so imbue each individual young person with a sense of self-worth and self-confidence sufficient to ignite personal ambition to achieve in life. The second is the economy: it is imperative that our children are equipped to earn their own income, and the nation’s, in a world where countries that were once basket cases (China), struggling (India), under colonial control (Africa) are now creating new middle classes whose children are pouring out from universities as graduates in the sciences and technologies, brilliantly creative and fiercely competitive. Where stand our children in that world arena? Literacy levels tell the devastating truth – primary schools in deprived areas 56 per cent, only 80.7 per cent elsewhere.
Instead of enhancing their position as participants in the world economy, SNP education policy handicaps them. They and the nation will pay a heavy price for that failure.
Although her record is strewn with error, Nicola Sturgeon looks and feels safe, untouchable, “Supreme” as one newspaper described her. But failure after failure, blunder after blunder, levels of incompetence that are impossible to hide, eventually take their toll of reputation. Democracy has a habit of catching up and dismissing politicians who promise and fail.
My thanks to Jim for this excellent essay. It will not be easy reading for many in the SNP, not least because it is based on her record and the issues and figures quoted throughout are fact and therefore incapable of dispute. It remains astonishing that little criticism like the above appears in the Scottish media. We know taxpayers money, in increasing amounts is being handed over but surely it must be more than just that? Hopefully soon it will all be revealed.
I am, as always
YOURS FOR SCOTLAND.
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