This is the week Nicola Sturgeon never expected to face.
The First Minister is preparing to address the question of a second independence referendum. When she announced her drive for a rerun of the first plebiscite, and pushed through a vote on it at Holyrood, it looked like discontent over Brexit could carry her over the line. In the event, she jumped too soon and looked opportunistic and obsessive. Coupled with the crisis in Scottish education, as well as trouble brewing in health and the economy, the First Minister appeared apathetic — even callous — about the damage her constitutional fixation was doing. The voters cast their judgement on June 8, a day of reckoning for the SNP leader’s approach to Brexit and government itself.
Now she is set to park the separatist cause to buy her time to win back support and come up with a new way to sell independence to a more sceptical public.
The First Minister would be well advised to begin with an apology. She promised us the 2014 referendum would be a ‘once in a generation’ event and pledged to make education her top priority when she replaced Alex Salmond as First Minister. She let us down on both counts, jumping on the Brexit bandwagon when it looked sturdy and headed for victory, and allowing education (and other domestic policy briefs) to fall by the wayside while she jetted across Europe and America pretending to be a world leader. Miss Sturgeon should say sorry for putting party politics ahead of her duty to the country and assure us that she is back at her desk getting on with the job. The words might stick in her craw but it would win her the good will of those disenchanted by her performance this past year.
Like it or not the Nationalist boss will have to show humility, a quality which seems to have been lost amid the rock star rallies and branded sweatshirts. For too long, she has been surrounded by a coterie of advisers who only seem to advise her that she is wonderful, her opponents nasty, and victory over Westminster coming any day now. There is a real and pressing need for Miss Sturgeon to shake up not just her cabinet but her staff circle. New blood and fresh ideas are required if different results are wanted.
Once she has paused her second referendum campaign, the First Minister is expected to pivot to Brexit and rally support for whatever she decides is the SNP’s latest position on Europe. Most likely it will be campaigning to retain membership of the European single market rather than the hard Brexit which Theresa May is pursuing. She will probably call on Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale to unite behind her in this effort. The idea of staying in the European Economic Area might chime with the majority in Scotland who voted Remain but it’s not clear that Nicola Sturgeon is the politician they should turn to in order to achieve it. When she commanded the votes of 50% of the country and held all but three Scottish seats at Westminster, there was a case to be made that Miss Sturgeon could wield influence over the UK Government. Down to 37% of the vote and 35 MPs, the SNP leader is politically wounded and no longer the big beast she once was.
Any chance of securing herself a seat at the negotiating table — always slim at best — has surely been dashed by her indiscretion in the final hours of the General Election. Disclosing the contents of a private phone conversation with Kezia Dugdale in the hopes of gaining political advantage has demonstrated that, when it comes to it, Miss Sturgeon cannot be trusted with a confidence. The fortunes of the nation are not bound up in whether Kezia Dugdale really supports or opposes independence but the sensitive information involved in the Brexit talks — and the political, diplomatic and economic stakes — mean no rational government would allow Miss Sturgeon anywhere near the discussions.
The cold, hard fact is that Nicola Sturgeon is no longer the most important person in the room. She is the elected First Minister and should be accorded respect but her long-running belligerence towards Westminster and the humiliating defeat of her first Brexit strategy have diminished any sway she could have held with ministers down south. If a majority of Scots are determined to stay inside the single market, the politician they should be looking to is Ruth Davidson — who can get the Prime Minister on the phone at a moment’s notice and, more importantly, can make her listen.
Instead, Miss Sturgeon should do what the country has been crying out for her to do, and what they instructed her on election day: Get on with the day job. She should throw her government’s efforts into turning around the slide in Scottish education, boosting economic growth and nursing the NHS back to health. If by the time of the next Holyrood election she can show real improvements in these areas, she might have grounds to raise the independence question again.
There is one more change needed if a new direction for the SNP government is to succeed. Unionists, hard as they might find it, will have to give the First Minister the benefit of the doubt. Our country has become embittered and we — nationalists and unionists — have become too quick to anger, too suspicious of our opponents’ motives. These divisions must be set aside if Scotland is to be in with a chance of moving forward. The challenges we face in giving children the best start in life, reforming public services, and creating opportunities for those willing to work for them are too big for petty politics. We all have a day job to get on with.
Gordon Wilson, the former SNP leader who died yesterday, was a faithful servant of his party and the nationalist cause. He was for most of his career a reliable member of the Nationalists’ moderate mainstream but that was bookended by two bouts in the awkward squad. Early on, the Edinburgh-educated solicitor set up pirate station Radio Free Scotland to spread the message of independence. He was elected MP for Dundee East in 1974 and party chief in 1979, a post he held until 1990.
In this middle period, he devised the campaign for independence based on Scottish oil wealth and drove extremists Siol Nan Gaidheal from the SNP. In recent times, he returned to his recalcitrant roots, scolding the leadership on everything from independence strategy to same-sex marriage.
I had some dealings with him on the latter issue and although we disagreed, he was a gentleman of impeccable courtesy and unfailing civility. We could do with more like him in politics today.
Motor Neurone Disease campaigner Gordon Aikman has won the 2017 Scottish Charity Award. Gordon, who died in February aged 31, turned his diagnosis into a struggle to secure research funding and support for those living with MND. Now the politicians must deliver both in honour of this inspirational man.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.
Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.