Is there life after Sturgeon for the SNP?

Nicola Sturgeon is back in Scotland after her five-day tour of North America, though who can know for how long.

There might be a trade mission to the Seychelles in the offing, or an important office supplies convention on the French Riviera. These are the excitements of having a Frequent Flyer First Minister.

Sturgeon can jet to the ends of the Earth but she still cannot elude her political woes. This week we learned that more than a thousand ScotRail journeys had to be cancelled last year thanks to staff shortages.

A plan to tackle the NHS recruitment crisis was again kicked into the long grass. Life expectancy in Scotland was reported to be at its lowest growth rate since the 1970s. And the Scottish Government’s workplace parking tax united a broad coalition in opposition.

The SNP staggers from one row to the next and its leader cannot correct course because she is responsible for many of the problems.

The public has made its mind up about her and shows no indications of changing.

She is electoral Marmite; adored by her supporters, she provokes an allergic reaction in half the population. If you want to turn the language in a room blue, mention her name to a woman over 40.

What votes she can bring, either to the party or the cause of independence, she has already brought. She is slipping from asset to liability at a time when the SNP can’t afford any more.

Is it perhaps time for the party to think the unthinkable and – deep breath – start imagining its future without her?

Like a Hollywood star who has one hit then sees their career falter in a series of spectacular flops, Sturgeon has never recovered from her success in the 2015 General Election.

She delivered the SNP’s sweetest victory: 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in the Commons and the definitive end of the Labour era in Scotland.

The Nationalists would have done well anyway but it would be churlish to deny that Sturgeon’s sparkling brand of political magic turned a win into a night for the history books.

However, as First Minister she has embedded little by way of a legacy and built up a steady trail of gaffes, blunders and crises.

She flunked the golden opportunity of Brexit. Flunked Indyref 2. Flunked the Education Bill. Flunked Named Persons, the 2017 election and now the Budget.

She lost the SNP’s majority, allowed the opposition to repeal the Offensive Behaviour Act, and staff shortages and missed targets in the NHS can be traced to her tenure as health secretary. Her government faces four inquiries into its handling of the allegations against Alex Salmond.

The sparkle hasn’t so much fizzled as flamed out.

Nationalists once believed unflinchingly that she would lead them to independence, and soon. Today, there is no more appetite for separation among the electors than there was in 2014. The SNP has thrown everything at Indyref 2 – money, campaigns, activists’ sweat – and hasn’t moved one inch forward.

Many tell themselves they are victims of circumstances or Brexit or a vast media conspiracy. There is a more unpalatable answer if they wish to confront it.

Sturgeon once said something I thought was revealing at the time and only more so now. One week before polling day in 2015, she sat down with the BBC’s Evan Davis for an interview.

As he began to wrap up, Davis suddenly cast one last net. If she achieved many things in her political career, but not independence, would she look back on it as a success or failure?

Her answer was halting and uneven but the gist was this: she would be ‘disappointed’ yet ‘philosophical’ because ‘Scotland will become independent if and only if a majority of people in Scotland decide that’s the right future for our country’. As long as we were in the UK, she would make alliances across the nation for the betterment of Scotland’s interests.

She explained: ‘If I do my best every day I’m in office, hopefully one day, many years from now, I’ll look back and say, whatever the eventual outcome, I did my best and at the end of the day I think that’s all a politician can do.’

What a curious thing to say, I thought to myself. You are the leader of Scotland’s nationalist party, figurehead of a movement that eight months ago came within a few percentage points of defeating the British state.

‘I did my best’ is a schoolroom whimper. Imagine had Éamon de Valera shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Ach, freedom would be grand but I’d settle for propping up a Labour government.’ The Irish backstop would be less of an issue today, for sure.

If you are a nationalist leader, you must achieve national liberation or you have failed on your own terms. It is no longer clear whether Sturgeon is a leader of any sort.

I’m told there is no appetite for a challenge but that Sturgeon’s grip on the party is loosening. In her favour, insiders say, is the absence of a viable replacement other than John Swinney.

The Deputy First Minister gave stand-in Tory leader Jackson Carlaw a moderate doing at last week’s FMQs, something Sturgeon is yet to manage. Swinney, however, is an ultra-loyalist and his previous tenure as party leader did not end well.

Some names persist around the corridors of Holyrood. Derek Mackay is ambitious and has solid leadership experience, having headed a council, a government department and the SNP’s national executive committee.

He is cleverer than his opponents give him credit for but not as clever as he gives himself credit for. His chances have been dented by the workplace parking tax and his reputation in Middle Scotland as Dick Turpin in a sharper suit.

Then there’s Jeane Freeman, the current health secretary. She is a communist who became a socialist, then a Scottish Labour apparatchik, then a lobbyist and eventually a Nationalist. Her career as health secretary is still on a trolley out in reception but her handling of the ongoing hospital infections scandal is hardly a profile in leadership.

These are the more impressive potentials. Michael Russell considers himself the intellectual pinnacle of the SNP and, unfortunately for them, he is. Russell, who looks like a shifty vicar in an episode of Poirot, is the kind of imperious self-caricature who puts good sketch-writers out of a job.

Another contender, Roseanna Cunningham, has the personality of 40-grit sandpaper and bears the standard SNP features of two eyes, a nose and a snarl. Card-carrying Nationalists appreciate such qualities more than the average voter but making Republican Rose First Minister would almost be worth it just to see her curtsy to the Queen.

There is some talent in the junior ministerial pool but they are too young and inexperienced. Yet those who are older and have experience are near-uniformly hopeless. The SNP is caught in a dilemma. The longer Sturgeon remains leader, the deeper down her personal and political faults will drag them. Shunt her out the door, however, and the whole edifice could come crashing down, with no viable successor and a membership riven along factional lines.

The only option is to let the boat drift and pray benevolent winds shield it from the rapids and the rocks. Benevolence is not in the air. A crash is coming, maybe sooner than anyone realises, and the SNP will struggle to stay afloat with a leader who is only weighing them down.


Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at Feature image by the Scottish Government via CC BY-NC 2.0.

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