Nicola Sturgeon’s very human moment at FMQs

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Nicola Sturgeon is not a crying/hugging/thanking Jesus kind of politician.

She would get nowhere in American politics. Maybe she is naturally reserved; maybe she feels that, as a woman in leadership, she can’t show too much emotion.

Whatever the reason, she has fronted her government’s response to Covid-19 with stony stoicism at a time when even the stiffest upper-lipped have felt teary more than once.

Yesterday, that public facade cracked. Just a hairline fracture but one that made for a very human moment. Sturgeon was two-thirds through an epic 90-minute First Minister’s Questions when it happened. Labour’s Neil Findlay prefaced his question by noting that his mum was in a care home, and that’s probably what did it.

‘Why on Earth are we continuing to discharge patients from hospital to care homes without establishing whether or not they are positive for Covid-19?’ he demanded.

Then, in a low, deliberate tone: ‘I am not one that ever pleads with the First Minister but I will now: please stop this practice now to save the lives of residents and the great people who look after them.’

Fair enough, surely, but Sturgeon looked wounded. A few words into her reply, a tremor began to rattle her voice, each syllable arriving with a judder.

‘I don’t think there is a single one of us who does not find this a deeply and profoundly upsetting situation,’ she protested. ‘So please do not ask these questions in a way that suggests we are not all trying to do everything we possibly can to do the right thing.’

There was anger in there, and self-pity, and a flicker of melancholy. As she tried to launch into the substance of her answer, her voice broke and she paused and flipped through her binder, before apologising to the President Officer. An uncomfortable moment to watch and one that nudged a little empathy into you.

Day after day filled with death and unemployment statistics while everyone vies for five minutes of your time to lobby for this constituent or that concern. It must drain the spirit right out of you at the best of times and, coming on the heels of recent events at the other end of the Royal Mile, these have not been the best of times for the First Minister.

The other party leaders continue to hone their ‘new normal’ questioning style. The object is to be robust without sounding like you’re enjoying it. Jackson Carlaw is getting round this problem by posing his queries as though in the drawing room at Downton Abbey. Richard Leonard, who seems to be fashioning his bouncy lockdown barnet after Michael Heseltine, is taking a more direct approach.

‘We welcomed the government’s plans to introduce a test-trace-isolate strategy,’ he noted, ‘although we now have to build up capacity after this approach was abandoned by the government in March.’ Might this be why it was so difficult to know the all-important ‘R number’ for care homes?

Sturgeon dismissed the suggestion, but she must know that people other than Leonard are wondering the same thing. Her government has come under little of the scrutiny applied to its UK counterpart but she cannot rely on a clubbable opposition and a cowed BBC Scotland forever. These questions will have to be answered eventually by an independent public inquiry.

Carlaw gently prodded on the future of the ‘four nations’ strategy, which is fundamentally about constitutional politics even though no one will admit it. Nationalists have wanted Scotland to go its own way from the start while Unionists mither about a lockdown exit (or any future measures) that depart from the approach decided in Whitehall.

What a country. We’ve even managed to make pandemic suppression a Yes vs No issue.

‘Some people seem to have a lot more angst about this UK-wide approach than I do,’ Sturgeon retorted. Which is as close to a guarantee as you’ll get that we’re going to abandon the UK-wide approach.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at 

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