Let’s get ready to rumble.
In the blue corner is Angus Robertson, former Westminster leader of the SNP, and candidate for his party’s nomination in Edinburgh Central. In the red corner, Joanna Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West and, as of Saturday evening, also a contender in Edinburgh Central.
This is no ordinary selection battle. For the SNP, it’s the equivalent of Ali vs. Foreman: the Showdown in the New Town.
Edinburgh Central is a temperamental seat, ditching Labour for the SNP and then the SNP for the Tories in the past decade. The incumbent, Ruth Davidson, won narrowly in 2016 but on current polling trends the constituency will likely return to the Nationalist fold next year. It’s a mostly affluent seat, voted No then Remain, and is centrally located — ideal for someone with their eye on the SNP leadership and keen to prove they can appeal to Unionist Edinburgh.
Robertson and Cherry are both spoken of as potential successors (or challengers) to Nicola Sturgeon. Each would deny any such ambitions — they always do — but the First Minister is already five years in the job and the Nationalists are no closer to achieving independence.
Last week, the BBC’s Nick Eardley reported on behind-the-scenes frustrations with Sturgeon, revealing that some party figures think the leader ‘might be in trouble – and might have to stand down in the summer’. Eardley added that ‘some are urging the leadership to think about a contingency plan to replace Ms Sturgeon with a like-minded figure if she has to quit’.
Eardley was subjected to a torrent of insults and invective on social media for his report but what was not forthcoming was a convincing rebuttal. The SNP grassroots demand another referendum. Their leader can’t deliver one. Something will have to give.
That is why the selection for Edinburgh Central could be a hinge-moment in the history of the SNP and devolution. Robertson and Cherry represent starkly different positions on the Nationalist continuum. He is the establishment candidate, continuity Sturgeon, the desired outcome of moderates who believe the party must bide its time until there is a government at Westminster willing to permit another vote on Scexit.
Cherry is the embodiment of the grassroots, politically aligned with Alex Salmond, and eager to test the legal waters on holding a plebiscite without Downing Street’s approval. A senior source from the moderate wing characterised the face-off as ‘Robertson fighting for the heart of the party and Joanna fighting for the heart of the zoomers’.
Whomever wins Edinburgh Central — the selection then, presumably, the seat — would not become just another MSP. The victor would be seen as next-in-line for the Nationalist crown, either inheriting it when Sturgeon chooses to resign, or taking it from her in a leadership challenge. As such the winner will shape the future of the SNP and the country (and claim the even grander honour of being my MSP).
Cherry’s statement entering the contest all but confirms this. ‘We must have the right to choose our own future and we need a strategy to get us to that point of decision,’ she said. ‘Scotland will be completely ignored at Westminster, the movement for Scotland to be an independent European nation can only be realised from Holyrood,’ she continued.
Finally: ‘SNP MPs at Westminster have never been there to settle down; I am for settling up.’ Statements like these are usually typed; Cherry opted to write hers with a flame-thrower.
As well as two independence strategies, two personalities will be on offer to SNP members. Robertson is a team-builder and consensus-finder; he’s personable with a light and easy charm. Cherry’s style is more abrasive and more certain. An insider describes her as ‘extreme and pompous’, but the extreme have been doing quite well in politics lately, and as for pompous, it’s hardly fair to hold her law degree against her. Cherry rubs some the wrong way but she’s also politically fiercer and more intellectually daring than her rival. Robertson would go down better at the Stockbridge Sunday market, Cherry at the Edinburgh Uni debates union.
Conventional wisdom marks Robertson as the favourite. He has leadership experience, more years of service, and is the institutional choice. However, that could hurt as well as help him. Aware that they may be choosing a new leader as well as a parliamentary candidate, the selectorate of Edinburgh Central will have to decide between a Sturgeon successor and a clean break with a leadership that has failed to deliver on its promises.
Even so, Cherry’s path will not be a smooth one. While she says she would stand down from Westminster if she became an MSP, she intends to remain an MP while campaigning for Edinburgh Central. Robertson jabs that the party needs a ‘full-time candidate’. (When will he be resigning as managing director of his pro-independence private company Progress Scotland, one wonders.) A radical feminist, she has also raised concerns about the Scottish Government’s rush to change the rules on ‘gender identity’, namely removing the need for medical evidence before someone born male is legally recognised as a woman, or vice versa.
Her criticisms have been met with ugly, personal rhetoric from some trans activists and their supporters inside the SNP. She can expect her nomination to be opposed vigorously — and viciously — by this faction but her refusal to back down to intimidation has impressed the growing number of party members fed up with gender-related bullying and the hierarchy’s failure to rein in the culprits.
That a selection contest in a Tory-held seat 14 months out from Holyrood elections is being spoken of as a proxy leadership race is a hallmark of these uncanny political times. On paper, Nicola Sturgeon’s position could not be more secure. She won a landslide of Scottish seats in the General Election and polls put her on course for a very good result next May. The opposition is divided and not terribly effective; her government is dogged by failings on health and education but they seem to have no impact on voting intentions.
Yet, appearing on Andrew Marr yesterday, Sturgeon was forced to say she intended to fight the next election and stay on as leader. Intend she might; whether she will is another matter. There’s a mood skulking in the corridors and cafes of Holyrood: no one can say when Sturgeon will go but everyone expects it.
No matter how many election victories she records, an SNP leader who can’t deliver independence is a failure on her own terms. The party will look to Edinburgh Central’s eventual MSP for a way out of this constitutional limbo. Expect this selection contest to be a bare-knuckle affair. Whoever wins will become the most powerful parliamentary candidate in the history of the SNP.
Bruce Crawford’s decision to stand down at the next election will mean a keen loss for Holyrood. The Stirling MSP was one of the original 129 elected in 1999 and went on to serve in the Cabinet as chief whip and is currently chair of the finance and constitution committee.
His opponents speak highly of him: not only is he friendly and courteous to a fault, he’s also a thoughtful man who puts in a shift. I reckon the Scottish Parliament will most miss his spirit of public service. Make no mistake, Crawford is a true-believing Nationalist, but he has never allowed his tribal loyalties to cloud his judgement.
At a time when so many backbench MSPs seem content to be an echo, he has been a voice — asking tough questions of ministers and even getting the occasional answer.
Crawford, 65, says he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren. After such a long and creditable career of public service, he’s more than earned it.
Jeremy Corbyn — I’d forgotten all about him — popped up last week to say he would consider a Shadow Cabinet post if sounded out by his successor. Given his part in the biggest Tory election victory since 1987, surely he deserves a job in the actual Cabinet?
If you’re a regular viewer of First Minister’s Questions — there’s no shame; it’s either this or an Inspector Morse repeat on the other side — you might recognise this sound: oooorrrrhhhhh.
It sounds like Yoda with a heavy cold or a dinosaur that just stood on a Lego but is in fact Richard Lyle, the member for Uddingston and Bellshill and the biggest ham to grace the stage since since Noël Coward.
His theatrical vowels are deployed to taunt the opposition after some devastating put-down has been delivered by Nicola Sturgeon. As a company man, though, every punchline strikes him as more magnificent than the last and so his contribution most weeks is 45 minutes of Lanarkshire whale sound.
Lyle’s sonorous yawping came to a head as his leader was parrying charges from Jackson Carlaw that her latest budget criminally underfunded Police Scotland. How so, Sturgeon, riposted: in the past three years, capital funding for the boys in blue had gone from £20million to £40million.
From Lyle’s backbench bolt there came a familiar flatulent squall: oooorrrrhhhhh! It was Lyle’s most important contribution to yesterday’s FMQs, and that’s including the question he asked. Carlaw was right on it: ‘Hollow cries of “Oh!” from Richard Lyle do not pay for more police officers and do not pay to fix a broken police estate.’
Neither, it might be said, does an extra £20million in three years, a pittance in budgetary terms. No wonder Columbo wore that same manky old raincoat for 35 years straight.
If Carlaw thought she was starving the rozzers of resources, he should ‘bring forward credible proposals’, the First Minister said impatiently. ‘The First Minister needs to get up to speed with her Government,’ the Scottish Tory leader hooted. ‘We have come forward with credible proposals that have been communicated to her Finance Secretary.’ I think it’s fair to say the Finance Secretary has had other things on her plate.
This was Carlaw’s first FMQs since becoming Scottish Tory leader in his own right, and his jabs were noticeably sharper than before. ‘What is the First Minister’s advice to Police Scotland on how it should deal with this funding gap?’ he enquired, saltier than a sailor. ‘Should it cut officer numbers, continue to let the ceilings fall down in police stations?’
One line in particular really thwocked home: ‘The First Minister must increase police funding or she will be putting the public at risk.’ It was more than a little demagogic but it may well resonate outside this place, on the streets where crime is a matter of practice, not theory. These flashes of bare-knuckle politics hint at a rowdy 14 months leading up to next year’s Holyrood election.
Richard Leonard managed to shift out of neutral long enough to ask about threatened closure of GP clinics in Salsburgh and Tarbolton. This led, as questions about the Scottish NHS so often do, to a thrilling account of primary care provision in Wales.
‘Tarbolton is not in Wales,’ the Labour observed wryly, ‘it is in Scotland’. The First Minister spends so much time warbling about the Welsh Valleys, I can only assume she’s got a duet coming up on the next Max Boyce album.
Leonard reminded the SNP leader that her government was trying to dissuade patients from attending Accident and Emergency for ailments that could be treated at the local GP surgery. Wouldn’t closing GP surgeries only make the problem worse?
Scotland’s NHS was ‘performing better than the health service in any other part of the UK’, she told him, citing figures to show the A&E situation was much worse in a place she called ‘Tory England’. You’ve never heard venom till you’ve heard Nicola Sturgeon combine the words ‘Tory’ and ‘England’.
‘Richard Leonard wants to make it all about the SNP,’ she huffed. Sputters of laughter greeted her complaint and prompted a bewildered glaze across her face: she has transformed from Mother Teresa to Marie Antoinette without even noticing.
When news of Jackson Carlaw’s victory came through on Friday, I was in a dentist’s waiting room nursing a jackhammer of a toothache. The announcement was welcome since it provided me with someone other than myself to feel sorry for.
After Kezia Dugdale won the Scottish Labour leadership in 2015, I told her my first reaction was wanting to hug her because she was in for a hell of a time. After Carlaw prevailed in his contest, my first thought was whether Clinton’s sold ‘Sorry You’ve Just Been Elected Leader of the Scottish Conservatives’ cards.
Maybe I’m just being a gloom-merchant, or maybe it’s the abscessed anguish talking, but I look at the odds Carlaw is up against and struggle to see how he can overcome them. This isn’t a reflection on the man: the party membership made the right decision (and by some margin).
Across many years and through some of its darkest days, Carlaw has been a faithful servant to the Scottish Tory Party. During Ruth Davidson’s maternity leave and the vacancy left by her resignation, Carlaw stepped up to lead amid political tumult on the national scene. He approaches First Minister’s Questions with an acid flair that sometimes gets him in trouble but more often puts Nicola Sturgeon on the back foot.
This is all very commendable but the next challenge is the biggest he has ever faced in his political life. In 445 days, Scotland will go to the polls to decide whether it wants him as first minister or whether it would rather stick with Sturgeon. The latter is far and away the favourite and even allowing for Harold Macmillan‘s reputed admonition, it would take some fairly extraordinary events to place the Tories on the government benches next year.
The best poll for the Conservatives so far this year had them trailing the SNP by 24 points. Yet Carlaw told readers of the Scottish Mail on Sunday that ‘the prize that is now in view’ was ‘to bring the era of nationalism to a close’. I suspect the definition of ‘era’ will prove to be as elastic as that of ‘generation’.
The new Scottish Tory leader has announced a policy review and insiders speak of it in the half-hushed, half-giddy tones of a no-sacred-cows affair, similar to Tony Blair’s zealous reform of Labour or David Cameron’s revamp of the Conservatives into a party of hoodie-huggers.
Change is certainly needed. After 20 years of devolution, and despite Davidson taking them into second place, the Scottish Tories have never secured even one quarter of the seats in a Holyrood election. Deep wells of suspicion run through much of the country and are filled with cartoonish folk memories of a woman who has been dead for seven years and out of power for thirty. For a great many Scots, ‘Tory’ is still the ultimate four-letter word.
Reforming the party to convince these voters that it represents their interests is a perfectly sensible idea. The Tories can’t be like the far-Left Labour council leader who was heard to growl at the height of Thatcherism: ‘There can be no compromise with the electorate.’ But Tories should understand better than anyone the dangers of hasty or ill-conceived change, the kind of change that leaves a party a husk of what it once was.
What the Scottish Tories must avoid in particular is remaking themselves as SNP-lite and Jackson Carlaw as Nicola Sturgeon without the extensive air miles portfolio. It would be very easy to rip up every policy the party has and replace them with faint tracings of the SNP’s own agenda but it would be cynical opportunism and it would be seen as such.
What kind of thing am I talking about? In general terms, the sort of populist, publicity-seeking junk policy that feels satisfying in the moment but proves unfilling in the longer term. One example might include embracing the SNP’s position on tuition fees. Some key figures in the Scottish Tories believe their current support for a ‘graduate contribution’, in which graduates would begin to pay back £6,000 in instalments once they were earning more than £20,000 per annum, positions them on the wrong side of Middle Scotland. The policy costs them the votes of students and their parents, so the thinking runs, and scrapping it would help shake off their image as market-obsessed Thatcherites.
Ruth Davidson indulged in a bit of this herself when she abruptly ditched the party’s opposition to ‘free’ prescriptions during the 2017 election. Notably, Davidson used her Mail on Sunday column to endorse ‘throwing out long-held policies and unveiling a more comprehensive platform’.
There may be sound reasons to reverse-ferret on tuition fees, as there might have been on prescription charges, but these have to be rooted in quality of service and cost-effectiveness. Doing a trolley-dash around the last SNP manifesto and grabbing shiny policies at random, like some political version of Supermarket Sweep, is not the approach of a serious party of government.
Davidson made another observation in her column yesterday. ‘As Conservatives,’ she wrote, ‘we never get the benefit of the doubt on motive.’ This is true and that is why an impulsively-assembled clanjamfrie of freebies and headline-grabbers risks alienating the voters even further. A party prepared to renounce deeply held principles on the off-chance it might bring electoral advantage will be seen through by the voters faster than you can say ‘naked opportunism’. They know how to count and they know anyone who promises centre-left spending on centre-right tax levels is for the watching.
This is the lesson of New Labour that its Tory admirers never fully learned: Tony Blair didn’t break with Labour’s core beliefs; he broke with their tradition of losing elections. For all the gnashing and wailing from the hard-Left, New Labour’s policy priorities — a minimum wage, tackling poverty, massive spending on schools and hospitals — were social democratic golden oldies. Blairism was Attleeism with a better spin operation. As the Scottish Tories embark on an agenda of change, they should learn from Blair’s example and modernise rather than masquerade as something they’re not.
The polls look bleak at the moment and they may portend an underwhelming result next May, but there are reasons to be cheerful and they come from Jackson Carlaw. Confirming his canny political sense, he made his first appointments as leader two rising stars. Rachael Hamilton, MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, was made party co-chair while Glasgow’s Annie Wells became joint deputy leader.
There will be time to talk about Hamilton later but Wells is the promotion to focus on for now. She has something — something still ineffable — and I can only describe it as a grit, something with a bit of edge to it. There is no artifice beyond what is necessary to the low-grade showbusiness that is politics, and even then not all that much of it. She is a working-class Tory, a walking definition of blue-collar conservatism, and the sort of person the party needs to win over if it is ever to see government in Scotland. It’s not enough that she has become the party’s deputy, she has to become its soul.
Jackson Carlaw could surprise us all and end up in Bute House after next May but I suspect not and he’s clever enough to know that it’s extremely unlikely. Even so, his leadership is an opportunity to do what he has always done: put himself at the service of the party he loves. Carlaw can be the leader who sets the Scottish Tories in good stead for 2026 and he can do that by principled policy change, honest costings, ushering in new talent, and putting in the strongest possible showing in 2021.
Whatever comes of his policy review, it will not lead the Scottish Tories into power. That can only come by fashioning a conservatism that is true to the party’s values and trusted by the voters. Scotland is a conservative country that has still to find a conservative party worth voting for. Jackson Carlaw will do the heavy-lifting for now, but it will fall to Annie Wells and others like her to shape such a party for the future.
The next leader of the Scottish Conservatives will be announced on St Valentine’s Day, though there hasn’t been much love in the air during this campaign.
The contest between Jackson Carlaw and Michelle Ballantyne has been unnecessarily acrimonious and key figures on either side given to intemperate outbursts. More than enough knives have been plunged into backs and, come Friday, the only sharp objects on the move should be Cupid’s arrows.
The rancour of the past few weeks has been largely about personalities and positioning. There is no major ideological schism separating the two leads in the drama. Ballantyne is a Brexiteer and retro-Thatcherite while Carlaw was a young Right-winger who became wetter than a weekend in Blackpool as the years passed. Originally a Remainer, he eventually made his peace with Brexit. There are certainly differences of opinion but nothing to justify the bare-knuckle combat into which this poll has descended.
Much of the argle-bargle began with Ballantyne’s criticism of the Tories’ general election campaign, headed up by Carlaw and which saw the party lose more than half its seats. ‘We need to win,’ she said, ‘and to win we have to change people’s minds and to change people’s minds we have to move forward’. She also referred to Carlaw as ‘a safe pair of hands’ and added that the party needed more than that.
The election, she argued, boldly, was ‘a golden opportunity’ but ‘our party in Scotland lacked vision and ambition’ and had ‘failed to put forward credible proposals for fixing the public services that have been grossly mismanaged by the SNP’. A ‘policy vacuum’ had ‘handicapped our party’ but she would fill it, not least when it came to the Union. ‘I am a proud Unionist,’ she wrote in a newspaper op-ed, ‘but I did not get into politics to talk endlessly about the constitution.’
Team Carlaw’s response was rash and heavy-handed. The candidate marched up to the Holyrood press pack, flanked by MSP supporters like burly enforcers, and let into his opponent. He accused her of ‘attacks on colleagues, on our activists’ for criticising his campaign and, in reference to the fact that Ballantyne’s support has come from the grassroots rather than the MSP group, snipped: ‘If I had the confidence of nobody at all, it would cause me to pause.’
Carlaw’s reaction made him seem imperious, affronted that anyone would dare question him. He behaved as though Ballantyne had spoken out of turn at a coronation rather than made her case in a democratic election. The election campaign was light on policy and vision and did put too much emphasis on the constitution. In framing legitimate criticisms as ‘attacks’ on party activists, Carlaw pulled a trick straight out of the Nicola Sturgeon playbook. He was, in essence, accusing Ballantyne of ‘talking down’ the Scottish Conservatives.
This aloof attitude was only compounded by reports that Carlaw was preparing to sack Ballantyne from the frontbench should he win. One newspaper quoted a source as saying: ‘Jackson values loyalty above all else. If Michelle thinks that he will look at the result, think she has done well and give her a promotion she should think again.’
That is among the most spectacularly stupid statements I have encountered from a campaign, and I know something about spectacular stupidity: I have covered multiple Scottish Labour leadership elections. It made Carlaw sound like the godfather of a small-time crime syndicate threatening to whack a consigliere for criticising his bulk purchase of see-through balaclavas. If Carlaw is minded to sack anyone, he should start with whoever gave that quote.
There was a chance here to show the country what the Scottish Conservatives believe and what the party wants to do for Scotland. Instead, the country saw a rabble tearing lumps out of themselves like a herd of wildcats in the midst of a flea outbreak. Neither candidate comes out of this boorach looking good.
However, no one can credibly propose that the lapses of the past month have rendered this an evenly-matched contest. Frustration with tone and tactics is no excuse for false equivalence. Politics is a serious business and there is only one serious candidate in this election, someone with the experience and political nous to lead the Tories into next year’s election.
That election is set to be the most difficult the party has faced since 2011, when its constituency share of the vote fell below 15 per cent for the first time. Most media attention of late has been on polls showing majority support for Scexit, but another finding demands attention.
Two polls in January, by Panelbase and Survation, put the SNP on 50 and 51 per cent respectively on the Holyrood first-past-the-post ballot, the first time since March 2017 that the Nationalists have polled so high. These figures mark an increase on the 46.5 per cent the party secured in 2016, itself their best-ever showing in constituency votes. If the SNP hits or passes the 50 per cent point next May, it will be the fourth consecutive election in which it has surpassed its previous showing.
Few parties can sustain themselves in government this long and even fewer can do so while increasing their level of support. Thatcher’s Tories couldn’t; not even Blair’s New Labour could.
An SNP that wins an overall majority of votes poses some unavoidable questions. Would (or could) the UK Parliament continue to refuse another referendum in such circumstances? (The Prime Minister’s letter to Nicola Sturgeon did not cover this scenario and there are some weak-kneed Tories who believe it is democratically insupportable to keep saying No.)
Just as important is the matter of Scotland’s political pluralism. A dominant-party system is still a democracy but not always an ideal one. If the SNP is able to remain in government for decades — like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party or Iceland’s Independence Party — the lack of democratic competition is liable to lead to bad policymaking and poor accountability. A healthy democracy is one where the government knows it could be out on its ear next time round.
The ideal person to stop this eventuality was Ruth Davidson, who, with a fair wind, could have done real electoral damage to the SNP. Alas, she is no longer an option and Holyrood 2021 is now a damage-limitation exercise for the Tories themselves. They need to hold on to as many of their 2016 seats as possible to tee up a credible challenge in 2026.
Michelle Ballantyne has stepped up and shown what she is made of, and while that is admirable, what she is made of is not the stuff of leadership. Turning up to your campaign launch promising a new policy on tuition fees just as soon as you’ve come up with it is not the stuff of leadership. Believing a Brexit election was a ‘golden opportunity’ to show Scots what the Tories offered them is not the stuff of leadership. Ballantyne is genuine and committed to the cause, but she is not a leader.
Tory Party members are voting now but next May the country does the voting and the country is very different to the Tory membership. The party needs a leader who can reach out to those who have never voted Conservative, to those who would balk at the mere suggestion. It needs a leader with a proven track record of holding Nicola Sturgeon to account at First Minister’s Questions and putting pressure on a government positively allergic to scrutiny.
Jackson Carlaw is not a perfect candidate and his leadership campaign has left a lot to be desired. But of the two contenders on offer, he is demonstrably the most capable. Carlaw works hard, he gets things done, he keeps the First Minister on her toes, and he appreciates the need to overhaul and rebuild his party.
If he isn’t victorious in this Valentine’s poll, the Tories will be sending Nicola Sturgeon the political equivalent of a dozen red roses.
A round-up of articles you might have missed this week.
My Scottish Daily Mail column on Nicola Sturgeon and independence.
My Spectator piece on how the Prime Minister should begin responding to the threat of Scexit.
My Scottish Daily Mail sketch of this week’s First Minister’s Questions and the Budget.
Thank you for taking the time to read, like and share these articles.
There was no anger in the First Minister’s voice but her face wore the weight of her frustration.
As the questions came, she cast razor glances from her notes to Jackson Carlaw and back, gurning and muttering as she did. Carlaw was making it all so much worse by posing measured queries in a measured tone. Crass opportunism would have permitted Nicola Sturgeon to conduct every sistrum and timbrel of her indignation orchestra. Instead, gentle prodding mandated spare, factual answers.
She told parliament what we already knew (that Derek Mackay had resigned as Finance Secretary) and something we didn’t (that he had been suspended from the SNP and from the parliamentary group). She described his behaviour as ‘unacceptable’ and falling ‘far short of what is expected as a minister’. With that, one of her most senior ministers and closest allies in politics was gone, previous, an unperson.
The chamber was deflated, but so was the whole building. In the Garden Lobby, glances were exchanged; at the coffee bar, grimaces traded. Old foes stopped to whisper in the corridors, shocked momentarily out of tribalisms and ancient enmities. A funereal pall lingered oppressively like stale cigar smoke and in the canteen the talk was cliched and circular, the sort of empty, listless conversations that sustain mourners through a wake. Mackay was spoken about as though he had suddenly dropped dead. Politically, he had.
Carlaw lamented the damage to parliament’s reputation and asked the First Minister if the SNP or the Scottish Government had ‘had any independent contact with the young man or his family’. No, but she would be willing to talk to them if they got in touch. Sturgeon’s voice didn’t break but it took on a wounded quality, not least when she spoke of the previous night’s events. ‘He offered his resignation to me and I accepted,’ she recounted. ‘It was not an option for him to remain in government.’ There it was, a hollowness in her timbre, the numb register of the betrayed.
It gave way quickly to a familiar steel: ‘Derek Mackay is no longer a member of my government. He is suspended from my party; he is currently suspended from my parliamentary group. From the action that has been taken already, it should be obvious to everybody how seriously I, my government and my party treat the matter.‘
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard questioned the First Minister on mental health but prefaced his queries with a firm statement on the fallen Finance Secretary. His behaviour was ‘an abuse of power and nothing short of predatory’ and insisted that he ‘go as a member of the Scottish Parliament’.
The Scottish Greens have more leaders than members and their best is Alison Johnstone, who now alternates with Patrick Harvie at FMQs and has a knack for needling Nicola Sturgeon from the Left. It’s all very well banging on about social justice and public services on the election stump but if you don’t do something about it in government people start to notice. Johnstone stressed the ‘human impact… on patients, doctors and staff’ of lengthy waits in Accident and Emergency departments and quoted a junior doctor who said a lack of medics and beds meant her ward was ‘not safe’.
Sturgeon rejected the idea that ‘the system as a whole is not working’ and ploughed a well-furrowed field: At Least We’re Not As Bad As England, plus an obligatory reference to the ‘outstanding jobs’ that NHS staff do, the implication being that critics are besmirching the efforts of dedicated medics. ‘NHS staff do indeed do an incredible job. My concern is the impact that the strain is having on them,’ Johnstone came back. Her tone was solidly don’t-try-that-one-with-me.
There was still the small matter of the budget. It’s in the nature of politics that, as one career is destroyed, another is forged. In the absence of Derek Mackay, junior finance minister Kate Forbes was thrust onto the front bench. The 29-year-old Highland MSP is largely unknown outside Holyrood but has quietly built up a reputation for hard work and honest dealing. Staunchly Unionist MSPs sing the praises of this staunch Nationalist.
If you’ve ever had a bad day at work, you’ve never had a day like Forbes did yesterday. Delivering a £35billion budget amid an engulfing scandal and under the cosh of the opposition is one thing; doing it with a few hours’ notice is something else entirely. There are baptisms of fire and then there are baptisms by firing squad.
Sturgeon walked her down to the front bench, delivered some words of encouragement, and watched as her junior minister stepped up and became the first woman to deliver a Scottish budget. What she and the rest of the chamber saw was poise, clarity and self-assurance. This was not the budget speech of a neophyte suddenly shoved before the mic; Forbes rattled off spending plans and tax proposals with the businesslike confidence of a minister long-ensconced in the job. If this was her X-Factor audition, she would go straight through to the live finals.
Now comes the scrutiny and we shall see if Forbes’ figures match her rhetoric, but in the chamber she was fierce. ‘Feisty’ Kenny Gibson called her and if it’s still okay to describe a female politician thus, then sign me up too. Murdo Fraser said she had simply ‘filled the black hole’ created by a Scottish economy growing more slowly than its UK counterpart, and urged her to acknowledge the ‘Union dividend’ that had given the Scottish Government more cash to splash.
Forbes gave that short shrift. ‘If the Union dividend is austerity for ten years that’s hit our public services, and a Brexit that we didn’t vote for that’s hit our economy, then I’m not sure that’s a great selling point for the Union dividend.’
There sat Murdo, gas at a peep, but, I think, with a twinkle of admiration in his eye.
No wonder. India-raised, Cambridge-educated, Gaelic-speaking, pro-life, Bible-believing Christian. Kate Forbes is not your ordinary Scottish nationalist but, when placed in an extraordinary situation, she showed what she’s made of.
Nicola Sturgeon has had more comebacks than Cher, ripped denims and Boris Johnson.
The SNP leader’s time in the spotlight has been declared over many times already and each time she finds a way to remain centre stage. Write her off at your peril.
We cannot, however, ignore the speech she delivered on Friday or the dismal reaction it engendered in her rank and file. The address in Edinburgh was billed as setting out the ‘next steps’ for the SNP in its pursuit of independence, following the Prime Minister’s rejection of a Section 30 order for a Scexit referendum and in the final hours before the UK left the EU.
After months and years of agitating her supporters, Sturgeon’s speech essentially asked them to calm down and let her handle this. She expressed caution about a legal challenge to the PM’s letter and scepticism about a wildcat referendum, which some in her party would like to see.
She asked her followers for ‘patience and respect’, ‘to stay focused and resolute’, and to recall that the party’s founders had not given in to ‘impatience or frustration’. (Wisely, she did not ask them to recall the founders’ views on Europe back then, some of which were what the youngsters call ‘problematic’.)
The sense of deflation was palpable. She had led her troops onto the battlefield then told them to turn back and wait for better weather. On social media and among otherwise sympathetic commentators, there was frustration and even anger. Years of bitten tongues had produced nothing but blisters; swallowing their concerns about Sturgeon’s strategy had not brought them to the brink of victory as promised. Those tongues began to loosen and, in a phenomenon we are likely to see more of, they engaged in some yellow-on-yellow remonstration.
This is not new, but it is new of late. Across many bouts of internal strife in its 86-year-history, the SNP was united by a common fondness for factionalism. There was the split of 1942, the ‘55 Group, the ‘79 Group, and throughout one of the defining questions of Scottish nationalism: gradualism or fundamentalism? Yet the party was born of a union between the leftish National Party of Scotland and the imperialist Scottish Party, both of which concluded that splitting the self-government vote was futile.
From the very start, unity was a cornerstone of the SNP and it dominated the party’s inaugural conference in Glasgow on April 7, 1934. A Glasgow Herald report of that gathering records that Sir Alexander MacEwen, the SNP’s first leader, called the unification ‘a spontaneous movement resulting from the desire of people of different shades of opinion to work together for the cause of self-government’.
He argued, the newspaper continued, that ‘the more they came together, the more it was borne in upon them that whatever their differences might be, they were differences of detail and not differences of principle’. These disagreements ‘did not affect the one quest on which they were all centred’.
This is the primal tension in the SNP. Should disputes about strategy and philosophy be set aside to achieve independence, or does suppressing open debate make it harder to break from approaches that clearly have failed? Crudely put, ‘shut up for indy’ versus ‘speak up for indy’.
In the period from 2004 to present, the years of preparing for then assuming power, the former way of thinking has reigned. These years have been a time of extraordinary unity for the SNP. Until now, internal dissent has reached a meaningful level on only two issues: the party’s U-turn on NATO and the Scottish Government’s rush to reform the Gender Recognition Act.
Otherwise, the Holyrood and Westminster parliamentary groups almost always vote as a bloc, including on conscience matters, and MPs are even proscribed by the party rule book from ‘publicly criticis[ing] a group decision, policy or another member of the group’.
‘Shut up for indy’ has delivered the SNP unforeseen political bounties. Three terms in government at Holyrood and control of perhaps the most powerful sub-national parliament anywhere in the world. Three straight victories in Westminster elections, two of them landslides. A referendum in which 45 per cent of Scots voted to break up the Union.
The ‘shut up for indy years’ have been the embodiment of the spirit described by MacEwen in 1934, of a party ‘embarking on its task in a broad spirit and with a determination to make a practical contribution to the industrial, agricultural, economic and social problems of their country’. It is why Sturgeon spoke on Friday about ‘the strength of our unity and our commitment to the cause’.
And yet and still, the purpose of the SNP, the first line of its constitution, remains unfulfilled. Scottish national sovereignty has not been restored and does not look likely to be any time soon. At the very height of its electoral strength and political power, the SNP is no closer to independence than it was in the early hours of September 19, 2014. Perhaps the time has come to ‘speak up for indy’.
The first figure of significance to do so is Stuart Campbell, styled ‘Rev Stu’, a pro-independence pamphleteer and editor of the website Wings over Scotland. He responded to Sturgeon’s speech with a sermon of such fire and brimstone as to suggest his ministry is of the Old Testament kind. Sturgeon’s strategy on Brexit was ‘both morally questionable and… never had a credible hope of success’.
Instead of locating an escape hatch, ‘the Scottish Government sat on its hands and did nothing but accumulate a pile of worthless mandates while the clock ticked down’. The SNP was guilty of a ‘colossal, criminal dereliction of duty’. Should the diarchy of Sturgeon and the SNP’s chief executive, her husband Peter Murrell, continue, Campbell contended, ‘the war is probably lost’.
Campbell’s blog might offend Unionists and those in the upper echelons of the SNP but when it speaks, it speaks with the voices of many thousands of party members and supporters, including grassroots activists and some elected politicians. If you want to understand what diehard Nationalists think, you could commission a poll or you could save yourself the hassle and read Wings over Scotland.
Whether he carries them into his cynicism about the SNP leadership remains to be seen. The party has never had an external ideologue with his sway over members. They may conclude that he’s onto something or they may decide the angry man with the keyboard has outlived his usefulness and stick loyally with their leader.
But the charge sheet against Nicola Sturgeon is not just that she has failed to achieve independence. Her day-to-day governance of the country no longer enjoys that mystical, mostly unearned, aura of competence. The country may not be ready to toss the SNP out of office but that is because neither the Tories nor Labour is seen as a credible alternative. The First Minister is living on time borrowed from her opponents’ failings. They won’t fail forever.
Strip away public services, strip away independence, strip away her once towering poll ratings, and you are left with a leader who wins elections. Nothing to be sniffed at in most parties but the SNP aspires to more than running the British state’s branch office in Scotland.
We are living in volatile times in which the mildest breeze can change the political winds. Perhaps public opinion will swing hard behind independence, or Westminster will concede another referendum after the 2021 Holyrood election.
Either would instantly reassert Sturgeon’s authority and shut down speculation about potential successors, several of whom lurk off-stage with varying degrees of patience. Absent such a turnaround, Sturgeon’s leadership will decline gradually and more visibly as time goes on. She will still win elections but she will be a proven loser when it comes to the one vote her party cares about winning.
There is, of course, one other option. She might decide for the good of the party, the cause and her legacy that it is time for her to move on. Enoch Powell said: ‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.’
Sturgeon’s political career is approaching midstream. She can either end it as the most electorally successful leader the SNP has ever known, or as the 13th in a row who failed to realise her party’s abiding dream.
A round-up of articles you might have missed this week.
My Scottish Daily Mail column on the toll nationalism has taken on Scotland.
My Scottish Daily Mail sketch of the European flag debate at Holyrood.
My Spectator piece on the threat to the Union and how the UK Government is responding.
My Scottish Daily Mail sketch of this week’s First Minister’s Questions.
My Scottish Daily Mail op-ed on Nicola Sturgeon’s latest independence speech.
My Spectator piece on the Labour deputy leadership candidate.
Thank you for taking the time to read, like and share these articles.
Was that it?
Nicola Sturgeon assembled the world’s press yesterday to outline her next steps on independence, only to send them away with a two-word story: ‘Not yet’. ‘My job is to lead us down a credible path that can deliver independence,’ she said, ‘and that is what I am absolutely determined to do.’
There was a ‘but’ coming; several, in fact. But there would be no ‘shortcuts or clever wheezes’. But any referendum plan ‘must demonstrate that there is majority support for independence’. But ‘its legality must be beyond doubt’.
BBC reporter Philip Sim summarised the speech as being ‘more about the politics of persuasion than process’ but it was all process and none of it persuasive. The First Minister who has spent months — years — ginning up her supporters with the vow that Indyref2 was coming yet for all that finally had to admit that it might not be coming this year as promised.
She ran through the legal technicalities, then political considerations, before warning the faithful: ‘We must stay the course.’ Cribbing George W Bush’s infamous line when the Iraq War went south wasn’t the best idea the First Minister has ever had, though when it comes to delivering independence, it has been a case of Mission Not Accomplished.
What little was new was small indeed. She planned to set up another constitutional convention — the SNP stormed out of the last one — and ask the Electoral Commission to re-test the question used in the 2014 referendum. It was hardly surprising that this thinnest of political gruels was not wolfed down eagerly by her foot soldiers.
‘I will be writing a letter to the Electoral Commission’ is hardly ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’. If George Washington’s big idea had been asking the Continental Congress to run a few focus groups on the wording of the Declaration of Independence, Britain would still have 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard today.
The First Minister’s reluctance to be radical was underpinned by the knowledge that unilateral moves carry huge risks, and grave consequences if they fail. But Sturgeon’s caution was not welcomed by her grassroots as canny. It was greeted as betrayal.
The word itself was raised by Stuart Campbell, author of the popular nationalist website Wings over Scotland. In a lengthy, coruscating critique of the SNP leader posted on Friday, and headlined ‘The Betrayer’, Campbell wrote: ‘Scotland is not one inch closer to its independence now than it was on 19 November 2014. But that’s not to say things have stayed the same. Scotland’s situation has become far worse. As of next week, it will have been wrenched out of the European Union against its people’s clearly stated wishes, as expressed by a 24-point margin in 2016.’
Of course 19 November 2014 is the date Nicola Sturgeon was handed the reins by Alex Salmond. Campbell has been souring on the current SNP leadership for some time, in particular thanks to its stance on the Gender Recognition Act, but his jeremiad fell like a hammer-blow nonetheless.
For better or for worse, he is the authentic voice of the SNP grassroots and for him to damn Sturgeon in unforgiving terms speaks to a wider disillusionment with a politician who not long ago could do nothing wrong in the eyes of Nationalists.
Is this the end for Sturgeon? Her political demise has been predicted so many times but we can say with certainty that the gloss is well and truly off her leadership. Gone is Mother Scotland and in her place is just another politician. They won’t be reviving her signature fashion line any time soon.
Unionists would be foolhardy to write her off at this juncture. She’s got more lives than a cat and the deadly cunning of a panther. The SNP is still an electoral juggernaut, the only credible alternative first minister among the opposition now languishes on the Tory backbenches, and let us not forget the pro-UK side’s seemingly limitless capacity for blunder.
Still, the realisation that Nicola Sturgeon does not walk on water will dawn harshly on many an SNP member. She inherited the leadership with so many advantages and with her opponents in desperate disarray yet she has not lived up to the swelling passions of the moment.
This Glasgow solicitor rides a populist wave but she is no populist. She takes her time and takes her counsel and both tell her that patience and gentle persuasion is how independence will eventually be won. Increasingly, her members have no patience for this way of thinking. You can only march people up to the top of the hill then march them back down again so many times before they want a new leader to follow.
For now, Sturgeon’s grip on the levers of power still seems tight. She and party chief executive, husband Peter Murrell, don’t run the SNP leadership, they are the SNP leadership. Dislodging them would not be easy.
But they stand much weaker than before, thanks to their failure to turn the most propitious circumstances into a second referendum and a Yes victory. Neither Brexit nor Boris has been successfully weaponised as a battering ram against the Union. Some in the party wonder if it will ever see such a golden opportunity again.
The problem for Sturgeon is that not only is the shine gone, others have attained their own gleam. Joanna Cherry, senior MP and key player in legal action against Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament, is popular with grassroots activists and talked of by some as a future leader — and in the not-too-distant future, either.
She is a fighter and the party wants a fighter these days. Derek Mackay has also significantly improved his public speaking and presentational skills and his elevation to the heights of the Scottish Cabinet has not diminished his standing among the rank-and-file. There is no longer no alternative.
Yesterday was a setback for Nicola Sturgeon, rather than a catastrophe, but it fits with longer-term trends of decline. She has been in the job for more than five years, her domestic record is plagued by scandal and under-performance, and she has not moved the dial far enough in the direction of independence.
Nothing that she does, or fails to do, will be as important with the membership as that last one. The SNP exists to gain independence for Scotland and Sturgeon is beginning to look like a hindrance rather than a help in that cause.
We are no closer to a referendum on Scotland’s place in the Union and a referendum on Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership seems likely to arrive first.