It should be noted that whatever else might be said of her, Nicola Sturgeon’s press conference announcing her resignation as Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party was a masterclass in how to depart the stage with grace, humanity, and good humour.
She spoke, at times movingly, about the toll that politics takes on those who are involved in it, and their families. She acknowledged with admirable frankness that while many devoted supporters would miss her, there were others who would “cope with the news just fine”. And perhaps most impressively of all, she had the awareness and good grace to note that it was her own personal divisiveness that was increasingly an impediment to her agenda. In other words, when whether to support a policy becomes dependent on one’s personal view of the politician supporting it, then often good ideas can get lost in the weeds, and bad ones nodded through on the grounds that “our team” is backing them.
But despite all of that personal good grace, it should be noted that Sturgeon, like so many others, proves the truth of the old aphorism that “all political careers end in failure”.
Scotland, after all, is not independent. Nor, frankly, is there any evidence-based reason to believe that Scotland is likely to become independent in either the short or medium terms. In fact, on Independence, despite polls consistently putting support in the forties, the SNP are badly stuck. The very day before her resignation, the respected pollster Lord Ashcroft released these figures:
Scots as a whole tended to think tax rates, food prices, unemployment, immigration, energy bills and NHS waiting times would increase rather than decrease if Scotland became independent – as would equality, Scotland’s standing in the world, and the amount of trade Scotland did with the rest of the world. They thought living standards, investment from UK businesses, Scotland’s ability to handle another financial crisis or pandemic, opportunities for young people and educational attainment would decrease rather than increase. They were evenly divided as to whether public spending in Scotland would rise or fall.
If a referendum were held tomorrow, 37% said they would vote Yes to Scottish independence, with 48% voting No and 15% saying they didn’t know or would not vote. Excluding these voters, we find a 12-point lead for No, at 56% to 44%.
As is often the case, the headline figure in the poll about how people would vote is less important than the background figures: After more than a decade of constant campaigning for independence, Lord Ashcroft finds that Scots think it would make them poorer, make their health service worse, leave Scotland exposed to financial shocks, and decrease opportunities for young people. In other words, though a hardcore base of support for independence remains, the argument has been comprehensively lost amongst the wider population.
This was, it should be noted, Sturgeon’s core mission. Almost every issue – from Brexit to the Health Service to the ethical issues plaguing the Tory Party in London – was cast in the context of the argument for independence. We can be free of all this, she said, at every opportunity. In the end, Westminster still rules, and Nicola Sturgeon does not. Like William Wallace before her, a romantic charge has ended in defeat.
Nor, should it be said, has SNP rule been a success in Scotland. That country still lags deeply behind the rest of the UK in health, education, crime, and a range of other statistics. For most of her time as First Minister, Sturgeon used these failings, rather than seeking to address them. “It would all get better if we were independent” is, oddly, a weak argument when you lead a Scottish Government that already benefits from an enormous subsidy every year from English taxpayers. If Scotland cannot fix its problems with that huge cross-border transfer of funds, how might it fix them without it?
In the end, this more than anything I think has done for her, and for independence. The simplest case for independence is “we can govern ourselves better than they can govern us”. Did Sturgeon prove that true with the substantial opportunities devolution provided? Not really.
In recent weeks, this conflict has been at the heart of the trans rights issue that, many argue, finished her off. When the UK Government intervened to block Scotland’s gender recognition act, Sturgeon cast it as an issue of democracy and sovereignty: Who is better placed to decide the law in Scotland?
But the problem was that, in this case, the majority had an answer for her: We would rather have good laws from Westminster than bad ones from Edinburgh. Going to war for the rights of male rapists to be locked up with vulnerable women in their prisons was, though she failed to see it, a clear indication to people that the SNP themselves could not be trusted with an independent Scotland. In the end, on a key issue, the Scots trusted the hated Tories in Westminster, more than they trusted Sturgeon.
And so, she’s gone. And with her, I suspect, goes a key SNP strength. Because whatever else Sturgeon was, she was at her peak an immensely gifted and capable politician. Even with her many flaws, the next face of Scottish Nationalism will almost certainly be someone less appealing.
The tides of history are fickle, indeed.