New Left Review, May 2021
On May 6, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) came within 2,000 votes of winning an outright majority at Holyrood, the country’s devolved national parliament in Edinburgh. Holyrood’s proportional voting system was designed to discourage majority results. Sturgeon has won every election she has fought as SNP leader – six in seven years. By the time the next Scottish election takes place in 2026, the SNP will have held power at Holyrood for 19 years, more than two-thirds of the total lifespan of the parliament itself. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, Scottish nationalism has become virtually hegemonic. The SNP has no serious electoral rivals; the party draws support from a sizeable cross-section of demographic groups.
Sturgeon is the lynchpin of this success. She has been a member of the Holyrood chamber since it was created, or ‘reconvened’, by the House of Commons, in 1999. She became (de facto) leader of the opposition at the age of 34, deputy first minister and health secretary at 36, and first minister at 44. Journalists have spent the last few months poring over the breakdown of Sturgeon’s relationship with her bitterly estranged former boss and mentor, Alex Salmond. Increasingly, however, Salmond – who ran the Scottish government with Sturgeon as his deputy between 2007 and 2014 – looks like a supporting act in the history of modern Scottish nationalism. His newly established party, Alba, took less than 2 per cent of the vote on May 6.
Sturgeonism blends blandly progressive rhetoric with a nebulous form of big tent politics. Sturgeon grew up, in the 1970s and 80s, in Irvine, a small town on Scotland’s industrial west coast, where the values of post-war British Labourism run deep. Yet she has more in common ideologically with European Christian Democrats like Angela Merkel – and even with North American liberals like Justin Trudeau – than she does with Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Benn. Comparisons have sometimes been made to Tony Blair. But Sturgeon is a technocrat, rooted in Scotland’s devolutionary bureaucracy, and shares none of Blair’s populist instincts, particularly on cultural issues like immigration, citizenship, and assimilation. She has been lauded for her ‘steady’ handling of the Covid crisis and grounds her appeal in a Merkel-esque claim to ‘sound’ public management.
The pivotal moment in Sturgeon’s leadership came after the UK general election in 2015, when the SNP crushed Labour in its Central Belt heartlands, turning staunchly working-class cities like Glasgow into nationalist strongholds. Sturgeon’s campaign pitch was left-wing: more powers for the Scottish Parliament, an end to Conservative austerity, and the abolition of Britain’s Clyde-based nuclear deterrent. (The SNP emerged as a major electoral force in the 1960s and 70s, on the heels of the anti-nuclear folk movement.) Yet once Labour – the SNP’s traditionally dominant rival – had been dispatched, Sturgeon, eager to broaden her coalition, changed tack. Flagship pledges to overhaul Scotland’s historically unequal patterns of land ownership, reform the Gender Recognition Act and replace the Council Tax with a fairer system of local government levies were shelved or watered-down. From then on, Sturgeon – a solicitor by training – governed Holyrood from the centre, pressing her own ultra-cautious, vaguely cosmopolitan identity to the forefront of Scottish national life.
Sturgeon has two overriding goals: to consolidate the SNP’s grip on Scotland’s electoral landscape and to extricate Scotland from Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain. Europe is central to her strategy for independence. Long before the Brexit vote, SNP politicians had been making regular trips to Brussels as part of a ‘para-diplomatic’ push to strengthen Scotland’s continental ties and smooth its future entry into the EU – efforts that have accelerated since 2016. Although the threat of a Spanish veto looms, nationalists are confident that the strategy is working (the Sanchez government has indicated its willingness to allow Scottish membership, while PP politicians have played down comparisons between Scotland and Catalonia). Privately, the SNP continues to reassure EU policymakers that Scotland will be a compliant partner in the European project.
Sturgeon styles herself as a social democrat but runs Scotland through a process of national brokerage that meticulously avoids even the slightest hint of class antagonism. The SNP’s base is disproportionately young and poor. In the run-up to the May election, Sturgeon complemented the sweeping centre-left reforms implemented during the early years of SNP government – the abolition of university tuition fees, free personal care for the elderly, an end to drug prescription charges – with a fresh suite of redistributive policies. The party was now formally committed to the creation of a national care service, she announced, and to doubling weekly welfare payments for Scottish families.
At the same time, business interests frame and inform almost every aspect of her governing agenda. In 2019, investigative journalists at The Ferret revealed that Scottish government ministers had met repeatedly with lobbyists from the tech giant Air BnB to discuss the regulation of so-called ‘holiday lets’, which experts blame for exacerbating shortages of affordable accommodation in Scottish tourism hot spots like Edinburgh. The SNP subsequently teamed up with Tory legislators to dilute proposals aimed at reining in the short-term rental sector. Twelve months later, when Scotland was in the grip of its first Covid surge, housing activists called on Sturgeon to impose a rent freeze in Scottish cities. Instead, the first minister enacted a temporary moratorium on evictions and instructed her finance secretary, Kate Forbes, to set up a multi-million bailout fund for landlords. The fund’s objective was to ‘protect incomes’ in the commercial property market; the income of renters, apparently, did not warrant the same support.
Keen to soften the edges of Scottish separatism, the SNP has run an extensive corporate outreach programme. In 2016, Sturgeon invited Andrew Wilson, head of the Edinburgh PR firm Charlotte Street Partners, to rewrite the economic case for independence along market-friendly lines. And in 2020, she asked Benny Higgins, the ex-CEO of Tesco Bank, to map out Scotland’s fiscal recovery from Covid. Both appointments backfired. Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission report, published in 2018, recommended a decade of spending constraints post-independence and has since been largely junked. Meanwhile, in an interview with The Times last summer, Higgins launched an unprovoked attack on environmental campaigners, whom he described as ‘ideological zealots’ determined to ‘throw economic growth and jobs under the bus.’ The outburst was embarrassing for Sturgeon, who has spent huge amounts of time laundering Scotland’s green image on the international stage.
Sturgeon’s preference for tepid managerialism at the expense of structural change has produced some striking policy failures. Inequality in the Scottish education system has remained persistently high throughout her seven-year tenure as first minister, despite a supposedly landmark promise, made in 2015, to eliminate the classroom attainment gap. And Scotland now consistently registers the highest drug-related death rate in Europe, with overdose numbers concentrated in the country’s two most deprived cities: Glasgow and Dundee. (In April, Sturgeon conceded that she had taken her ‘eye off the ball’ with regard to Scotland’s drugs crisis.)
Yet these failures have done nothing to undermine Sturgeon’s popularity or dent the SNP’s electoral dominance. Scottish nationalists have been blessed with weak opposition. Faced with 150,000 British Covid deaths, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have set an exceptionally low bar for administrative competence. Labour, meanwhile, remains landlocked by the constitutional divide; unable to ditch its traditional antipathy to independence and equally powerless to stop low-income Scots shifting in large numbers away from the Union.
Ultimately, Sturgeonism works because Sturgeon is the ideal devolutionary leader. She has spent her entire parliamentary career at Holyrood, navigating the limits of Scotland’s home rule settlement and pandering to Scottish middle-class anxieties. Independence, as Sturgeon sees it, means the gradual extension of Edinburgh’s legislative autonomy and the eventual restoration of Scotland’s place in Europe, albeit this time as a sovereign member state. As deputy first minister in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, Sturgeon was deployed by the Yes campaign to argue that self-government would barricade Scottish institutions from the worst of Westminster’s austerity reforms. These are the hard boundaries to her political vision. Scottish voters, apparently, don’t seem to mind.
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