AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN Nicola Sturgeon’s successor must pursue a new partnership with Westminster
So Elsie McSelfie has decided that she’s had enough and will be spending more time catching up with her reading and watching her successor fend off the opposition wolves from Holyrood’s back benches. She isn’t giving up politics, she says, although politics may have given up on her. The big ideas and ambitions have failed, targets have been missed and the independence dream is dying with them, along with Nicola Sturgeon’s career.
If the SNP leader and First Minister had not decided to call it day, sooner or later someone would have told her the game was up. It happened, you’ll recall, to that other long-serving leader who dominated the political arena, Margaret Thatcher. With divisions emerging at Holyrood over the handling of the referendum, the gender reform bill and the bottle recycling scheme, it was clear that Ms Sturgeon’s iron grip on her party was loosening.
Policies aside, she was unable to keep Ian Blackford in his Westminster job and was facing a potential thorn in her side from his firebrand successor Stephen Flynn. Talk of factions bidding for power within the SNP would have unsettled even the toughest of leaders. At least by choosing when to hand in her notice, Ms Sturgeon was spared a visit from the men in grey suits.
What followed was an outpouring of praise (and a few crocodile tears) from across the political spectrum. Yes, she achieved high political office, something that too few women manage to do; yes, she was dedicated to the job, to her political cause and to her country. But so was Liz Truss and look what happened to her. They say all political careers end in failure. In some cases it just takes a little longer.
In her parting speech, even her own list of accomplishments was a bit threadbare and dubious. New tax and social security agencies (not yet complete), a network of trade hubs across the world (some question their value when the UK already has an active network able to offer a wider range of incentives), and a state-owned investment bank (it hasn’t had much impact so far and it can’t seem to find anyone to lead it).
If she had listed the failures under her watch we might still be listening. Aside from the missed targets on health and education and the row over the gender reform bill, there is unaccounted campaigning money and a long list of misbehaving MSPs and MPs. Topping the list on the economy is the ferries debacle which followed the BiFab sell out and the generous steel guarantee. Ms Sturgeon promised, then quietly abandoned (until Daily Business found out) a publicly-owned energy company.
The partnership with the Greens has so far led to poor legislation on the rental market and is heading for another rethink over the recycling project that is causing mayhem for food and drinks firms. Coming up is the alcohol promotions ban, the unpopular workplace levy, and changes to the income tax regime that could make it harder to attract top talent.
Many credit the FM with her handling of the Covid pandemic. That includes the support measures, quickly devised and funded by the UK government, but renamed so as to provide an unnecessary but confusing point of difference with Westminster.
The delayed payments were a result of this attempt to tailor the programmes for Scotland even though an SME in Dundee needed the same package as one in Dover.
Despite reprimanding Westminster Tories for their failure to abide by the rules, Ms Sturgeon was caught not wearing a mask in a barber’s shop, her medical adviser breached the stay at home rules and a Covid-stricken MP thought it was a good idea to travel by train from Glasgow to London. Yep, that all went well.
I’ll stop there to spare the First Minister further blushes. But if this is a reflection of what her supporters claim has been a sterling record of achievement then I’d hate to think what failure looks like.
Needless to say, the business lobby groups have chipped in, demanding – somewhat predictably – that her successor delivers a more business-focused agenda rather than the obsession with constitutional and social affairs. But it must go further than polite and timid calls for a shift of emphasis.
To give the soon-to-be ex First Minister the benefit of the doubt, devolution has created as many problems as it solves. Limited powers allow for limited actions and devolution has created unrealistic expectations of what the Scottish government can do to improve economic performance.
But nor would full independence provide Holyrood with the means to solve the economic malaise which is affecting every economy in the world. High inflation and energy bills are as much a problem in the US and Germany as they are in the UK.
While Sturgeon’s record is not the glorious one that some proclaim, the continuing call to concentrate on the ‘day job’ is also becoming a monotonous and pointless mantra.
The end of the Sturgeon era needs to be accompanied with an end to the push for full independence and a new settlement that allows the devolved government to operate more effectively within the union.
That will require a brave move by the next SNP FM but without it we will be stuck with the same old Holyrood-Westminster hostility, grievance politics and a lack of progress in all policy areas.
Whether it requires a form of federalism is up for debate, but it could achieve the prize of greater borrowing powers, a variable interest rate policy, more control over taxes. What has become clear is that the current state of affairs is unsustainable, much like Nicola Sturgeon’s political ambitions.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business