Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation could usher Starmer into No 10

No political party can hold power for ever, and the SNP has no permanent exemption from the iron laws of politics

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 15 February 2023 15:19 GMT
‘My time is now’: Nicola Sturgeon resigns as Scotland’s first minister

Trebles all round, then, leastways for Scotch-loving unionists everywhere. Nicola Sturgeon, a one-woman political dynamo who has miraculously defied all the normal rules and stayed at the top of the tree for longer than any of her contemporaries, has had enough, and has announced she will resign after eight years as first minister. Perhaps her party has had enough of her.

She has been the dominant figure in Scotland for the best part of a decade, and seen off many a pretender inside and outside her party. She vanquished her predecessor and former mentor, Alex Salmond, and pushed him into exile in his own romantic land of Alba.

With her unchallengeable command of the landscape, she resembled, in that respect at least, Margaret Thatcher. Assiduous, eloquent if a little verbose, and with the facts and arguments at her fingertips, she was a class act. Her successor, we may be sure, won’t be.

So her departure will have huge ramifications for Scottish, but also British, politics. In short, her absence will mean that a British Labour government is that little bit more likely than it was with her around.

Assured and in total command as she was – in the pandemic, many south of the border wondered why they had to be governed by a bumbling amateur – she was the ultimate Tory bogeywoman. The posters with Keir Starmer in her pocket were probably being drawn up by Conservative Central Office as the news seeped out. She won’t live her dream of an independent Scotland after all, and she leaves her party and the cause in considerable disarray.

No political party can hold power for ever, and the SNP has no permanent exemption from the iron laws of politics. Sooner or later the stresses and disappointments of government catch up with you, and people have to look for someone else to vote for. It would not take much to see a modest Labour revival in Scotland, with able figures such as Douglas Alexander making a comeback.

Electing a Labour administration in London is certainly a quicker and easier way to rid Scotland of hated English Tory rule than trying to get an independence referendum, win it, and then apply for membership of the EU (and simultaneously remain inside the UK internal market). With no more Sturgeon, and the SNP and independence in retreat, there will be more reason for both Scottish and English voters to support Labour.

In the end, Sturgeon couldn’t defy the old adage that all political careers end in tears. She pushed her luck a bit too far. Her Gender Recognition Reform Bill was designed as a symbolically progressive act, a handy contrast to transphobic Tory England, and an equally politically useful challenge to Westminster’s supremacy.

Pitting Scotland’s claim of a right to determine its own laws against a neo-colonial England seemed a good notion, even if it was a wee bit cynical. However, it ended in farce, with a U-turn on the treatment of trans prisoners, and utter personal pronoun confusion when Sturgeon got flummoxed in media interviews.

There were other SNP-Green foul-ups, too, such as a colossally mismanaged scheme to build ferries for the islands, and a national bottle-return scheme that would shove the cost of a six-pack of Irn-Bru to unaffordable levels and be wide open to fraud.

Even on her flagship policy of securing independence, Sturgeon was losing her touch. One minute she insisted that only a lawful indyref2 sanctioned by Westminster would do; the next she entertained the idea of unilateral action; then she decided that the next UK general election would be a de facto referendum, until it wasn’t. Her party was impatient and confused – and so, in the end, was she. Without a clear path to independence, what is the point of the SNP – or, indeed, of Sturgeon?

Lately, the SNP’s poll ratings for Holyrood elections have been sagging quite badly, and so have Sturgeon’s ratings, along with support for separation. Brexit has been a driver of the cause of Scotland in Europe, but the experience of Brexit has also been a cautionary tale in how costly “Scexit” might prove to Scottish business and consumers.

The SNP haven’t lost that much ground on voting intention for Westminster, but there is a small swing to Labour detectable in the figures, and in the one by-election north of the border, in Airdrie. The resignation of Nicola Sturgeon leaves a vacuum, and a nationalist party without direction.

Like the Tories in London, the SNP has simply been in power for too long – and, like its leader, has run out of energy, ideas and talent. This leaves an opening for Labour – and so, too, for Starmer. If Labour can take that power in Scotland, it could then take the country.

The SNP’s central project, independence, has stalled, and the party is openly and bitterly divided on its tactics as well as on the question of trans rights. The change in leadership at Westminster, with the impressive Stephen Flynn taking over, was a small symbol of disillusionment with Sturgeon’s style of leadership.

Life after Nicola? Soon there will be an SNP leadership contest that, as with the Conservatives, will serve only to heighten divisions. The nationalist contenders will arrange themselves into a circular firing squad, with predictably depressing consequences. It feels like the end of an era, and also of a dream.

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