Not entirely unlike the passing of another Queen in Scotland, the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon changes everything, but it also changes nothing.
Although the First Minister’s iron grip over her party has been rusting for some time, there is no question that the SNP has lost a considerable asset. Like Margaret Thatcher, she remained highly popular even while she was widely hated. The times were kind to her too: the sense of unease spread by withdrawal from the EU and the Covid pandemic favoured her matriarchal style. This made for a contrast with the leadership of Boris Johnson, but only to a point. English liberals, amongst some of whom she became a strangely romantic figure after 2016, rarely saw that her politics were not those of a technocratic British Merkel. Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalism was febrile, and it carried all other concerns before it. Both Brexit and the pandemic were ruthlessly exploited to breathe life into the separatist ideal, at times when rudimentary questions about the future of basic services were far more pressing. Five minutes at a Yes rally was enough to grasp what was going on. Her pliant acquiescence on stage with Brian Cox last August, as the actor Trumpeted on about ‘country first, not politics’, would never have been forgiven, had it been the conduct of a Westminster politician.
The delicate balancing of technocracy and nationalism is not unusual in the politics of modern Western democracies: it may, in fact, be the norm. Sturgeon mastered it. Unfortunately, it was a dead end. The rip-tide of pro-indy sentiment never came. The idea of a separate Scottish state is no more popular today than the day she became First Minister. Against the backdrop of Brexit, Covid, Partygate, Trussonomics, this is an astonishing political failure. The Scottish people – even those who still call Yes – never really took the plan to heart. Polling by the think tank Our Scottish Future last year found that majorities of pro-independence voters supported the continuation of common UK healthcare, welfare, and security systems, common UK pensions, a common UK currency, and even a common UK passport. The idea of the United Kingdom as the ultimate insurance policy against the world’s ills survived – and in surprisingly rude health.
But meanwhile there was paralysis, as constitutional wrangling edged the real business of government off the political agenda. By the end of 2022, NHS Scotland leaders were openly discussing the need to introduce charges for healthcare. A range of experts now agreed that the Scottish education system – the envy of the world not long ago – has foundered: although the SNP’s decision to withdraw from most internationally-recognised performance measures makes it hard to specify the extent of this decline. Neither was there any hope of tackling the unintended consequences of devolution – like the balkanised state of NHS drug procurement and the rising costs associated with it – despite the British government’s growing enthusiasm for sensible cooperation and the new committees designed to facilitate it.
A combination of circumstances and Nicola Sturgeon’s political sagacity kept these problems in the shade. Her successor may struggle to do so. There was no question, watching the First Minister’s resignation conference, that here was a politician of formidable talents. The unionist czar Jim Gallagher is supposed to have said during the 2014 referendum: ‘the problem is, the nationalists have all the music, while the unionists seem only to be able to communicate in dry facts and figures’. She went out with an aria. Her departure will affect the next election.
But the ‘Scottish Question’ – which is also the ‘British Question’ – will not go away. Its origins are embedded in our political system – more than one system, in fact. It arises in part from the incestuous nature of Scottish politics: from the stranglehold that a small cadre of SNP leaders has been able to extend over civil society, business, and the public sector. This phenomenon seems to have played no small part in les scandales curieux that accompany Sturgeon’s resignation. But there is no reason to assume that ordinary partisan politics is about to materialise in its wake.
The other point of origin lies in the failure of the British state (and much of the British commentariat) to break free of its bizarre obsession with its own mortality and to properly confront the challenge of reconciling devolved with central government and efficient administration with political liberty – and to do so without recourse to any of the lazy bywords (take your pick of parliamentary sovereignty, devo-max, federalism, and independence itself) that have promised so much and delivered nothing.
Mrs Sturgeon’s political demise will have inflicted a grave wound on the United Kingdom if it causes Whitehall to forget, yet again, about the Union. In this respect, it may turn out to be her parting gift to the cause to which she has devoted her whole adult life.