In Defence of Nicola Sturgeon

Previously we have worked through a good deal of the case for the “prosecution” of Nicola Sturgeon. What follows is, broadly, the case for the defence.

One of the most trenchant critics of the First Minister has been Stewart Campbell at Wings over Scotland, to the extent that when I see he is dealing with this topic I tend to stop reading. Campbell was a major asset in the 2014 campaign. I know people who still have their “Wee Blue Book” from back then. He undermined the Unionist case at every turn, even if he did have his own weaknesses (a failure to follow the rule that you don’t say anything on social media you wouldn’t say to your maiden aunt at Christmas dinner) – but then, who has no weaknesses?

In one of his critical pieces – “Weak in the Presence of Beauty” – he cites Sturgeon’s self-confessed “imposter syndrome”, making her, in Campbell’s words, a “disastrously weak leader”, characterised by “an absolute terror of doing anything unpopular.” Not that “doing anything unpopular” is unusual for a politician. Tony Blair was said not to even get up unless the proposal had been approved in triangulated focus groups. Perhaps he might have remembered this when getting involved in W’s attack on Iraq.

But more importantly, it is surely abnormal for any politician to knowingly, consciously and deliberately do anything unpopular, unless there were reasons to believe that down the line it would make them even more popular. Becoming unpopular is hardly the most efficient route to getting re-elected. Yet Sturgeon over the last 12 months has done many things which could be suspected of making her unpopular (and in some cases, probably has). She has dealt with the Covid pandemic in ways that are much more cautious and more draconian than has been typical of England, or most other parts of the UK. She is regularly misrepresented in the press – Brillo’s latest “inaccuracy” is just one example. Yet despite all this, and to the annoyance of her opponents, her current approval ratings verge on the unbelievable. Not only is she more popular in Scotland than the Prime Minister, but more popular than Boris Johnson in England as well. In Scotland 57% (plus 57%) approve of how she is discharging her role, while -7% (minus 7% – subtracting do not approve from approve) “approve” of Johnson’s performance. Despite the fact that most money to support the Scottish economy comes from the UK Treasury (though funded by our taxes, and because the relevant powers have not been devolved), the Times found that 30% of Scots thought the Scottish Government had provided most funding to support business and the economy. Only 21% thought it was the UK. And so it goes on – positive rating after positive rating.

Campbell asserts however, that “When half of Scotland is constantly attacking you, the only thing that stops you being totally overwhelmed by your self-doubt is the backing of your loyal supporters.” The problem with this explanation is that it is impossible to disprove. Either she crumbles because she’s “disastrously weak”, but if she doesn’t it’s only the support of her followers that keeps her going. So, one way or the other disastrous weakness will always be there.

It was Abraham Lincoln who observed “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”. Is this an indication of a disastrously weak leader, who has fooled a lot of the people, at least, for rather a long time? And IF we are dealing with a “disastrously weak leader” where does her support come from? Why does it not evaporate? Does it not suggest she might be doing ‘something’ right? You cannot “fool all of the people all of the time” etc.

It is here that Campbell’s one-dimensional view of “imposter syndrome” is exposed. This can be defined as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.” However, such doubts might not be well founded. For instance, does Campbell’s argument deter him from recognising, as many do (and not just her admirers) that she is first class communicator? Or that she is significantly less divisive than Alex Salmond?

As the pandemic has proceeded, support for independence has significantly increased – 21 polls (at the time of writing) with a majority for independence, though perhaps (to be “glass half empty”) it has plateaued. Even then, as John Robertson points out in his blog, the number of “don’t knows” is increasing, while the “No” vote is declining and “Yes” remaining stable – ie that the Union vote is beginning to question its loyalty to the UK. Is Sturgeon the person to get the independence proposition over the line?

Sticking with the positive orientation of this paper, it has often seemed to me that Sturgeon’s caginess about looking for another vote was based on a strategy that would allow her, when the time is right, to go to the Scottish electorate and claim that she had tried everything with regard to Brexit – made proposals to keep Scotland in the Single Market and the UK for instance – but nothing worked. Theresa May’s insistence that “we joined the EU as the entire UK, and we will leave as the entire UK” is an illustration even if it’s not what happened given the status of Northern Ireland.

Is it not a reasonable view that while Westminster is unlikely to approve another vote after the May election, it was even less likely during the shambles of the Brexit negotiations. Sturgeon’s policy might be said to be “don’t fire till you can see the whites of their eyes”. Or to paraphrase Pat Kane, “you win a referendum before the debate”. The more radical wing of the SNP may have found this unbearable, itching to get on with it. However, the problem with this, it seems to me, is that we really do have to get it right this time and win the vote, for there won’t be another any time soon if we lose next time.

Thus what would the consequences be of Sturgeon having to resign? Well, we would have lost an excellent communicator, someone who has a wide following and is not, as Alex Salmond sometimes was, divisive. The problem is whether she will follow through on her policy of seeking a S30 Order if there is a pro-independence majority elected to Holyrood in May. My own view is that she will, and that Johnson will duly say “No”. The foundations of this are already being laid by such as Alister Jack pointing to the difficulty to holding a referendum during a pandemic, as well as interspersing this with meditations on the meaning of “generation”.

The question then is what does she do next? If Westminster appears determined not to grant a S30 Order, does the First Minister sit tight and wait for them to change their mind? The problem is she could be waiting a long time as the SNP’s 11-point strategy concludes. This says that as well as seeking a S30 Order, the SNP will put forward a Bill at Holyrood allowing a referendum after the pandemic (ie 2022 most likely). This, it is claimed faces Westminster with three choices:

  1. agree that the Scottish Parliament already has the power to legislate for a referendum.
  2. agree the section 30 order – as happened ahead of the 2014 vote.
  3. take legal action to dispute the legal basis of the referendum.

Assuming that the Westminster Government maintains its negative stance, the likely outcome is number 3 (making the defenestration of Joanna Cherry even less wise, I would suggest). If this is won, then presumably a referendum could go ahead. But what if not?

Does Sturgeon have the courage to take the kinds of extra-Parliamentary action that might be necessary, for instance to change Westminster’s mind by making Scotland essentially ungovernable? Is she willing to support Craig Murray’s view that “One day, all supporters of Independence are going to be forced to get their heads round the fact that London is going for the Madrid solution, and we are not going to achieve Independence without using peaceful, non-violent routes which are nevertheless going to be deemed illegal by the Establishment.” Whether Nicola Sturgeon would embrace this view, even as a final option, is wonderfully unclear, but it is clear that, if she survives the present challenge to her leadership what happens after Westminster says “No” will be the next challenge, which will make her present problems with regard to Alex Salmond seem tiny in comparison.

Whether she lacks the qualities to address these conditions effectively is open to doubt, but what is not in doubt is that the personal qualities she has demonstrated during the course of the pandemic are much admired and would be a very considerable asset in future efforts to secure independence, making the current Alex Salmond situation even more tragic.

On a personal note, I remember, aged 13 listening to a radio commentary of Scotland playing Poland at Hampden in a qualifying match for the World Cup in England in 1966. Like most such games, it was important to win, and with five minutes to go, we were by 1-0. But in those last five minutes two goals were lost and success snatched from the jaws of victory. I worry that in the political sphere, history might be repeating itself – that with the job nearer done than at any time before, we screw up. On the other hand, it appears that the night before Bannockburn, Bruce and his Generals spent the night arguing about tactics. Maybe, this is just “the Scottish way”?

Perhaps the best possibility is that court reporter, James Doleman is right that “”As I’ve said before, I don’t think that, outside the Edinburgh ring road, anyone cares if Nicola Sturgeon heard about the Alec Salmond case on Tuesday or Wednesday, it just doesn’t matter to most people.” In this he is supported by the “What Scotland Thinks”, website which has found that trust in Nicola Sturgeon (up to 09/02) has hardly changed at all.

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