Under Sturgeon’s Shadow

As Nicola Sturgeon leaves the political scene, Coll McCail reflects on how Scottish politics and public debate has faded to grey.

Nicola Sturgeon’s arrest on the 11th of June caught many off guard. In the swamp of British politics, Nicola Sturgeon is the last person one would expect to see photographed in the back of a police car. As First Minister, Sturgeon put herself beyond reproach. Her style of politics was designed to be incompatible with public embarrassment. Once venerated for her honesty, Sturgeon must now publish statements on Twitter maintaining her innocence “beyond doubt”. Contrast with her resignation when, the Guardian insisted, Sturgeon had “left on her own terms.” Other politicians are forced out of leadership, but Sturgeon was supposed to be different.

During Sturgeon’s final Holyrood session as FM, Emma Roddick MSP said that her mother “talked about the First Minister of Scotland like she was someone from down the road who’d popped in for a coffee.” It is this that makes Sturgeon’s arrest noteworthy. She kept out of the fray, and didn’t bother with Punch and Judy politics. The whiff of scandal spoils such an operation. On the other hand, the legacy of this hyper-personal image still shields Sturgeon from a certain amount of criticism.

In power, Sturgeon’s public persona was mirrored in her government’s style of politics. Nicola Sturgeon’s ministers balanced the interests of their portfolio’s stakeholders, appealing to everyone but siding with no one, working towards collaborative aims only ever defined by platitudes. By developing partnerships between the private sector, civil society, and government, Sturgeon could present a united front. If an overarching vision existed, then it depended on subordinating the interests of the people of Scotland to the maintenance of this political consensus.

South of the border, rarely a day goes by when a representative of the third sector cannot be found berating the government on the morning shows. In Scotland, their counterparts were offered a seat at the table. That is why, when Bruce Adamson – the outgoing Scottish Children’s Commissioner – told the BBC that Sturgeon had “absolutely” failed to tackle child poverty, his comments merited widespread press attention. Such scathing criticism wasn’t meant to come from civic Scotland. Created in 2004, the office of the Children’s Commissioner is an institution of devolution and reports to Holyrood on its work. It’s the perfect example of an organisation that Sturgeon’s government did their best to keep inside the tent. With a role and stake in policy development, those who may have been inclined to criticise the government’s lack of delivery held their tongues. After all, the Scottish Government’s ‘co-design’ model made them partly responsible. This was why Adamson’s intervention was fascinating. He broke civic Scotland’s silence.

The consequence of this balancing act was often default to neoliberalism. With confrontation limited by design, private capital emerged as a consistent beneficiary of Sturgeon’s civic nationalism. The people of Scotland were marched up the hill and told to wait for an independence that sat just over the horizon. Class interest neutralised, capital got on with the day job: ‘Green’ Freeports, the sale of natural assets, and even the privatisation of trees. The private sector was entrusted with a litany of infrastructure projects in the absence of political ambition. Efforts which sought to push the boundaries of this framework – land reform, progressive taxation or a national energy company, for example – were locked out by the Scottish Government’s desperate efforts to be considered competent administrators, pulling in a nominally progressive direction. With principles absent, politicians became mere managers of decline. Government projects were plagued by delays. Targets were missed. Standards of services slipped. With a slick communications apparatus on hand, these failings could always be obfuscated. Policy decisions that may have presented bumps in the road were put out to pasture as government by consultation became the order of the day. This continual deferral has left Humza Yousaf with a pile of seemingly unsolvable problems. With few other options, the new First Minister has resorted to the politics of distraction. Earlier this month, he could be found outlining plans for the codified constitution of an independent Scotland. When or how he plans to get there, however, is anyone’s guess.

Couple this consensus with Nicola Sturgeon’s hyper-personal image and the irony of Sturgeon’s arrest becomes far clearer. Both, however, are enduring. In the week following her arrest, supporters have written Sturgeon poems. The Scottish cabinet sent her flowers as a ‘mark of sympathy.’ Humza Yousaf called her Europe’s “most impressive politician.” Scottish politics is being conducted in Sturgeon’s shadow.

Public debate was a casualty of Sturgeon’s conflict-averse politics. With paradoxical interests hidden inside the government’s tent, few made the arguments on the outside. Our discourse was stuck in the mud with few attempts to move beyond constitutional polarisation, a useful sticking point for an SNP government delivering little.

In the coming months, Sturgeon continuationists will likely call for ‘kind and honest’ politics. The last thing Scotland needs is pacifying. As Sturgeon demonstrated, ‘kind and honest’ politics is but a pretext to dilute principle and banish ideology in favour of a settlement that moves the operation of government behind closed doors and beyond the reach of the Scottish people. It requires contradictory accommodations, stifling civil society and concessions to capital.

Nicola Sturgeon’s arrest should have provided justification for an honest assessment of her legacy. As the politics of class neutrality unravels, the left should seize the opportunity to present an alternative. If government-by-consensus is to end, it must be challenged by questions of ownership, class, sovereignty and democratic engagement – all of which are antithetical to an approach that seeks to subdue confrontation. The left should be alive to this. Otherwise, we risk giving permanence to politics by shade of grey, with none of its racy connotations.

Coll McCail writes for Progressive International and was involved in the recent relaunch of Skotia.