While the UK readies itself to emerge, blinking, from lockdown, spare a thought for those of us trapped north of Hadrian’s Wall. Scotland is in the grip of a personality cult that has elevated a mediocre solicitor from a modest background into a cross between Joan of Arc and Hillary Clinton. A Boadicea in beige stilettos and block colours.
Nicola Sturgeon is lauded in the artisan coffee shops of Glasgow’s West End as Scotland’s Jacinda Ardern. Breathless London commentators swoon at her ability to memorise a brief and speak in coherent sentences.
Even her political enemies, inside and outside the SNP, appear mesmerised by the confidence trick she has pulled off. She has taken nationalism – a divisive, reactionary creed – and re-branded it as progressive politics fit for the early days of a better world.
But even the most cursory examination of her record shows a politician who has failed to achieve any social or economic progress in her 14-year reign, first as Scotland’s Deputy First Minister and then as First Minister since 2014.
Scotland’s NHS has coped – just – with Covid-19, but it was on the critical list long before coronavirus. The law that guarantees a patient is treated 12 weeks after diagnosis – introduced by Sturgeon in 2012 when she was health secretary – has been broken 300,000 times.
The pandemic has exacerbated a national health crisis, with surgeons warning of a two-year wait for crucial knee or hip operations. Sturgeon has effectively jeopardised the founding principle of the NHS – free treatment available at the time of need.
Education has suffered too. One in four children live in poverty, with the SNP government’s own forecasts predicting this will rise to 38 per cent by 2030. Yet under Sturgeon and her loyal sergeant, John Swinney, Scotland’s schools have failed their poorest students, with the attainment gap between pupils from better-off neighbourhoods and their peers in deprived areas at unacceptable levels.
True progressives, like Tony Blair, argue that education is the best route out of poverty. Sturgeon mimicked New Labour by promising to close the attainment gap completely. ‘Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this,’ she said in 2015. A few weeks ago, Audit Scotland reported that the chasm remains too wide and called for urgent action. But despite the evidence, Sturgeon’s fan base continues to laud her commitment to social justice.
Serious left-of-centre politicians understand that a vibrant economy is essential to achieve equality. Yet Sturgeon shows no interest in economic matters. Philanthropist and entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter recently dismissed her government’s record on business in scathing terms:
‘The general consensus in business up here is that the current government don't really listen to business. They make policy in isolation, which makes bad policy…’
Sturgeon’s avowed feminism is nothing more than fancy dress. She refuses to engage with grassroots feminists about women’s sex-based rights, preferring instead to champion the cause of gender self-identification. And her role in the tawdry case of Alex Salmond deserves closer scrutiny.
Scotland’s tightly knit political elite has traded stories of Salmond’s bad behaviour since he moved into the fifth floor of St Andrew’s House in 2007. Yet Sturgeon, his closest confidante, claims she knew nothing until ten years later when Sky News asked a question of her press office.
Perhaps she didn’t. Perhaps the most powerful woman in the land was less informed than political correspondents and middle-ranking civil servants. Otherwise, this doughty feminist would have fought tooth and nail to protect young women from her mentor’s unacceptable behaviour. Wouldn’t she?
Or would she? Nicola Sturgeon wears the costume of a progressive social democratic leader with a strutting self-confidence. Yet beneath the made-to-measure suits beats the heart of a fervent nationalist whose only political objective is to drag Scotland out of the UK.
Everything she does is tactical, from her shopping list of election giveaways, paid for by Boris Johnson’s government, to her late-adopted feminism.
I have no doubt she worries about Scotland having the highest drug deaths in Europe, or that healthy life expectancy for poor men in Scotland is 47 years. But not as much as she frets about the timing of a second referendum.
Since she first campaigned for independence as a teenager, she has dedicated herself to the nationalist cause. Progressive politics are a convenient cover for her true intention, which is to convince enough Scots that we will, somehow, be better off if we leave the most successful political, economic, and social union in history.
And she will strike any pose, from concerned mother of the nation to rabble-rousing rebel leader, to achieve her ambition. But never trust a nationalist in a progressive’s clothing.