Alex Massie

Has Nicola Sturgeon run out of ideas for Scotland?

Has Nicola Sturgeon run out of ideas for Scotland?
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On Tuesday, another 4,323 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Scotland. A reminder, if it were needed, that the pandemic continues even though 80 per cent of the adult population are now fully vaccinated. The schools are back and the start of the new university year next month suggests more new cases are all but certain. The worst of this iteration of the pandemic may be in the past but it isn’t over. Indeed, it is so far from being over that the First Minister felt it necessary to warn that a fresh round of restrictions may be necessary should case numbers continue to rise.

Even if that proves unnecessary and even if you are minded to think Sturgeon’s caution excessive, it is obvious that Covid will be a part of life for the foreseeable future. Not a dominant part, perhaps, but a part of it nonetheless. The fall-out has barely begun to be measured. Part of that measuring process will come in the independent, judge-led, inquiry into how Scotland handled the first months – years, in fact – of the pandemic. That inquiry was also announced this week.

All of which is to say there will be no independence referendum any time soon. Moves will be made pretending there might be a poll by the end of 2023 but there is no sign Boris Johnson’s government is prepared to accept this fixture and for as long as half the Scottish voting population makes it clear they wish nothing to do with a second referendum there is little need for the Prime Minister to rethink his opposition. The SNP may huff and they may puff but they cannot, for now, blow the house down.

So what else is Sturgeon to do? She has seemed an isolated figure in recent months, compelled to devote the full measure of her attention to a public health emergency that distracts from, indeed obstructs, her party’s defining passion and ambition. On top of the usual Covid-caused frustration, this irritates those nationalists for whom independence is the only game worth the candle.

Ordinary party politics increasingly annoys Sturgeon too. She often gives the impression of being, at best, semi-detached from the usual political gamesmanship; the only adult in a parliament of infants. Few of her colleagues have her ear; many have little in the way of a relationship with her. As for the opposition: they are, at best, tedious nitpickers, forever obsessing over trivial details and always, but always, missing the bigger picture. As for the press, words can scarcely do justice to the First Minister’s impatience with their questioning. She ‘assumes a certain level of intelligence’ on the part of her audience and this, you may think, is where she makes her bloomer. Power is a lonely place, right enough.

A new mission, then, is needed for a Scottish government that is, by general agreement, tired after 14 years in office and badly in need of refreshment. Hence, then, a coalition with the Greens, albeit a coalition we are not supposed to call a coalition. That is what it is, however, and no amount of chiselling can change the facts.

And amongst these realities there is this: Sturgeon is tilting away from middle Scotland. The Greens hostility to economic growth is not shared by the SNP and while the economy is to be a matter reserved for the SNP, a government containing the Greens cannot possibly be as pro-enterprise as one unencumbered by their presence. More significantly, the tilt towards a so-called ‘Wellbeing’ and a new – and proper – commitment to environmental concerns necessarily means picking winners and creating losers. If it is to mean anything, it must force the SNP to abandon its preferred ‘something for everyone’ philosophy. The party has successfully positioned itself as – in its view – the authentic articulation of a distinct Scottish political consciousness; a matter of identity as much as of policy and a triumph of sensibility over detail.

How that meshes with an alliance with a party which won just 8 per cent of the vote but will now exercise an influence out of all proportion to its popularity remains to be seen. Aspects of the SNP-Green agenda are unlikely, I think, to sit well with many voters. Amongst these may be the coalition’s conviction that anyone can be a woman, merely by declaring themselves so and a hostility to road-building, reflecting the Greens’ status as an overwhelmingly metropolitan concern. In northeast Scotland, where concerns about abandoning North Sea oil and gas also concentrate minds, as in the Highlands and the counties of southern Scotland, cars are something more than a lifestyle choice. (And if the future is electric or hydrogen-fuelled, new or improved roads are not, in the long-run, so wicked as the Greens argue.)

The SNP-Green alliance, however, confirms that this new Scottish government is very much one of Glasgow and Edinburgh and not the further flung parts of Scotland where, it might be remembered, only 6 per cent of voters backed the Greens at the election in May.

But it is, I suppose, a statement of a kind and in the absence of anything else it will have to do. But it is revealing, surely, that Sturgeon could not refresh or reinvigorate her government from her own party’s resources. The new ideas in her ministry’s proposed policy agenda overwhelmingly come from the Greens. They are the party charged with reimagining the Scottish government. That is the real significance of this arrangement.

For, as can hardly be repeated too frequently, there is no parliamentary or legislative need for this coalition. Sturgeon’s hands were not tied and there is nothing she can do now she could not have done before. (Green votes were always there to be purchased and they rarely commanded much of a price.)

Sturgeon so dominates Scottish politics that it is easy to forget she has fought two Holyrood elections as leader of the SNP without managing to match Alex Salmond’s electoral achievements. The majority Salmond won in 2011 may have taken the SNP by surprise but it has proved a one-off. (Contrary to what is often said, the electoral system used for Holyrood elections was not designed to prevent parliamentary majorities but, rather, to prevent disproportional majorities.)

A coalition with the Greens gives Sturgeon an unassailable majority in parliament but it enhances neither her appeal nor her reach. On the contrary, it is a kind of retreat from the catch-all, big-tent, principles that made the modern SNP an election-winning phenomenon. Scurrying to the left is a bold gamble from a politician who has previously privileged caution. Perhaps this reflects a conviction that Sturgeon herself, and her party, are now unassailable. But it is also, surely, a mark of intellectual exhaustion and a recognition that independence is not, despite what will be said this week and next, actually any kind of imminent prospect. With that off the table, what is Sturgeon’s government actually for? It seems important that the answer is to be provided, in large part, by the Greens.