The Sturgeon paradox: the worse she does, the more popular she becomes

Despite her record, nothing can stop Nicola Sturgeon

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

Before Covid-19, if you can remember such a time, this was supposed to be a difficult year for Nicola Sturgeon. Her party had been in power in Edinburgh since 2007 and, like all ministries of such antiquity, was beginning to look jaded. There was never any doubt that she would remain First Minister following next year’s Holyrood elections, but the prospect of her winning a majority seemed to be receding.

Opposition parties believed that a relentless focus on the SNP’s record in office would be enough to clip Sturgeon’s wings. After 13 years, it was hard to point to many stunning successes: on the contrary, failures and scandals were accumulating. Time ruins all governments and hers did not seem to be an exception. But, as 2020 has shown, normal rules do not apply to Nicola Sturgeon.

The virus changed everything. Now she is arguably Britain’s most popular politician — more popular in England than Boris Johnson, according to one poll — and her stock in Scotland has never been higher. Opinion polls suggest the next Holyrood parliament will be cursed with a pro-independence majority. The future of the United Kingdom once again hangs in the balance. To save it, Unionists need to work out why.

Rarely has a discrepancy between perception and performance been so stark. Although the prevalence of the virus is currently lower in Scotland than England, second-wave death rates are actually 25 per cent higher. Many of the mistakes made in England were also made in Scotland, not least discharging patients from hospitals into care homes without first checking they were not bringing the virus with them. By any reasonable estimation, Scotland’s performance has been mediocre at best.

But in modern Scotland, relative success counts for more than absolute success. Sturgeon’s rave reviews come not just from fawning Nationalists but also from dismayed Unionists. ‘Nicola has been calm, authoritative and cautious throughout,’ says one senior Tory MSP. And his own party leader? ‘Boris has over-promised and under-delivered. He lacks the appearance of seriousness, to the point where he lacks the appearance of competence.’

The whole theory of devolution — and, now, of independence — is that local decisions are better. Scottish solutions for Scottish problems. But after two decades, it’s not too early to judge success. Five years ago, Sturgeon asked to be assessed on her record. Education, not independence, was to be her ‘top priority’ and specifically the closing of the ‘attainment gap’ between pupils from rich and poor families. But evidence of her success is so hard to come by that the Scottish government’s own analysis of the progress has resorted to claiming that ‘perceptions of success currently present a more positive picture of progress’ than anything ‘emerging through quantitative measures’.

Two years ago, Scottish pupils achieved the country’s worst-ever science and maths results in the international Pisa league tables. The gap between those from the most and least advantaged families amounted to three years of learning. This is the opposite to what devolution was supposed to achieve. Despite being freed from the obligation of paying tuition fees, students from poor families in Scotland are no more likely to attend university than comparable children in England.

As for health, the other main area of devolved responsibility, the SNP’s record is just as bad. At last year’s general election, just 7 per cent of voters said they thought the NHS had improved in Scotland since Sturgeon became First Minister six years ago. A 12-week treatment time guarantee has proved meaningless since, last year, just 71 per cent of inpatients and day cases were treated within that time frame and one in four outpatients also waited longer than they were supposed to. Across a range of NHS indicators, targets have not been met for five years.

But voters are contrary creatures and nowhere more so than in Scotland. While giving the SNP a failing grade on education, health, justice and the economy, they still overwhelmingly endorsed SNP candidates at the general election. And then came Covid. At a stroke, all the facts pointing to the Scottish government’s substandard performance were rendered irrelevant, wiped from the public consciousness.

A weak media does not help. Sturgeon almost never agrees to interviews with a still largely sceptical print media and only rarely faces sustained questioning on BBC Scotland or STV, but in truth it goes beyond this. ‘There is an issue with the lack of scrutiny of the SNP’s record from the media, particularly broadcasters,’ another senior Scottish Tory complains, contrasting the BBC’s treatment of Sturgeon — and its decision to show her press briefings without granting the opposition a response — with the manner in which the UK government is generally handled. Even so, there is a simple explanation for Sturgeon’s success: ‘Essentially, it’s because she isn’t Boris.’

Focus groups conducted for the pro-Union thinktank These Islands bear this out. Voters who are now curious about independence, though not necessarily yet sold on it, contrast ‘bungling Boris and Brexit’ with ‘competent Nicola and independence’. Brexit has been a slow-burning issue, but it is one that has laid the foundations for the surge in pro-independence sentiment. Johnson has added the exterior walls and Covid has supplied the roof.

Compared with the Prime Minister, Sturgeon enjoys very high approval ratings. Not only that, but many of those who do not agree with her still respect her. There is a 100-point differential between Sturgeon’s and Johnson’s approval ratings in Scotland. Hers is +49; his is -57. He is a liability for Unionists; she is the independence cause’s greatest strength.

The frustration in Unionist circles is palpable. Many punches are thrown; none seems to land. Sometimes this frustration appears tinged with a shivering anticipation of grief to come. It is not difficult to find ardent Unionists who whisper that they think the United Kingdom has run its race. The precise timing of its formal dissolution may as yet be unknown but the direction of travel is impossible to ignore. A bell tolls, and it tolls for the United Kingdom. Of course, demographic trends do not guarantee particular outcomes. Nevertheless, two thirds of Scots under the age of 45 now say they back independence. A dozen opinion polls in recent months have each reported a majority in favour of independence. The trend is clear.

Contrasting the reality of devolution with its promise misunderstands its perceived value. The parliament proves its worth merely by existing; it has become the principal forum for public argument in Scotland. And while this argument is often drab and dreary, the parliament is also a testing ground for something else: dreams of a grander future.

It is a question of respect. The Holyrood parliament may be a small thing, but it is Scotland’s own and that makes a significant, a necessary and perhaps even a sufficient difference. To slight it is, in some vague sense, to slight the Scottish people’s estimation of themselves. If this is prickly, it is also reality. Sixty per cent of Scots think the institutions of devolution will work in the country’s best interest; fewer than one in five are confident that the UK government or parliament will do likewise.

Politics is a matter of belonging. Scotland might benefit from its privileged position within the Union but London feels further away than ever. The ties that bind the United Kingdom together have been loosening perceptibly. Scots born before 1960 are twice as likely to strongly identify as British as those born after that date.

And just as the argument for Brexit rested on the presumption that sovereignty is more important than economic forecasts, so too does the case for Scottish independence. The SNP argues that independence will leave Scotland wealthier, but sovereignty remains the true basis for secession. As Sturgeon told her party conference on Monday, only independence will allow Scots to be the ‘decision makers’ in their own lives.

Where Alex Salmond was, for many, a Marmite politician of the ‘loathe him’ or ‘really loathe him’ kind, Sturgeon is perceived as an altogether more approachable — and representative — figure. She is unmistakably ‘one of us’. Although her faith in independence is unsinkable, she has succeeded in presenting it as a utilitarian choice and the path to a more prosperous, more egalitarian, more democratic future. In doing so, she sells Scots on the idea of who they should like to be rather than who they actually are. (With the notable exceptions of Europe and, to some degree, immigration, Scottish and English attitudes are broadly similar.) Her message is designed to reassure: independence is normal — it’s the Union that’s odd.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the SNP’s present ascendancy is how comprehensive it is. There is no significant class divide on the national question: ABC1 voters are as likely to support independence as C2DE voters, and while support for independence remains higher in the ‘Yes cities’ of Glasgow and Dundee than in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the gap is closing.

There is a further paradox. As Douglas Ross, the new leader of the Scottish Tories, argues, the case for independence is being made more effectively in London than Edinburgh. The UK is seen as an example of how a country should not comport itself. Sturgeon asks Scots if they really think it has to be like this or if, on the contrary, a different future might be available.

The biggest danger to the Sturgeon supremacy may not come from London but from within her own movement. A Holyrood committee investigating the Alex Salmond affair is due to report at some point before the election next May. It has been established that Sturgeon’s account to parliament of what she knew, and when she knew it, was at best incomplete and misleading. Salmond alleges that he was stitched up by a government-led plot and, if proven, this might yet be enough to destroy his successor. Unionists cannot admit to pinning their hopes on this scandal and, privately, some speculate Sturgeon might be able to survive even if she is found to have lied to parliament and broken the ministerial code. A scandal that might be fatal elsewhere could turn out to be but a flesh wound in Scotland.

For now, however, Sturgeon is untouchable. She has a connection with her electorate that is unmatched in these islands. A fourth SNP term at Holyrood might deliver little in the way of policy successes but it will haunt Johnson for the rest of his time in office. He might insist on saying ‘No’ to Scotland, but if Scotland keeps saying ‘Yes’ to another referendum, just saying ‘No’ is a position subject to the law of diminishing returns. The Scottish question will not disappear.

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