Orcadian Column, 23 February 2023

24 Feb 2023

The political landscape in Scotland suddenly looks very different. Yet for all the timing of Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement last week caught most people unawares, the fact of her resignation was actually no great surprise.

Rumours have swirled round Holyrood for months, much to the annoyance apparently of the First Minister, who nevertheless gave them credence by reflecting openly about a time post-politics. Her body language thas spoken of a growing impatience, frustration and fatigue, not all of it down to the undoubted pressures inherent in leading the nation through a pandemic.

Conflicting accounts of her legacy have already been written and more will follow. There can be no doubt, however, that Nicola Sturgeon is a politician of rare talent, endurance and with an ability to communicate, exemplified during the pandemic, when she also demonstrated a grasp of detail and ability to empathise, sorely lacking in her UK counterparts. Even so, the outcomes in terms of ‘excess deaths’ were no better in Scotland than elsewhere in these islands, reflecting a common criticism of the First Minister that the presentation invariably exceeds delivery.

Over the past eight years, across most areas of policy, the First Minister has been adept at ‘announcing and retreating’; grabbing the headlines and shaping the narrative, before shifting blame for any subsequent failures onto political opponents, local councils or, ideally, Westminster. All this despite having more powers and resources than any previous Scottish Government.

In the beginning, we were invited to judge her tenure in Bute House on her success in closing completely the gap in educational ‘attainment’ between children from the richest and poorest backgrounds. Eight years on and the gap remains as wide as ever, while the promise has been downgraded to a work in progress with no end date.

On a scandalous drugs death rate that eclipses anything seen internationally, the First Minister now admits having taken her ‘eye off the ball’. For years, though, as her government cut funding to key drugs programmes in Scotland, SNP fingers were pointed at Westminster for retaining policy powers that resulted in much lower death rates across the rest of the UK.

As for ferries, Nicola Sturgeon was happy for windows to be painted onto a vessel she ‘launched’ at a campaign photo opportunity in 2017. Six years later, islanders still await delivery of that and its sister vessel as the budget overspend climbs ever higher.

Ultimately, however, it was the failure to deliver a credible pathway to independence that sealed her fate. In the process, she leaves a country deeply divided. Nicola Sturgeon was right to say our public discourse can be ‘brutal’, yet her communication skills were seldom deployed to heal divisions or take the heat out of that discourse. Claiming to ‘detest’ political opponents and repeatedly accusing them of ‘talking Scotland down’‘ sends a pretty unambiguous message.

So the challenges facing her successor are formidable, which may explain why potential candidates have been busy ruling themselves out. Unlike when Nicola Sturgeon succeeded Alex Salmond in 2014, there is no obvious or groomed successor.

Nevertheless, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes seem set to battle it out, although both enter the contest with ample political ‘baggage’. Mr Yousaf’s stint in charge at health has been hapless, at best, while his ministerial career is characterised by a tendency to ‘shoot from the lip’ and promise the earth.

Meanwhile, Kate Forbes’ ascent has been ‘meteoric’. She commands respect across the Chamber for being on top of her finance brief and wearing her nationalism lightly. Yet her faith-based social conservatism has alarmed many within the SNP and could yet spell the end of the coalition with the Greens.

My instinct initially was that Kate Forbes would prevail, but her declared opposition to equal marriage may well sink her leadership bid before it begins. Whatever happens over the next four weeks, both these key ministers in Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet will struggle to distance themselves from their predecessor’s track record on health, education, transport etc.

I wish them well in what looks set to be a bruising, potentially brutal contest. It does, though, feel like wider change is happening in both Scottish and UK politics – and not before time.

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