We need only look at the nicknames she was given by broadly proportionate segments of the Scottish population. ‘Chief Mammy’, ‘Wee Nippy’’, and ‘Krankie’ to see that Nicola Sturgeon was probably the most divisive politician in modern Scotland since Margaret Thatcher. I expect not a comparison she would relish or one that she would find flattering.
Former Scottish Conservative Leader, Ruth Davidson once said that many voters in Scotland called her ‘that effing woman’ and she certainly wasn’t wrong; with her mere appearance causing a vociferous reaction from across the political spectrum ranging from howls of hateful derision to sycophantic praise.
First a confession and a disclaimer. I write as someone who is not entirely convinced about the merits of Scottish independence, despite Brexit. There are too many unanswered questions and uncertainties. I value stability, rather than change (I voted Remain). I have seen the unattended consequences of her social policies along the West Coast of Scotland. Does this make me biased? No more than anyone else with opinions, I hope.
So how is it that Scotland views her this way to such an extent that one enthusiastic Twitter user wants to rename Prestwick International Airport to the Nicola Sturgeon International Airport, and other people want to take her to the Hague, charge her with crimes against humanity and see her jailed for the rest of her life?
Longest Serving First Minister
Partially, her longevity has enabled this reaction. She has outlasted four British Prime Ministers and has seen the Resolute desk change hands twice. She has spent eight years as First Minster. Being one of the key figures of the very slick ‘Yes’ campaign also helped raise her profile and subsequently made her more of a target as well. Essentially, the SNP was a ‘dual-ticket’ with her being the softer foil to the more abrasive and aggressive Salmond. And it worked well for them.
I mean, it’s difficult to caricature Theresa May who was Prime Minister for just over three years. Liz Truss will be memorialised as ‘Who was Britain’s shortest reigning Prime Minister’ in pubs for as long as these islands stand, ohh, and possibly losing £300bn from the UK’s stock and bond markets in about six weeks, but not much else. At a minimum, Sturgeon has at least secured her legacy amongst the pantheon of historically significant Scottish politicians.
Brexit: Westminster was Floundering
However, there are two moments that I feel Nicola Sturgeon must be praised for and will define the ‘non-indy’ part of her legacy.
In 2016, I expected to wake up with the world being largely the same as the one I went to bed in. Polls had indicated that ‘remain’ would win the referendum comfortably. As I said, I like stability. This did not happen and my sense of shock that morning was exacerbated by the grossly inaccurate polling.
At the time, it felt that Westminster was floundering. The government seemed to be headless. To her critics, Nicola Sturgeon making an announcement before David Cameron was inappropriate and gauche, but I was just glad for the perception that someone was actually in charge of something, somewhere at that moment, as I listened pensively to her press conference through BBC iPlayer at work.
Covid in Scotland. Safer under Nicola
Secondly, Covid was another of her great moments. Again, the nation was in fear of this new virus looming in the distance. I first became really aware of what was happening in Italy, where images of people fleeing cities before state-sanctioned lockdowns could be imposed were replete in the media in mid-March 2020. (Although being a bit of a germaphobe, I had been ‘doom scrolling’ Covid on my phone since January) This was a glimpse of what was coming to these shores soon, and frankly, it looked apocalyptic.
The first official Covid related death on Scottish soil was on March 13th 2020. Sturgeon’s policy was infinitely more consistent than Boris Johnson’s. In Scotland, the Work from Home policy remained largely unchanged for well over two years. In England, it seemed to go from working at home, to go back to the office, to work at home, to sort of work in the office if you can come in, but don’t come in if you have a temperature, but if you’re fit enough and have a negative covid test, then, yeah, you can go in if you want.
Even, mask-wearing was more consistent North of the border. It was as simple as ‘wear a mask in a public place’. The efficacy of mask-wearing can be debated by better and more scientific minds than I possess, but as a visual indicator that this was an emergency and in some ways a symbol of solidarity with your fellow citizens they probably saved lives. The Scottish Government just seemed to be operating at a more slow, mature, and less chaotic level than Westminster.
Were the daily press briefings useful at the later stage of the pandemic, long after the ones in Westminster had been disbanded? Not for me, but I’m sure some fellow Scots found them so. Could the disastrous and reckless discharge of elderly Hospital patients to care homes have been delayed or some system to mitigate them have been implemented sooner? Almost certainly, but these are issues that will be investigated by the Scottish only covid enquiry.
IndyRef: the Constant Campaign
Her ‘constant campaign’ for Scottish secession was also responsible for the dual nature of her perception within Scotland. In reality, under her leadership, every election in Scotland had become a ‘de-facto referendum’ long before the official one that she had planned for 2025 would take place. Predictably, the opposition parties followed suit with this, leaving Scotland in a state of political limbo that has lasted to the present day, and looks likely to continue.
Again, at least half the population would have agreed with this, half wouldn’t. This is also reflected in the more ‘realistic’ vision of Scottish secession at the SNP group in Westminster, compared with the more ‘romantic’ view from the SNP in Holyrood. Best illustrated by the fact Sturgeon has said that Independence ‘transcends’ Brexit, oil and the economy’ while Mhairi Black stated that independence is ‘not just some random hobby, it’s for a purpose’.
Some of her social policies, as she admitted in her resignation speech, may take years to come to fruition. I expect that they were motivated by a genuine sense of altruism on her part. Coming from Irvine, she would have witnessed genuine poverty in her formative years, not something that many politicians in the UK can say they have ever rubbed shoulders with. In turn, they have a more ‘slice of life’ perspective, more concerned with the everyday: baby boxes, child payments, free bus travel for under 22 years olds.
Ultimately, her resignation was as divisive as her career. Those that opposed her formed a conga line in George Square. Those that supported her will mourn the loss of a competent leader. But as she said herself ‘I know there will be some across the country who feel upset by this decision and by the fact I am taking it now. Of course, for balance, there will be others who will – how should I put this – cope with the news just fine. Such is the beauty of democracy’. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Praise from an unlikely source. The ‘terrified admirer’
Perhaps, for many Scots and Brits, their complicated feelings regarding the departing First Minister can be summed up from a very unlikely source, a Mr Kevin Liles from the letters page of the Daily Telegraph, who two days after she resigned said this:
‘I have always been in thrall to the political skills of Nicola Sturgeon. I have been a terrified admirer of her. Terrified, because she has been a convincing separatist, and I oppose her cause completely; an admirer, because during her reign she was head and shoulders above our lacklustre prime ministers in quality, intelligence, focus and, until very recently, political nous. All political careers end in failure: that is the unavoidable nature of the game. But Ms Sturgeon has been an awesome player’
For a left-leaning Scottish politician to be written about and published in the citadel of the right, in such terms, speaks volumes.