Last week, Nicola Sturgeon appeared in the Scottish Parliament and made her first post-leader speech. In it she lamented the state of Scottish politics and its 'acrimony and stalemate', and asked how we get back to a more civil, respectful politics.
The current state of politics is about more than the role of Nicola Sturgeon and even the SNP. There are always a range of complex factors at work in any given situation, including the role of other political leaders and political parties, even if it's only to show their ineffectiveness.
Yet the inarguable facts remain that the SNP has been in office for a total of 16 years and Nicola Sturgeon was First Minister and party leader for over eight years. In this latter period, Sturgeon undoubtedly had a major influence over the shape, tone and culture of our politics, and still does, only resigning as First Minister and party leader six months ago.
The Sturgeon era was one in which the SNP was electorally triumphant, winning Scottish Parliament, Westminster, European and local government elections, consistently resisting the challenges of the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson and Scottish Labour under an assortment of leaders. This had consequences and implications for the SNP, contributing to a culture in which power, authority and legitimacy became increasingly concentrated around Nicola Sturgeon.
This had an impact on a number of levels: on the SNP as a party, on the country and how it was governed, and on the cause of independence. On the first point, this led to a party in which its internal structures slowly began to atrophy. A manipulated democracy, where party members were increasingly side-lined, rose to prominence.
A serious shift emerged in how the country was governed. Centralisation and command and control politics became the norm, with an omnipotent central authority seeing itself as the sole arbiter in decision-making, increasingly bypassing the Scottish Parliament, and taking powers from other areas of public life such as local government and public services.
Nicola Sturgeon, in her eight years of leadership, could have advanced the independence project by confronting its strategic choices and confronting independence itself, with some difficult truths including how it appeals and speaks to those yet to be convinced. Instead, she told pro-independence supporters what she thought they wanted to hear.
Sturgeon not only dominated the SNP and Scottish politics. She choked off oxygen and space for other political leaders and perspectives to emerge, both in the SNP and wider political environment. This reduced the SNP to a quasi-court party where major decisions, status and legitimacy were centred around the leader and leadership, reducing politics to being about controlled access, patronage and preferment.
Yet the Sturgeon leadership cannot just be seen as a creation of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP and its electoral dominance. It was also a product of the attitudes of SNP members and independence believers who chose to put their faith in Sturgeon.
Leadership is not just about the leader but followers: it is a two-way interactive process. Sturgeon was able to have such free rein with party members, centralise government decision-making, and not address the big questions on independence – because a large enough constituency wanted to believe in Sturgeon and her qualities. And this conclusion is ultimately not only damning for Sturgeon, but also for the attitudes of those followers.
Three unfulfilled dreams of the Sturgeon era
A number of factors contributed to this. A major one has been the allure of the ultimate goal of Scottish independence. As long as this remains a cause to be won, the SNP leadership can call on the devotion of a large section of party members and independence community.
Judged this way, the non-action of the Sturgeon leadership on independence can be seen as in part deliberate, keeping it in play, but not bringing forth the major choices and dilemmas it entails. Instead, independence has remained as a mystical promise which believers can project their desires and wishes on to, and which at the same time closes down real debate in the party on everyday politics, the direction of government, and even the state of the nation.
Adding to this is the nature of the defining credo of the SNP: Scottish nationalism. Whatever you think of this outlook and its characteristics, its credentials in offering any kind of political guide for a governing party have become increasingly threadbare and open to question. On the great issues facing government: the nature and level of public spending, redistribution, tax levels, the degree of autonomy or not of local government, and lots more, Scottish nationalism offers no substantive assistance or guidance.
There is another set of values that the SNP asserts it believes in: social democracy. Nicola Sturgeon has stated many times that she sees herself as a social democrat and that in a different political environment to Scotland in the 1980s she might have considered joining the Labour Party. Yet the social democracy of the SNP in the Sturgeon era has remained undefined and vague – with the only credentials offered being that it consistently views its social democracy as more pronounced and undiluted than that of New Labour or the Labour Party of Keir Starmer: a politics of positioning not substance.
The reality is that the SNP's social democracy is similar to New Labour and the present-day Labour Party: centrist, managerial and technocratic, focusing on keeping its electoral coalition together, not frightening middle-class voters, not trumpeting redistribution, and being wary of any fundamental change.
All these dynamics – the nature of the SNP's independence project, the limitations of Scottish nationalism, and the vague rhetorical nature of the social democracy which the party has espoused – contributed to the Sturgeon leadership not only being dominant, but not questioned or held accountable.
The Sturgeon leadership became defined by its own hubris, a mixture of arrogance and anxiety, and lost its political antenna and sensitivity in how it saw the world and acted.
If this were not enough, the personality politics of the Sturgeon era which presented her as the sole face of the SNP. It was her face which adorned the party's election manifestoes for 2016 and 2021, with a conspicuous absence of a team (which is something for all his many faults Salmond had encouraged in 2007 and 2011). A 'leadership cult' was cultivated under Sturgeon (which built on the cumulative over-reach of Salmond in his later years as leader).
This ultimately led to bad political judgement and a contempt for other opinions including in the SNP and country.
This is the world which Nicola Sturgeon now reflects upon and finds it lacking. But so far she has engaged in the minimal amount of public self-reflection on her own role, leadership and contribution to the world.
This is Nicola Sturgeon post-leadership launching herself into the world, supposedly away to write her memoirs and tour numerous book festivals (coming, for example, to Wigtown Book Festival this month). You might think, as a party and culture, to inflict one self-aggrandising leader who believed in their own genius and wisdom was enough, but to inflict two in succession is pushing things too far.
This state of affairs is not going to end well for Sturgeon or the SNP. The politics of illusion and delusion can mesmerise for so long, but it cannot do so indefinitely. Already, post-Sturgeon, the Scottish political environment is changing and moving on with the rise of UK Labour and prospect of a Labour Government.
The SNP has a future place in our politics. But it will not be a healthy one while large sections of its party and independence community continue to believe in myths. The party has to let light into its corridors of power and debates – something Nicola Sturgeon seems incapable of doing even after being leader.
It is unclear whether the SNP has the political resources and memory to be able to renew itself in office. If it doesn't, voters will take matters into their own hands and deliver their verdict in the coming 2024 Westminster and 2026 Scottish elections. And that will ultimately be a verdict which Nicola Sturgeon's leadership and lack of candour in and out of office has played a large part in creating.