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At Nicola Sturgeon’s fifth birthday party, as her friends played ring-a-roses, she was discovered hiding under a table, reading a book. “I was always a really shy child,” she has said. “And I was like that through my teenage years. But then there was always just a sense I had something inside me.”
That “something” took an introverted little girl to the very top. Today, at the age of 50, Sturgeon is leader of the Scottish National Party, First Minister of Scotland and, according to the opinion polls, on the brink of breaking apart the three-centuries-old United Kingdom. Her predecessor as First Minister , Alex Salmond, played a pivotal role in her rise — he encouraged her to stand for Westminster in 1992 when she was just 21 and they became firm friends. “He believed in me long before I believed in myself,” she has said. Salmond, 66, and Sturgeon complemented each other well — he relished the spotlight and looking at the big picture, while she was happy to take a back seat and focus on detail. And they were united by their drive to deliver Scottish independence.
But with that dream of delivering Scottish independence in touching distance, it is all suddenly threatening to fall apart. Sturgeon’s job, her reputation and her party’s raison d’etre are on the line, and the damage is, unthinkably, being inflicted by her own side. This time, there is no hiding place.
Yesterday, Sturgeon put in a formidable eight-hour appearance before the Scottish parliament committee investigating her government’s handling of the sexual misconduct complaints against Salmond. She delivered a masterclass in argument, detail, deflection and even humour. Only once, towards the end of the day, as she reflected on the damage done to the 30-year relationship with her one-time boss and friend, was there a hint of tears. “As First Minister I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connection to get what he wants,” she told MSPs. It is likely she has done enough to see off demands for her resignation.
It was back in January 2019, that Salmond was arrested and charged with 14 offences allegedly committed while in office, including two counts of attempted rape and nine of sexual assault. In March 2020 he was cleared by a jury of all charges.
Since then, he and his supporters have been on a revenge mission against those he believes wronged him — and his main target has been Sturgeon and her allies, whom he thinks fitted him up to get him out of the way. The SNP has split into two warring camps, which are also battling over the strategy for securing independence, the cliquey style of Sturgeon’s leadership, and plans for reform of transsexual rights. Salmond’s backers want to see Sturgeon deposed. Meanwhile, two separate inquiries are under way into the Salmond scandal, the findings from which could conceivably force the First Minister from office. They are investigating what Sturgeon knew and when, the potential waste of public money, and whether she may have breached the ministerial code of conduct. It only adds to the drama that Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell is chief executive of the SNP, and is also in Salmond’s sights.
But a lot more than Sturgeon’s fortunes hangs on the events of the next few weeks and months — not least whether Scotland will ultimately decide to stay in the UK. There is a Holyrood election in May, at which the SNP is seeking a mandate to hold a second independence referendum.
For months now, polls north of the border have shown a consistent majority in favour of independence. In 2014, when the first referendum on leaving the UK was held, Scots voted 55-45 to stay. However opinion has shifted since then, mostly driven by a dislike of Brexit.
Scots voted 62-38 in favour of Remain, but the Leave majority among England’s tenfold-larger population meant Britain left the EU. This has driven up support for independence among “indy-curious”, who feel the Union is too weighted against Scotland, and that England’s values have diverged from theirs.
Boris Johnson is a problem, too. The Prime Minister could be machine-tooled to annoy Scots — a posh, Old Etonian Brexiteer who seems driven by personal ambition rather than moral purpose. He compares badly in the polls to Sturgeon, who throughout the Covid crisis has led from the front with empathy and frankness, including daily press conferences beaming her into voters’ living rooms.
Her personal trust ratings are high, while Johnson’s are subterranean. At times during the pandemic, Johnson has effectively been operating as Prime Minister of England alone, while Sturgeon makes life and death decisions about health, liberty, jobs and family for Scots. It has perhaps provided a small taste of what independence might feel like. But only up to a point. The elephant in the room remains the economic consequences of leaving the UK. The SNP government’s own figures estimate Scotland’s deficit is £15 billion, or 8.6 per cent of its GDP. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that Covid spending could drive that figure up to a whopping 26-28 per cent. Scotland has benefited from Westminster’s deep pockets during the past, difficult year. Added to this, the newly independent nation would seek to rejoin the EU, which would mean a trade border with England and the rest of the UK, currently the destination for 60 per cent of Scotland’s exports. Oil revenues are nothing like they once were. And there are unanswered questions about a new Scottish currency, and how it might impact personal finances such as mortgages, pensions and savings.
The SNP has been in power in Edinburgh since 2007. The administration has an unimpressive track record on public services and the economy — there are growing grumbles among voters, particularly over the declining state of Scotland’s once-proud education system. But still, with Scottish Labour and the Tories in weak positions the party looks on course to win an overall majority in May. At that point, Sturgeon will ask the UK government to permit a second referendum. Johnson has already made clear he will refuse, setting the scene for a fierce north-south stand-off.
However, there are indications that the various crises besetting the once-Teflon SNP might be starting to cut through to voters. Recent surveys have shown growing awareness of the divisions in the ruling party, and backing for independence seems to have dipped a little.
If this continues the Nats will be in trouble. And if they fail to secure their majority then there will be no case for a referendum, Sturgeon is likely to fall soon after. There is, therefore, all to play for. Nicola Sturgeon is undoubtedly the finest and most popular Scottish politician of her generation, but her own party may yet destroy her just when her life-long ambition is in sight. For her, and for Britain, the stakes have never been higher.
Chris Deerin is Scotland Editor of the New Statesman and Director of Reform Scotland