In recent years, the Scottish National Party has pursued a formidable campaign for independence. That campaign has been built on chimeras, but they have been hugely successful ones. At a press conference this week, the SNP’s polarising leader Nicola Sturgeon gave notice of her intention to resign and took the opportunity to reflect on her successes. A more dispassionate appraisal of her eight years in power, however, reveals a mixed record of political dominance, disastrous governance, and a peculiar failure to grasp that the party was founded to gain a majority for independence.
Sturgeon’s paradoxical legacy of terrible policy outcomes and vast popular support is generally more typical of authoritarians like Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than it is of democratically elected officials (although the misbegotten war in Ukraine and the fallout from the Turkish earthquake have left Putin and Erdoğan, respectively, looking less secure than ever before). Yet Sturgeon’s policy failings seemed to make little impression on her voters. Like her predecessor Alex Salmond—once her mentor, now her enemy—she shored up her constituency with effective populist appeals to Scottish patriotism.
But Sturgeon’s brand of populism differed from that seen elsewhere in the world in an important respect—it was couched in progressive, sometimes radically progressive, rhetoric and projects. While leaders like Trump and Orbán have drawn support by attacking political correctness, Sturgeon declared herself its ardent advocate and a “passionate feminist” of the intersectional kind. Her unstinting support for gender self-identification laws, in particular, precipitated a hugely damaging row that may well have helped to bring her leadership to a premature end and derailed the prospect of independence for at least a generation.
The controversial positions she adopted on certain culture-war issues, however, coexisted with more conventional populist themes, and she and her party pressed these with determination. First, she held that the British Union had never worked in Scotland’s favour. Indeed, to hear Sturgeon describe it, the relationship between the two nations amounted to a strategy of Scottish oppression. The most obvious sign of this was the refusal—by a succession of Conservative prime ministers, and more recently, the UK’s supreme court—to allow a second referendum on independence after the SNP lost the first in 2014 by a 55/45 percent margin. Sturgeon insisted that this was proof that the Union was not a voluntary partnership “if it ever was a reality.”
Second, Sturgeon accused the British state of illegitimately appropriating the proceeds of “Scotland’s Oil,” while it governed Scotland remotely and badly. At present, 60–70 percent of Scotland’s exports go to the UK, but the European Union, she argued, represents a much larger market and would duly become Scotland’s main trading partner once the nation joined the EU as an independent state. Furthermore, when Scotland snapped the cords binding it to the UK, every kind of public service—health, welfare, education, transport—would improve.
Such arguments were no doubt rhetorically effective, but the practical realities of Scottish governance under the SNP have been a good deal less encouraging. In matters of education policy, Sturgeon either flailed or simply absented herself. Scotland’s once-vaunted education system has declined on the SNP’s watch, and declined in the area that it had promised to do most good. Working-class kids, who could most benefit from good teaching, had their school budgets cut, while classes of fewer than 18 children were available to just one-in-seven primary school pupils. University students, whose debt Sturgeon promised to cut, have seen it rise instead. When international surveys exposed this alarming drop in standards, she dismissed their findings and withdrew from them.
As health minister between 2007 and 20012, Sturgeon devoted much more time and attention to preparing for the 2014 referendum on independence (which was, after all, her party’s purpose) than she did to improving the wellbeing of Scotland’s population. According to the British Medical Association chairman Dr Iain Kennedy, the National Health Service in Scotland is “broken.” It is now in worse shape than in the rest of the UK and under great strain. Scotland’s drug deaths, which she promised her policies would reduce, are now the highest in Europe.
Transport is now more expensive and less available than before the SNP took over. Train services have been cut, while ferries to the many inhabited islands off the west coast have not been renewed as promised. A ferry I took recently, although still serviceable, was made in Poland two decades ago. New ferries contracted to a shipyard on the Clyde now cost half a billion pounds, and remain unfinished and years overdue.
The EU is certainly a bigger market than the UK, but it is already awash with the commodities which Scotland best produces—electronics, food, and drink. The EU protocol for joining the union is lengthy and complicated and requires the prospective member state to have its own currency and its own central bank—Scotland has neither. And since Scotland is part of another nation state, it will need to obtain Britain’s permission to secede before it can even contemplate joining the EU. And yet Sturgeon has refused to acknowledge the daunting challenges that severing Scotland’s ties to Britain and remaking them with the European Union present.
With such a dismal track record, how has the departing First Minister managed to remain so popular? And why has the SNP wiped the floor with the pro-unionist parties—Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats—for most of the 21st century? It is because the party and its last two leaders successfully married national pride and memory (real or false) to anger at the de-industrialisation of Scotland and longstanding resentment against the English. They have managed this feat even in areas where relations can be—and usually are—perfectly amicable.
The SNP has identified England and the English political class—especially the governing Conservative Party—as hostile forces. This identification was made easier by Brexit, which the Scots decisively rejected but the costs of which have been imposed on its citizens even so. The election of Boris Johnson as prime minister also provided Scotland’s nationalists with a large and inviting target—upper class, Eton-educated, and plummy-voiced, his clownish behaviour and erratic performance as Britain’s leader contrasted with Sturgeon’s commanding public displays of what looked like efficiency and control.
The perception that post-Brexit England is a decrepit and snobbish post-imperialist wreck has only assisted advocates of the Scottish nationalist project. These have included the most prominent Scots poet of the 20th century, Hugh MacDiarmid, the Booker prizewinning novelist James Kelman, and most influentially, the writer and polemicist Tom Nairn, who died earlier this year at 90 and was a staunch and largely uncritical supporter of the nationalists. In his book, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism, Nairn describes England as “an indefensible and inadaptable relic, neither properly archaic nor properly modern” which suffers from a “long-term irreversible degeneration … within the hopeless decaying institutions of a lost imperial state.”
The belief that the English are still clinging to the idea of empire is commonly invoked by Scottish and (especially) Irish intellectuals and commentators as a way of explaining the popularity of Brexit in England, even though there’s no real evidence that this is the case. But populism relies on such easily recognisable stereotypes, and the English and the United Kingdom were the enemy upon which populist grievance fed and grew fat. Populism needs myths to underpin a sense of superiority, and these too proliferated. Above all, populism requires a promised land, to which the leader can bring the nation, where its needs will be met and its culture respected.
Now that Sturgeon is preparing to leave, her raw talent for populism will be hard to find, in or out of the party. She must know that defending the SNP’s dire record in government without the force of personality and rhetorical verve which she and Salmond brought to the leadership will be beyond the reach of any successor. Economists have argued for decades that Scottish independence will lead to impoverishment rather than enrichment: these arguments will now receive a wider acceptance.
The likelihood of a majority for independence now is remote, but Scotland will retain a large minority who believe in the necessity for independence. Sturgeon exhausted herself in the cause, and alarmed most Scots with her campaign to institute the most radical form of gender transitioning. The party will now descend into factional strife, and the rise of a plausible leader who can unite and fight again is likely to be some way off. What is needed now is a wide and measured debate on the future, not just of Scotland, but of the UK constitution—one which has been hovering, unattended, in the wings of politics for decades. The welcome end of the Salmond-Sturgeon era gives space for that, and it cannot be allowed to close.