For all Sturgeon’s political skill, the truth is she presided over chaos

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon

It has been fascinating watching, over nearly three decades, the inexorable rise of Nicola Sturgeon as she became – in elections won if not in promises kept – one of Britain’s most successful-ever politicians.

However, it is also the case that I’ve found it truly astonishing to have been a witness to her spectacular and precipitous decline in little more than the last three months.

When writing about politics there are always surprises lurking around the corner, but watching this supremely confident woman effectively going from mistress of all she surveys to being the politician that most Scots are glad to see the back of takes a bit of getting used to.

Her departure has left her party – which once nearly captured almost every one of Scotland’s 59 constituencies – described by a former senior colleague as being in a “tremendous mess”.

Perhaps most worrying for Sturgeon (who is, like most of her political breed, intensely proud of her legacy), is the still unresolved issue of when, or even if, Police Scotland and the country’s prosecuting authority will take action over what’s known as the “missing” £600,000. This was the sum that was donated by SNP members, in a “crowdfunding” appeal, to fight a new independence referendum – a vote that never happened.

So where’s the money gone, Nicola?

That, in spite of the gushing tributes from friends and foes alike at Holyrood this week (politics at its worst, to my mind) is the question uppermost in the minds of most voters. It is without doubt the main topic of conversation throughout Scotland – the “talk of the steamie” (washhouse), as it’s described in these parts. But all we’ve had from both cops and prosecutors is a stunning silence.

Shedding a tear during a press conference following her resignation on February 15 - Jane Barlow/Pool photo via AP
Shedding a tear during a press conference following her resignation on February 15 - Jane Barlow/Pool photo via AP

I have frankly never known a rumour like this. It will simply not go away. For weeks now we keep being told that “so and so” is about to be nicked, or that it’s only a matter of time before wotsisname “gets his collar felt”.

And there’s a battle underway between Police Scotland and the Crown Office (Scotland’s prosecuting authority), about why no action has been signalled, despite the fact that the police report has been with the lawyers for weeks.

Central to the rumour mill is Peter Murrell, otherwise known as Mr Nicola Sturgeon, until very recently the chief executive of the SNP. He was forced to resign last weekend over an embarrassing row concerning how many members the party had. He had denied reports that it slumped to around 70,000 from a 125,000 high in 2019 – only to then admit that this was the true figure.

Sturgeon didn’t figure on my political horizon when I moved back to Scotland in 1994. She had been losing out continuously to Labour – then Scotland’s pre-eminent political force – in parliamentary and local government elections.

But the coming of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 provided the quick-thinking 29-year-old former lawyer with her big opportunity. Almost all the big guns in the Labour and Tory parties avoided the new parliament like the plague, leaving ample scope for ambitious thrusters like Sturgeon – already marked out by Alex Salmond as a talented protégé – to make their mark.

Beaten twice by Labour’s Gordon Jackson, she remained a regional list MSP until 2007 but had nevertheless become a force to be reckoned with. And she didn’t mind sharing her views on the state of the party with anyone who’d listen.

When the SNP polled a derisory 19 per cent of the vote in the 2005 Euro-elections she came over to my table in the parliament canteen, where I was having breakfast with my daughters, to declare: “This is hopeless. We’ve got to offer more than independence.”

The then party leader John Swinney – until recently Sturgeon’s deputy – resigned the next day.

Then deputy leader, Sturgeon delivers her address at the SNP's annual conference in 2005 - David Cheskin/PA Wire
Then deputy leader, Sturgeon delivers her address at the SNP's annual conference in 2005 - David Cheskin/PA Wire

Having been successively the SNP’s education and health spokesman, Sturgeon had little difficulty in climbing politics’ greasy pole, but her major breakthrough was as Salmond’s deputy from 2004 to 2007. He was overall party leader, but was based in the Commons, leaving it to Sturgeon to torment Labour at Holyrood.

And torment them she did, frequently embarrassing first minister Jack (now Lord) MacConnell about shortcomings in the health service – an issue that has caused her the same problems.

She was always available to the press – even those diametrically opposed to independence. Her nickname may well have been “Nippy Sweetie” – a reference to her sharp tongue – but she happily enjoyed drinks with journalists, including the Champagne we offered her when she announced her engagement to her husband, Peter Murrell.

But it was 2007 and the SNP’s first taste of power – even if it was as a minority government – that transformed the political scene in Scotland. With Sturgeon now as deputy first minister, she and first minister Salmond effectively wiped the floor with the opposition parties. The SNP soon had a firm grip on every aspect of the way Scotland was run and speedily replaced Labour as the country’s “establishment” party.

Sturgeon with her husband Peter Murrell in 2019 - Andrew Milligan
Sturgeon with her husband Peter Murrell in 2019 - Andrew Milligan

With Sturgeon in charge of the legal aspects of the move, Salmond agreed the date and details of an independence referendum with prime Minister David Cameron – set for September 2014.

She played an energetic part in the campaign – even some of her allies said she went “over the top too often” – but she did utter a statement that I still use against the nationalist cause.

She declared in a BBC TV interview that the referendum was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to achieve an independent Scotland and not a once in a generation opportunity, as others often state.

In my book, there’s a big difference between “lifetime” and “generation”. Why the BBC never uses the “lifetime” interview, the video tape of which it still possesses, is beyond me.

At any event the vote was lost and poor old Salmond’s feet didn’t touch the ground in becoming an ex-first minister. He said he resigned of his own accord and we must accept his word for that even if I’m not the only one who reckons Wee Nickie had a hand in “encouraging” Wee Eck to stand down in her favour.

Sturgeon was now all but omnipotent. Or so she thought. She raged against the UK’s Brexit vote (Scotland voted to Remain), and immediately established an action squad of civil servants to prepare for another independence referendum. But she soon discovered that there was no voter appetite for it. With successive prime ministers refusing to give the required UK government approval, Sturgeon seemed stumped. Except, she wasn’t – and so began one of the strands that brought her ultimate downfall.

With her activists beginning to bay for her blood over what they saw as her tardiness in obtaining a new referendum, she decided to sue. Her own legal advisor, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain decided that she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – rule on whether the Scottish Parliament had the legal power to hold indyref2. And so the issue was kicked upstairs to the Supreme Court.

There, Sturgeon’s audacity was rewarded with what amounted to a slap in the face when, in a unanimous verdict, the justices ruled against her.

Alex Salmond makes his last keynote speech at the SNP conference in November 2014 - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Alex Salmond makes his last keynote speech at the SNP conference in November 2014 - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

The setback angered many nationalists, who believed that Sturgeon was wrong in going to the UK’s highest court. But it was another issue, happening concurrently, that annoyed party activists and was simply anathema to most voters. This was Sturgeon’s measure to allow people as young as 16 to change their gender simply by self-declaring their intention to do so. She was vigorously opposed by the author JK Rowling and many others who claimed that the change could lead to biological males gaining access to previously female-only safe areas, like toilets and bathing areas. And although the bill passed all its stages at Holyrood, in spite of a significant SNP rebellion, it was blocked by a UK government veto on the grounds that some of its provisions affected other parts of Britain. At least one opinion poll showed that the majority of the public were opposed to the proposed change.

The controversy flared to an even greater extent when a convicted rapist, who had subsequently transitioned from male to female, was initially jailed in a female-only prison.

Sturgeon found herself further embarrassed when she and her justice minister said that because the rapist said he was a woman, he was entitled to call himself a woman.

This was the issue that, probably above all, cooked Sturgeon’s goose as First Minister. How could a biological male with a penis, who had raped two women, be termed a woman, asked just about the entire world?

Piles of praise were heaped on Sturgeon as she departed Holyrood for the last time on Thursday – not only the first female first minister but also the longest serving, eclipsing even the record set by her former predecessor and former mentor, Alex Salmond.

But for all her political nous, hobnobbing with world leaders and virtue signalling on climate change, the truth is that Sturgeon never really got to grips with Scotland’s stagnant economy.

Having nationalised the Ferguson shipyard on the Clyde, with a commitment to build two ferries for essential Hebridean island routes, her government presided over chaos.

The ferries are already five years late and are likely to now cost in excess of £300 million in taxpayers cash – against an initial estimate of £97 million.

The men and women in charge of the yard have now expressed their doubts about whether SNP ministers are committed to fully funding completion of the ships.

She has defended her higher taxes on Scotland’s middle classes – almost defying them to leave for other parts of the UK – by pointing out the benefits of staying in Scotland, from free university tuition to free prescriptions.

It’s true that many middle-income families north of the border have accepted this seemingly attractive bargain with the SNP. However, what they should be asking is whether Sturgeon’s economic policies – such as they are – have also provided for their children’s future.

That, her doomed gender bill and her determination to go down in world history as the woman who successfully smashed to smithereens the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland means Sturgeon is now toast.

Something for the Unionists among us to be grateful for, at least.

How accurate are Nicola Sturgeon’s claimed victories?

This was the list she provided in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday of her achievements in office

Progressive income tax

Some may call it progressive, but Scotland has the highest tax rate in Britain. Income tax liabilities for anyone in Scotland  earning less than £28,000 are slightly lower than the rest of the Ukk, but those on higher incomes have a greater burden than their English or Welsh counterparts. For the upcoming tax year, a Scottish citizen earning £50k will pay £1,550 more than the rest of the UK. Earn £150k and that’ll be £3,900 extra.

The Scottish child payment

Sturgeon says the Scottish Child payment has lifted children out of poverty; by the end of 2022, 184,000 children and young people were getting £25 a week. However, one in four Scottish children (24 per cent) were in relative poverty between 2019 and 2022. In years previous, between 2009 and 2019, child poverty was lower, standing between 21 and 23 per cent.

The Baby Box

In 2017, the Scottish Government pledged that parents of every baby born after 15 August that year would receive a baby box, containing £400 of essential items. Over 250,000 of these items have been given out. The initiative is not means-tested. Parents can register through their midwife. While a nice perk, this is an universal benefit that many parents don’t need.

Closing the attainment gap

This isn’t true. The gap is still widest in the poorest areas. Attainment in the most deprived areas is 0.6 percentage points lower than it was in 2017/18. There are record numbers of people from backgrounds such as mine going to university (but clever children from hard-working middle income families are denied university places).

Various boasts on education

The highest level of school spend per pupil anywhere in the UK; the highest number of teachers per head with 8 per cent more teachers now than when she became First Minister; free tuition for higher education - how is then that standards in Scotland’s schools continue to fall? In primary schools, literacy was lower in 2021/22 (70.5 per cent) than it was in 2018/19 (72.3 per cent) and 2017/18 (71.4 per cent). Numeracy has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The same downward trend in both strands applies for secondary schools.

Abolishing prescription charges for all

Another benefit for the better off - there are people capitalising on this who can well afford to pay for their medicines.

Minimum unit pricing for alcohol

This has been a mixed benefit. It has encouraged some people to stop drinking but it has made others switch to cheaper and stronger booze. A June 2022 report by Public Health Scotland found “no clear evidence” that minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland caused a “change in consumption or severity of dependence”.

Scotland has the best performing A&E departments in the UK

In March 2020, 89.2 per cent of patients were seen within four hours. By January 2023, this had toppled to 68.7 per cent.

And what about drug deaths?

Surprisingly there was nothing - not a word - on her achievements about the rate of drug deaths in Scotland. Nothing. And that is because her government is still saddled with the worst drug death record in Europe. 2021 represented the second-highest drug death toll for Scotland on record.

But we’ll always have free bus travel

Oh yes, but there is free bus travel for those under 22. I’ve nothing but praise for this one but I do hope those young people are only a bus ride away from a good job. Always assuming that some are being created.