Nicola Sturgeon and Scotland’s Unspoken Political Consensus

While Nicola Sturgeon is widely regarded as a progressive icon abroad, her resignation is the direct result of her failure to live up to promises of ending austerity, decarbonising the economy and standing up for the working class.
In power for almost a decade, Sturgeon profoundly transformed Scottish politics. But that doesn’t mean Scotland is a more just society than it was when she took power.
In power for almost a decade, Sturgeon profoundly transformed Scottish politics. But that doesn’t mean Scotland is a more just society than it was when she took power.

On 16 February, Nicola Sturgeon resigned as First Minister of Scotland and as leader of the Scottish National Party. Sturgeon’s decision to end her eight year tenure as First Minister was met with surprise within her Party and across Scotland. The FM has been central to Scotland’s political framework for over a decade and, consequently, Sturgeon’s departure has ramifications far beyond the fate of the SNP.

As Sturgeon acknowledged in her resignation speech, Scotland is a changed place from when she took on the job after the 2014 referendum. Since then, Sturgeon has been the architect of a carefully crafted new Scottish political consensus. This uncodified accord convenes civic society, the corporate lobby and the political class. It’s more than triangulation. Unlike Scotland's international reputation as a progressive beacon in Tory Britain suggests, the Scottish Government sits at the core of a cosy neo-liberal harmony. 

Sturgeon’s efforts have been successful. Scottish politics has been sent to sleep because, when special interests are catered for, there is little left to do. This post-2014 status-quo depends upon the symbiotic relationship of ‘progressive’ presentation and, at best, managerial class-neutral politics. The result of this is a Scottish Government happy to intervene on behalf of the individual – take the ‘Baby Box’, for example – but far less inclined to serve the collective. More than one in four Scottish children grow up in poverty, in spite of their Baby Box, a package of useful baby products now sent to every newborn in Scotland. 

To assess Sturgeon's legacy and the impact of her resignation, the lasting strength of the consensus she built must be interrogated, as must the state of her party and the movement for Scottish self-determination which propelled her to power. 

The final few months of Sturgeon's tenure have seen accelerated attempts to asset strip Scotland. In January, the Scottish Government heralded the arrival of two ‘Green Freeports’. These ‘free enterprise zones’ will effectively operate outside of national borders and escape democratic accountability. They provide low-tax, deregulated playgrounds for private capital, offering multinational corporations an opportunity to slash worker’s wages, terms and conditions.

However, for those who followed last year’s ScotWind auction, the advent of freeports won’t come as a surprise. In 2022, Sturgeon’s government sold Scotland’s offshore wind capacity to the planet’s largest fossil fuel corporations. Having abandoned their commitment to establish a national energy company, the government opted not to kickstart a just transition, but to empower the likes of Shell and BP. Since the auction, 71% of Scotwind’s manufacturing spending has left Scotland, the promise of jobs has disappeared and proceeding offshore auctions have raised up to 40 times what Scotwind did. This fire sale seems only to have handed multinational capitalism another slice of the Scottish economy. 

Furthermore, design for the Scottish Government’s flagship National Care Service has been outsourced to PricewaterhouseCoopers. This international consultancy firm – with vested interest in the private provision of healthcare – has outlined a bill roundly denounced by trade unions, local government and service users as unfit for purpose. The current draft leaves the door wide open for taxpayer’s money to be funnelled to private care providers.

There is a pattern here which cuts to the heart of how politics works in Scotland. Whilst promising progressive change, Nicola Sturgeon has presided over the slow carve up of the Scottish state. For the most part, that progressive change never arrived. Promises to change the outdated council tax system, close the attainment gap and solve Scotland’s drugs deaths crisis all remain undelivered. Meanwhile, services are on the slide. How then has Sturgeon performed this balancing act, where Scots receive so little in return for their votes? By depoliticising politics.

The Scottish Independence movement is itself a casualty of SNP rule. Today the insurgent, anti-establishment force of the 2014 referendum campaign is nowhere to be seen. Its energy has been steadily sapped by the Party, who have come to rely on the movement’s activity at election time, but otherwise neglect it. Similarly, within the SNP membership dissent is non-existent. With the notable exception of the Gender Recognition Reform bill, the party leadership have their way with little public criticism. Independence supporters are marched to the top of the hill every few years with the promise of a second referendum, but are led back down again as soon as SNP victory is secured. Most recently, Sturgeon herself proposed a referendum on 20 October 2023. It’s now clear that won’t happen, in the same way that her ‘De Facto referendum’ strategy (the suggestion the next General Election should be treated as a vote on Scottish independence) is now unravelling. Despite the SNP having been in power for every year of the decade since the 2014 referendum, the realisation of independence looks no more likely today than it did then. The independence movement is a tool deployed to ensure the dominance of neoliberalism.

In Scotland, local democracy has been decimated by cuts. Rather than sites of resistance, councils, barely able to provide essential services, have become little more than administrative bodies. Far from simply passing Westminster’s austerity agenda down the chain, this practice forms an essential plank of the SNP’s project. At its best, local government can provide an alternative to neoliberalism, can reorganise local economies and give power to the people. The achievements of Labour’s administration in North Ayrshire prove this. Depressing the potential of local government through underfunding is essential, therefore, to the SNP’s dominance.

This tactic extends to the Scottish Parliament. At Holyrood the SNP insist that, despite their wishes, Scotland’s constitutional settlement leaves them powerless to affect radical change. This assertion has been disproved time and again, most recently by a report stating that, with the political will, the Scottish Government could fund real-terms pay rises for public sector workers. However, this politics affects more than the SNP. The paralysis engulfs all political parties at Holyrood because all are served by the continued existence of constitutional polarisation. For as long as the SNP talk of, but do not give serious credence to, the independence question, the electoral bases of both nationalist and unionists parties are safe and the status quo is secure in the hands of the Scottish Government. 

An important but less talked about aspect of this consensus is the close proximity of the Scottish Government to civic society. Sturgeon was smart to recognise the influence of the third sector in a society that, despite its deep social conservatism, wanted to believe it was outward looking and progressive. It didn’t take long for Sturgeon to win the approval of those organisations which orbit government. This served the SNP’s interest too, filling the gap created by their class neutrality. Civic Scotland were now co-conspirators to their new consensus. 

With all of these potential sites of opposition left powerless, by hook or by crook, Sturgeon and the SNP were left free to govern largely as they pleased, within the confines of the devolutionary settlement. This should be recognised for the remarkable feat it is, orchestrated by a highly capable politician. In times of trouble, when cracks in this consensus have emerged, Sturgeon’s ability as a politician and personal popularity has been used to paper over the cracks. £240 million of public money, for example, appears to have been wasted in Scotland’s ferry scandal. Impropriety which you might expect to bring down a government, but which has barely touched Sturgeon. 

It is precisely because of this style of politics that those searching for a definitive legacy for Nicola Sturgeon have come up short. In managing the political sphere as successfully as she has, Sturgeon has kept debate over the transfer of wealth and power taking place on her watch to a minimum. This goes some way to explaining why this consensus has received popular support at election after election. 

The SNP have profited from a process of class dealignment in Scottish politics. Since well before the independence referendum, class as a means of explaining electoral results became blurred amidst constitutional polarisation. This suited Sturgeon’s SNP, who would oppose austerity at Westminster but wave cuts through at Holyrood. By focusing on the constitution, Sturgeon built an electoral coalition as strong in Labour’s former industrial heartlands as it was in the Outer Hebrides. It was a politics that could be working class and simultaneously not. 

In this context, it is perhaps no wonder that Sturgeon has chosen to leave office amidst a wave of industrial militancy not before seen on the SNP’s watch. The last 12 months have seen local government and rail workers take industrial action, their sights firmly set on the Scottish Government. Scotland’s teachers joined them with multiple days of national strike action, closing schools across the country. Sturgeon may have been able to carefully manage the political sphere to advance capital’s interests, but she does not appear able to quell the will of the organised working class. If Sturgeon could not do this, it is seriously unlikely that her successor will. 

As she announced her resignation, Sturgeon was careful to stress that “the SNP is full of talented individuals more than up to that task.” However, after seeing the contenders to replace Sturgeon, it didn’t take long for one influential party member to publicly demand that another candidate enter the race. Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes were “damaging the Party.” This is unsurprising. It’s an obvious consequence of the dominance of managerialism and class-neutrality. The benches behind Sturgeon are dominated by administrators, and not very good ones. Humza Yousaf – the favourite to succeed Sturgeon – is currently Scottish health secretary having failed upwards first as transport minister, then as justice secretary. The outcry around Kate Forbes’ candidacy – that she is opposed to gay marriage, self-identification and having children outside of marriage – is also a result of Scotland’s political framework. Forbes has risen through the ranks of the SNP to serve as finance secretary for three years with little complaint about her social views. This is because she is perfect for the SNP. Forbes has quietly managed her portfolios and tinkered with the neoliberal orthodoxy only when it is most necessary. Consequently, her views, like Yousaf’s incompetence, are only a problem now that the person key to the consensus, which served them both so well, has resigned.  

Much has been made of the fact that the upcoming leadership election will be the SNP’s first for 20 years. As a single-issue party, the SNP is naturally broad. Whilst the candidates on the ballot may represent a range of views, in many ways what’s on offer could not be more narrow. No candidate will dare to question the unspoken political consensus that Sturgeon has built – a consensus geared against the many. However, whether the First Minister’s successor will prove capable of preserving that consensus, amidst rising class consciousness and falling living standards, is a different question. It looks unlikely. 

Coll McCail is a Scottish climate activist. He writes for the Progressive International and represents young members on Scottish Labour’s executive committee.

Photo: Number 10, Flickr

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Nicola Sturgeon and Scotland’s Unspoken Political Consensus

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