There was a time, not that long ago, when all Nicola Sturgeon had to do to win rave reviews south of the border – with the media if not the voters – was to pitch up on one of the Sunday shows, or on Radio 4. For liberal-left voters of an anti-Brexit hue from 2014-2016 Sturgeon was perfect. Why, those of that view asked south of the border, can’t we vote for her?
Back then the leaders’ club in the UK was largely a boys’ club, in the form of Cameron, Miliband/Corbyn and Clegg. Scotland’s First Minister seemed to offer a refreshing contrast. Immaculately tailored in bright colours she stood out against a Westminster backdrop of men in boring suits. Sturgeon as the by turns serene and then sharp stateswoman was a good routine, and it worked for the SNP in Scotland and in the UK media until Brexit threw a large spanner in the works.
Brexit meant the end of the Westminster boys’ club. Theresa May became Prime Minister and Sturgeon became, to an extent, old news. Ruth Davidson, the dynamic Scottish Tory leader, simultaneously started to connect with Scottish voters who increasingly found the SNP’s whiny obsession with a second independence referendum annoying.
Now there’s a general election underway, in which the SNP narrative of a remorseless march to independence might – might – be halted or reversed in a rather embarrassing fashion.
As the Conservatives – Nasty Torees, Bad Torees, Naughty Torees – have increased their support it has had a visibly unsettling effect on the SNP leader. Her soundbites are more shrill in tone than they used to be and she looks like an annoyed person trying, and failing, to avoid showing her annoyance. It must be baffling. For decades calling someone a Toree has been enough to win the political moral high ground north of the border. Suddenly, it is not quite enough. That clearly makes for a discombobulating experience for the SNP leader, especially when voters and the UK media are no longer dazzled and demand answers on the SNP’s woeful record on education, the subject Sturgeon once chose as her supposed priority. The latest findings on education were shocking. Scotland is performing poorly and the SNP has ballsed it up because it is too busy doing what it exists to do.
The party only ever has one real priority, and that is winning independence. All else is a means to end. It is utterly obsessed, but the majority of Scottish voters who do not share the obsession have started to notice that rather than the Nationalists offering technocratic devolved competence, as promised, they instead serve up worse than mediocre fare.
There were flashes of the old assured Sturgeon on Marr and Peston this weekend. She gets on, she said, with the “girl job” of running the country and her husband does the cooking, a riff on May’s “girl and boy jobs” remarks in the BBC’s One Show interview last week. Actually, the assertion by Sturgeon was a bit disingenuous. Sturgeon’s husband is chief executive of the SNP. Is there a more relentlessly political couple this side of the Clintons?
Unfortunately for Sturgeon, the puffed-up SNP is now suffering the Scottish equivalent of trouble in Michigan, with voters who had been taken for granted growing sceptical and the leadership reduced to doing what used to work – shouting evil “Torees” – in the hope that it magically starts working again. It is not working, yet, although it is conceivable it could rally support in the final weeks.
The media is biting back too. On the Marr show on Sunday, in particular, Sturgeon was most unconvincing on the state of Scotland’s schools.
Added to that, the party’s Brexit strategy is very obviously and publicly unravelling. After Scotland voted Remain (62-38) and the rest of the UK did otherwise, the SNP thought that it would infuriate Scots and power the final push to independence. That simply didn’t happen because many people sensibly see that the negotiations will be complex and think it is probably best getting all that done before even thinking about overturning the 2014 pro-Union vote. This realism gives an extra piquancy to the SNP failing to get on with its devolved day job.
Sturgeon is now stuck. Her case on the EU defies basic logic. Brexit and leaving the EU is supposedly so terrible that there should be a second independence referendum within two years, to get Scotland back into the EU. Yet now, because a third of Nats voted for Brexit, the SNP has shifted away from EU membership, the very thing which is supposed to necessitate independence. Sturgeon will probably soon have to commit to a referendum on the EU, if she wants to deal somehow with the contradiction.
The unravelling is so rapid and interesting precisely because the three aspects of the SNP’s problem – being exposed on Brexit, domestic policy failure and the perception of Sturgeon having fallen for her own hype – are mutually self-reinforcing. Each when mentioned amplifies the other.
The SNP will, of course, win the most seats in Scotland on June 8th. It made such vast advances in 2015 – winning 56 out of 59 seats – that it could not do otherwise. The SNP election machine is formidable and honed to something akin to perfection. But the party on current trends is headed backwards, when, as I keep pointing out, its entire schtick is supposed to be forward momentum towards the supposedly glorious day of independence.
In response, the clearly spooked SNP leadership is behaving just as parties on the turn usually behave. After the extraordinary rise and years of ceaseless advance, the SNP leadership has grown a wee bit too smug and finds itself ill-equipped to adapt or respond to changed circumstances. It’s very funny to watch.