Saturday 7 January 2023

A big change in 2023?

There was an assumption among the commentariat in their predictions for the new year that, politically, nothing much will change. I beg to disagree.

Say what you like about Nicola Sturgeon, she is formidable politician. She has accomplished not only dominance over her own Party and Scottish Television, both of which she admittedly pays for with public money, but also over wider Scottish Civil society. There was polling towards the end of last year about name recognition of Scottish politicians. She was completely off the chart as opposed to anybody else of any Party. Including, it should be noted, her own Party, where the now departed Ian Blackford at Westminster was better known than any other SNP Holyrood politician. 

But at some point this runs in to a wall. Although Sturgeon hasn't to date admitted it, there will not be a second referendum, de facto or otherwise, this year. And, one suspects, after the "de facto referendum" special conference it will be clear that there will not be a referendum, de facto or otherwise, in 2024 either. And when the dust settles on the 2024 General Election? If Labour has won, there still won't be a referendum but the political landscape would be transformed. No longer would it be "Only Independence can save us from the evil Tories". For we would have been "saved" from the Tories, evil or otherwise. If it is a hung Parliament then the SNP will face the prospect of voting with the self same evil Tories or becoming Labour lobby fodder. If they don't want to lose their seats in short order, the SNP at Westminster will face a Hobson's choice in that regard, but they'll be left sitting in Westminster for a purpose other than advocating "Freeeeedum!" The internal SNP politics of that will  be.....................challenging. For, despite it being a ludicrous proposition,  there are undoubtedly a fair number of Nats who are capable of holding in their heads at the same time the idea that, although the Tories are "evil", it is a matter of indifference whether they or the Labour Party are in power at Westminster. Even Nicola's formidable abilities as a Party manager will struggle to manage that. And finally, just for completeness, there is of course a third possible UK General Election result, an outright Tory victory. But what would that mean? The status quo and no referendum for (at least) another five years. And nothing to be done about it.

So, remaining leader of the SNP and First Minister long, or even medium, term has limited attractions. Scotland is not having a referendum, let alone achieving independence for at least ten years. There is of course the fame and the money but fame has its downside. A proper private life is almost impossible. No wandering down to the paper shop on a Sunday morning in your slippers and joggers but without your teeth. No opportunity to have an uninhibited night out. No freedom to tell idiots they are just that (a particular problem if you are regularly mixing with people in the SNP).

And as for the money? It is impolite to talk about personal remuneration being a consideration for politicians but it undoubtedly is. I suspect however for the very reasons above about the limitations on a personal life, Ms Sturgeon has not had much opportunity to spend much of what she has earned since 2014. If required, I also doubt she would have much difficulty securing a position with some sort of international quango. Even her worst enemies do not dispute she is an intelligent person with a proven ability to work hard.

So what is the reason for Sturgeon to hang on? There is of course the appreciation that, for her to leave the stage would be tacit admission that the game was up, at least for the duration of her potential future time in office. But she knows that anyway and perhaps better to depart the stage than to face the groundhog day of assuring SNP Conference twice a year that a referendum is just around the corner, with ever decreasing credibility? Then there is the fact that there will be a UK Election in 2024 and Sturgeon is, on any view, the Nats most formidable campaigner. But she was younger and fitter and fresher in 2017 and that didn't stop her losing twenty one seats. Such a reverse again might well lead to circumstance where her departure was, at least perceived to be, not entirely voluntary. Then there the issue of a managed succession. That has to happen before Holyrood 2026 if Sturgeon plans to be gone by then or indeed, failing defeat at the polls, then plans to depart not before at least 2028. 

Leadership contests involving Parties in power are inevitably blood baths. Don't just consider what happened among the Tories last year, look at how Gordon Brown was anxious to avoid this in 2007, the SNP themselves in 2014 and indeed Rishi at the end(?) of the Tory Thirty Month War. Sturgeon has no obvious successor. Yousaf is useless and the SNP know that. Robertson, one suspects Sturgeon's chosen successor, has clearly decided he would rather travel the world at public expense than do the hard yards and, among the current Cabinet, Swinney, the day before yesterdays man, and possibly (Keith) Brown are nonetheless the only other people you would trust to run a tap.  I exclude from this the undoubtedly able Kate Forbes on the basis that, with a new baby and a distant constituency she genuinely doesn't want the job. 

So there will be a contest wider than the current cabinet and it will be a bloodbath and Sturgeon must know that. And if she is, as she surely must be, seized of the desire to avoid that bloodbath on the eve of an election, either 2024 or 2026?  Everything, both from a personal and wider political point of view, then says Sturgeon goes this year. Possibly as soon as the de facto referendum  "strategy" collapses. And then, well here is something for your consideration. leadership contests can also mark generational change. 

The quality of the SNP back benches leave a fair bit to be desired. But they now have a new member. I have never met Ash Regan but, before she shot to fame over the last few weeks, I knew of her by reputation through her former junior Ministerial position as inter alia the Legal Aid Minister. She was highly thought of in that capacity: on top of her brief; sympathetic to reasoned argument; not afraid to say immediately that she was unsympathetic to not so reasoned argument. 

She has emerged with great credit from the the Gender Recognition debate. You don't have to agree with her views on this matter to respect a politician prepared to pay a personal sacrifice for their beliefs. Equally, her ability to deliver compelling Chamber speeches written by herself contrasted bluntly with the inability of the Minister "in charge" of the Bill to even properly read out speeches written for her by others. Regan looked the part of a politician on the way up; Robison as someone utterly out of her depth and surely shortly out in any other capacity. 

But there is something more. I doubt very much that the ludicrous Gender Recognition Bill in its current form, would ever have commanded a majority at an SNP Conference. Those former stalwarts who have departed for Alba are not truthfully much different from the remaining SNP rank and file and there is little doubt where Alba stands, more or less unanimously, on this matter. The Bill is very much the creature of Sturgeon and a small group of trans activists who have attached themselves to the SNP cause. But of course the Bill, in detail, was never put to an SNP Conference. However if the Bill is not passed in to law, which seems to me almost inevitable, and there might then be then an SNP members vote about whether to walk away from another attempt? Particularly if there is little to choose between the candidates on the national question, this might easily become a key issue in a leadership contest.  

Sometimes you are simply in the right place at the right time without having actually planned to be there. Margaret Thatcher; Tony Blair;  Angela Merkel; Voldoymyr Zelensky,

Ash Regan? 


  1. Ash Regan? Hopefully not. The last thing we need is a respected, competent, and not highly devisive SNP leader pushing independence.

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