Courtesy of a Christmas present from my wife, Andrea, I have just returned from a short break in the Sicilian capital, Palermo. As many of you will know from Twitter, I have travelled all over Italy, Palermo was probably my twentieth or so regional capital, and I have also travelled widely in Sicily alone but I have never previously been to Palermo. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a mistake. It is a wonderful city with great squares, churches and other public buildings throughout. It might not be Bologna when it comes to sit down food but its street food is magnificent. And, although we were there in the middle of February, so was the weather. Warm enough to eat the self same street food outside in comfort in the evenings and, indeed, warm enough to wander about by day in nothing more than a light jumper. All in the most astonishing quality of light. I cannot commend it too much.
But while in Palermo you really need to visit the wonderful cathedral in nearby Monreale, which we resolved to do on Wednesday 15th February, our penultimate day. I had actually been there before on a day trip, perhaps 25 years past, from nearby Cefalu but this had not been the most satisfactory of experiences as, in the very high Summer I drove in prescription sunglasses only to realise that this meant, on arrival, that I was faced with the choice of taking them off, and being unable to see the detail of the wonderful mosaics for which the cathedral is famous, or leaving them on and thus seeing not very much at all. This time I would make no such mistake. And the mosaics were wonderful. Hence the photo with which I start.
But, let's be honest, few people read my blogs for a travelogue. Which is why I have specified the date of our visit.
You reach Monreale by a bus from a terminus on Via Indepenza just outside the wall to the north of the city. From there the bus climbs continuously up, providing increasingly spectacular views of the Mediterranean as you go. En route I nonetheless had a wee look at twitter (I know!) causing La Signora Andrea to express annoyance at my distraction. I noticed however that a couple of Scottish political journalists were expressing surprise as to being called to an unanticipated press conference. For fear of the formidable signora, I put my phone away before returning to it only after having seen the Cathedral and its almost as wonderful cloister.
But that having been done, we repaired, as one does, to a bar by the side of the Cathedral where I once again had a look at my phone. Sturgeon had resigned! Instead of my intended cappuccino, I ordered a large beer and even Andi, who doesn't normally drink very much, resolved upon a Cuba Libre.
I have the experience of three shock political resignations. The first was when Harold Wilson resigned and I was informed of this by a Tory opponent in the beer bar in Glasgow University Union. I was so incredulous that I phoned my mother for confirmation. The second was when Mrs. Thatcher fell and I learned of it from a Court Cop at Airdrie Sheriff Court as I waited to see a Sheriff to try and interdict a Poll Tax Warrant Sale. This was the third.
If Sturgeon has no legacy beyond this, she certainly resigned in the most beautiful of these three settings.
Yet, while the precise timing of the event might have been a surprise, the fact of it happening sometime around now was not. For I had predicted it on myself on 7th January
If you look at a lot of the commentary, as to why since Wednesday as to why she has had to go it seems to consist only of what was staring these commentators (and me) in the face at the turn of the year. There is and was no way forward for independence. To to steal a line from Yaz, for Sturgeon, the only way was down.
Anyway, here is the question, given that, who exactly would want the job?
Do not forget there are two jobs on offer here. First Minister of Scotland, certainly, and which ambitious politician wouldn't want that? You get well paid and, in Scotland at least, get to enjoy "showbusiness for ugly people"
Except there is also a second job, leader of the SNP. And it is that job Sturgeon has decided she needs to leave.
And who at this point would want that?
For, as I say, the only way is down.
Now, this is where personal position and political calculation come together.
I start with the political.
There is a poll today suggesting that the SNP might lose half their Westminster seats at the next UK General Election. A poll carried out before their most well known, and regarded, politician resigned. I make no bold prediction in suggesting that, even are things are not as bad as that, the Nats are likely to lose a fair number of MPs in (most likely) the Autumn of 2024.
Now Sturgeon survived such a reverse in 2017 but could say, implicitly, that they only had these seats to lose in the first place because she had won them to start with. So her survival then was never in doubt.
But if her successor presides over a, probably worse, reverse? And the Party is then staring down the loss of Holyrood with all the loss of profile and sinecures and patronage that would follow?
So let's not assume this would be the last change of SNP Leadership before Holyrood 2026.
And that is where the personal comes in.
The blindingly obvious successor to Sturgeon is Kate Forbes. But the time is not right for her. She is still on maternity leave. She also has three step children with her widower husband. For both reasons it is difficult to see that she could easily move her principal home and establishment from her Highland Constituency to Edinburgh as the job of First Minister would necessitate. It is certainly possible for my feminist colleagues to say that "this isn't fair" but it is also just life. Everything else you know about Ms. Forbes says that she would not neglect her child or her step children in pursuit of political ambition. I applaud her for that.
But here is where I have a sense of deja vu and a more shocking sudden vacancy, when Donald Dewar died.
Then, there were three obvious candidates to succeed him. None of whom won (first time round), For two of them were young(ish) women for whom the time was not right. The third was eventual FM, Jack McConnell. He was the obvious choice but, then, the assumption was that a competent Labour FM would be in post forever. So the solution was for them to rally around the utterly inadequate figure of Henry McLeish who big Donald himself had decided, during his penultimate illness, was not even capable of being temporary First Minister. Their assumption was that after a few years he'd have to go and they'd be personally better placed to challenge for the job. As indeed Henry did, only much sooner than anybody anticipated. Whereupon the prize fell to Jack on an essentially "told you so" basis. And without even a contest. So here is my prediction. Forbes won't stand. But she will in time be the next SNP candidate for popular election as First Minister. For the other runners are utterly inadequate.