Cautious Sturgeon needs to find a mission
As she prepares to mark a year as First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is surely the envy of politicians across the United Kingdom.
The SNP Sturgeon leads is now the party of preference of a majority of Scots. The nationalists may have lost last year’s independence referendum but they are on course for a third victory - and a second majority - in the Scottish Parliament election next May.
The SNP’s remarkable achievement of winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the General Election cemented Sturgeon’s position as the dominant figure in Scottish politics.
Her fellow party leaders - mere mortals, all - can only dream of the sort of approval ratings enjoyed by Sturgeon. She will be returned to power next year not only by nationalists but by some unionists, too.
Scottish Labour, under Kezia Dugdale, and Ruth Davidson’s Tories, meanwhile, are locked in a battle to become the official opposition.
But although Sturgeon finds herself standing on top of a mountain of political capital, the SNP has recently begun to look vulnerable.
There's been scandal - the suspension of MP Michelle Thomson over allegations about property deals, the award of a £150,000 government grant to the organisers of the profitable T in the Park music festival after a meeting brokered by a former SNP adviser - and there’s been political ineptitude, most notably when the nationalists were put on the back foot by a Labour pledge to use Holyrood’s powers to overturn tax credit cuts.
Potentially more damaging is the lack of a mission at the heart of Sturgeon’s government. Having kicked the idea of a second referendum into the fairly long grass of 2021 at the earliest, the Scottish Government needs a new focus, and soon.
Since its first Holyrood election victory in 2007, the SNP has done a great job of creating the impression that it’s dynamic and radical in government.
This impression conceals the reality, which is that the SNP talks a better game than it plays. The party has underspent in the Scottish NHS (while arguing that only it could save the health service from Westminster) and overseen a decline in literacy and numeracy standards among children.
The SNP could get away nobody noticing this sort of thing while it was in the heat of referendum battle. In those days, any failing was nothing more then evidence of the damaging nature of the UK. Just imagine how much worse things would be if the good old SNP wasn’t fighting the good fight on Scotland’s behalf.
But now the Scottish Government’s lack of substance is starting to show.
Sturgeon and her deputy First Minister John Swinney are both talented politicians but beyond that pair, the Scottish cabinet is not awash with talent. Mediocre ministers mean Sturgeon and her number two are involved in a great deal of micromanagement rather than driving forward any kind of meaningful agenda.
The SNP has all the right lines about standing up for Scotland but it doesn’t seem to have any accompanying moves.
As Alex Bell, a former adviser to Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond wrote on Monday, “Nicola Sturgeon knows the SNP is good at misdirection. The party’s success has been built on hard work and spin.”
Sturgeon may be radical in word but she’s church-mouse cautious in deed. Unless she gambles with some of her political capital and sets a new agenda, she may find it’s diminished by circumstances outwith her control.
The First Minister has made it plain that a second independence referendum is not a priority. What, then, is the Scottish Government’s priority? Having reached the highest office in Scotland, what does Nicola Sturgeon want to achieve?
The answer to that is not entirely clear.