Here's what was behind Nicola Sturgeon's spate of selfies at COP26 - Brian Monteith

There are few things currently more certain in British politics than the fact Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, is a polarising figure. Over the last two weeks her performance around the fringes of COP26 in Glasgow has elevated her divisiveness to a new art form, literally.
Nicola Sturgeon with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez having tracked down some Irn Bru.Nicola Sturgeon with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez having tracked down some Irn Bru.
Nicola Sturgeon with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez having tracked down some Irn Bru.

Like the Edinburgh International Festival the COP26 fringe is bigger than the main event and offered a prime opportunity for the First Minister to mix with the truly virtuous, those cosplaying the role and those, well, still burning coal.

Milling around with her publicly funded entourage that included advisors and media aides having the task of spotting her victims, minders to avoid unwelcome media approaches and a photographer for when a selfie might be inappropriate, more than 84 photos have been on my Twitter feed, probably a hundred by the close of conference.

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When it was happening it was performance art, helped by Greta Thunberg looking at first like she was chewing a wasp for being used, before grimacing a forced smile for the lens. Now, afterwards, might we expect a touring exhibition to GOMA in New York, or photo galleries in Brussels and Barcelona (but not Quebec) so the various multilateral agencies and NGO’s don’t forget who she is?

I do not mean to come over as a cynic, I am simply calling it as I see it – but nor am I a fool to believe this was all for the good of Scotland. No, this was all to suit Nicola Sturgeon’s agenda and I actually think in those terms she put on a stellar show.

If you look at what just passed us by and is being presented as statecraft you cannot deny that Sturgeon delivered a magisterial, if shameless, performance. Did President Biden Tweet as many photographs with other heads of state, minor potentates or regional functionaries? No, in older more naïve times Roy Castle would be presenting her on Record Breakers and asking her how she might better her own record in future. Think of all the young impressionable minds she might convert to the cause...

Nicola Sturgeon is like any politician, she has needs. And this is what it is about and is the standard by which she must be measured. What Scotland needs does not come into it.

The SNP leader needs to be loved and admired by her supporters so they will work to keep her in power when they are beginning to doubt her true motives. The First Minister needs to improve her personal popularity ratings with the wider public, which have been on a downward trend of late. She needed to make it look like she was relevant at COP26 although she had no formal role, confounding Boris Johnson in the process. She needed to deflect attention away from her poor climate record, never mind the embarrassing state of Glasgow or the public services she has responsibility for. She needed to ensure she was not outshone by her green partners, although they typically managed to stage a pantomime double-act that had the audience laughing at them. She needs to be able to claim a separate Scotland could be a player on the world stage. Oh, and she needs to lay the groundwork for her career change when it comes – she needs to network, bump elbows and shake hands so someone somewhere might give her a job like David Miliband (CEO of the International Rescue Committee) or Douglas Alexander (visiting fellow at Harvard and Kings College and adviser to Bono).

A backbench chair at Holyrood will not be enough for Nicola Sturgeon, and quite honestly why should it be?

So many needs, so little time to satisfy them all – but COP26 presented her with the ideal chance to address them at once in a lifetime opportunity (remember that phrase?). And how well she did. She had so many doubtless un-minuted chats with people before and after the photos, along the tented corridors, at the receptions, in the conference’s back alleyways that she must struggle to remember every conversation. She even managed time to interview actor Alan Cumming to show her dexterity and celebrity contacts.

As COP26 opened the SNP leader had published an advert with the phrase “A nation in waiting welcomes the nations of the world”. Yet no sooner were the delegates “waiting” to ban coal when the wind turbines stopped turning and Scotland had to start importing electricity from English coal and nuclear power stations. Later during the conference local man Richard Brown, 55, died on a Glasgow tenement stair after “waiting” five hours for an ambulance to take him to A&E.

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There are many who are complaining that the First Minister should get back to her day job, she should end the self-promotion – she should focus on the climbing drug deaths, the failing schools, the homeless, the worsening life expectancy, the growing A&E queues, the rusting ferries – all of these things and more. But her critics miss the point, these are not what is important to Nicola Sturgeon. Getting elected and keeping her party in power by blaming others is her MO. The smiling political assassin knows what works for her and is good at what she does.

If Nicola Sturgeon was a spread she would be Marmite, not margarine, honey or jam – and this divisiveness is what works for her. The only answer is to stop electing her. Maybe then our country can heal?

Brian Monteith is editor of and previously served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively



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