While clearly I disagree with Nicola Sturgeon on many things, in the decades I have known her I have always thought of her as one smart cookie. I had respect for her.
But last week the doubts came about even that.
Some in the SNP – most notably the Westminster leader Ian Blackford, backed up by the Finance Secretary Kate Forbes – have been claiming that the UK would continue to pay Scottish pensions even after Scotland had left. They cited a mythical ‘pension pot’ we had all been apparently paying into for years.
Of course, the Old Age Pension has no pot. It is paid for out of current expenditure. The tax and national insurance you pay this month is someone’s pension next month. And it is perfectly obvious that UK taxpayers would not pay for the pensions of citizens of another country if we left the UK.
I asked the First Minister to clear up this misunderstanding in the Scottish Parliament last week, but no, she seems to believe in the mythical ‘pot’. Like the one at the end of a rainbow, and equally inaccessible. She made no attempt to distance herself from the comments of her party colleagues.
Now either Nicola Sturgeon is deliberately propagating the most awful lie to Scottish pensioners, or she actually believes it. “Which is worse?” I asked myself. But on reflection, as the doubts thickened, thoughts came that made my belief in the smart cookie crumble further.
Earlier at First Minister’s Questions, my colleague Douglas Ross asked her about the plan to increase air circulation in Scottish schools. With her customary self-assurance, she sought to ridicule him for laughing at the idea that the answer was sawing a couple of inches off the bottom of classroom doors. It was she who ended up looking ridiculous, and the Chamber knew it.
But then I felt a tinge of pity for her. Imagine you wondered how to improve ventilation in your front room. Someone recommended a joiner and they came round and suggested sawing a couple of inches off your doors. You’d spot a cowboy. You’d give them short shrift and tell them to get on your way.
But our First Minister’s response seems to have been to breathlessly ask where to sign. More than that, she decided it was a good idea that should be replicated in every school in the land. When I realised that, I confess I didn’t have it in me to condemn. I simply said to myself: “Bless.”
And when you think of so many other things in that context, they all start to make sense. Whatever her grip on the Scottish government, the First Minister does not seem to have a grasp of ideas like the rest of us.
She is, after all, a grown woman who even when attending the most important of international conferences likes nothing more than to go outside to take pictures of herself with passing celebrities on her phone.
Inside the hall, presidents, prime ministers and potentates are discussing the future of the planet, outside the hall, the Scottish First Minister is taking pictures of herself with famous people. Think about it.
Think of her handling of the Covid crisis. I thought of that moment in the summer of 2020 when she said she had almost “eradicated” it from Scotland. Covid is a virus. It caused a global pandemic. It will never be eradicated from the globe, let alone this corner of the British Isles. Once again, either the First Minister was telling the most enormous porky, or she genuinely didn’t have a grasp of the concept of what Covid is.
This is the First Minister who, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, puts a Budget through Parliament that cuts the money to local government and could see inflation-busting Council Tax increases for households across the land.
At the same time, her government is requiring every home owner to spend hundreds of pounds that they may not have installing new smoke alarms, and in the same breath telling them that this new law won’t be enforced.
Nicola Sturgeon worked with Alex Salmond for decades. He was her mentor and best friend but she never noticed he was inappropriate with women. She said he didn’t have “a sexist bone in his body”. Maybe that wasn’t spin. Maybe she genuinely believes that.
There was, of course, consternation when more than 50 times she said she couldn’t remember things about the Salmond scandal when she was questioned about them before the Scottish Parliament. She was found guilty by a cross-party parliamentary committee of misleading Holyrood.
But maybe she really didn’t remember. Perhaps things that would stick in most people’s minds just run out of hers like water out a sieve.
Think of those moments when she said she couldn’t remember not as the acts of a calculating, dissembling politician, but the despairing words of a child who has forgotten to revise for her French vocab test and genuinely cannot remember the word for “pantaloons”, and you will see things differently.
Either the First Minister is out to deceive us, or she really isn’t as bright as many of us first thought. Whichever option you choose, it’s not a reassuring conclusion.