Nicola Sturgeon was the first woman to serve as First Minister, holding the post longer than any of her predecessors. Her undoubted intellect and skills as a communicator and debater gave her extraordinary power within the SNP, doubtless won over many to her cause, and also won the grudging admiration of political opponents.
However, for all her talents, she leaves Scotland in a poor state. As Sturgeon, under attack from opposition leaders, insisted she was “proud” of her achievements, her own government published a report showing there are now more than 1.1 million people living in ‘relative poverty’ – the highest number in nearly 20 years.
Relative poverty is defined by comparing the income of the poorest to median average, but the report also revealed a staggering 17 per cent of the population – 930,000 people – are living in ‘absolute poverty’. And it noted that “after a long decline since the beginning of this time series in the mid-nineties, absolute poverty rates have stagnated in the last decade” – a period mostly covered by Sturgeon’s time as First Minister.
John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, described the level of child poverty as “scandalous” and “utterly unacceptable”. It was, he added, “a stark reminder how vital the Scottish Government’s focus on child poverty is”. Others may suggest that appearances can be deceiving and that if the focus had been as sharp as it could have been, the historic progress would have continued and the lives of many thousands of people would have been substantially better than they are today.
Summing up Sturgeon’s legacy, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar told her she had “so much political capital” and yet there was “still much to do”. He may have been too polite to say it, given he was saying goodbye to a giant of the political scene, but she wasted opportunities to transform Scotland for the better.
However, it would be entirely wrong to demonise Sturgeon. Mistakes were made during the Covid pandemic, but she provided real leadership during an unprecedented crisis and that alone will have made a difference. She was popular in Scotland because her views often struck a chord with the sentiments of the vast majority of the country and she was able to articulate them with both eloquence and passion. As a politician, she possessed the ability to answer questions in a reasoned, thoughtful way – something that impressed many in England during television election debates – in contrast to those who seem reliant on scripted soundbites or diversion tactics to avoid discussion of difficult issues.
But she could also resort to cheap putdowns that did her no credit. Her disgraceful suggestion that some of those opposed to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill are “transphobic… deeply misogynist, often homophobic, possibly some of them racist as well” was a low-point, as she deliberately tried to tar those with legitimate concerns as nothing more than bigots. In an important debate already damaged by too much heat and not enough light, adding fuel to the fire was callous and counter-productive.
Overall, on balance and judging Sturgeon on the standards she set for herself, it is hard to arrive at any conclusion other than she was a failure. She failed to deliver independence for her supporters, failed to deal with utterly appalling rates of poverty, and failed to eradicate the educational attainment gap.
For one of the most talented politicians in decades, with perhaps only Donald Dewar surpassing her, that must be hard to take. But it is the people of Scotland who are paying the highest price for nearly eight-and-a-half years filled with empty rhetoric about a promised land, near-constant sniping at Westminster, and economic mismanagement.