Nicola Sturgeon may be SNP's Sun Queen but 'l’etat n’est pas elle' – John McLellan

L’etat c’est moi. Louis XIV’s famous description of himself as the embodiment of France is the standard reference for absolute rulers everywhere. The state is me.

Nicola Sturgeon uses protective glasses to look at a partial solar eclipse (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon uses protective glasses to look at a partial solar eclipse (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Nicola Sturgeon would reject the comparison, always keen to point out she has been democratically elected and stands to be judged every five years and quick to emphasise, as she did in a Fringe interview with broadcaster Iain Dale this week, that she has led the SNP to no less than eight resounding election victories in nine years of office; four generals, two Scottish, two councils, and the last European election.

That the SNP has never been lower than 42 per cent in every poll of Westminster voting intentions since the 2019 election is some record.

In that context, the inevitable conversation about her future was all about her choices – whether she had the hunger and stamina to carry on ─ not the stumbling blocks which might bring her career to a halt.

“This is a serious job,” she said, without fear of contradiction, “and anybody in a job like this owes it to the public to make sure that they’re the right person to do it, that they've got the energy to do it, that they've got the appetite, that they're prepared to make the enormous commitment...”

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Electorally at least, there is nothing to suggest anything is likely to trip her up between now and 2026 when she is next due to face voters herself.

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When a woeful track-record of delivery still produces SNP votes by the bale, it’s hard to imagine what her government could do to make enough of those voters change their minds, and as the interview was Fringe light entertainment, not a forensic cross-examination of her record, it was not the platform to take her to task for drug deaths, NHS waiting lists, the education attainment gap failure, the ferries embarrassment, or a host of other disasters for which her administration is responsible, never mind a litany of sleaze including the jailing of an ex-MP for embezzlement and, this week, the loss of North Lanarkshire Council.

Nor was it the place to go back over the catastrophic loss of memory and “head-spinning” confusion about who knew what and who spoke to whom about the Alex Salmond affair, which allowed her to emerge unscathed after successfully deflecting allegations that she and her closest associates set out to destroy her predecessor.

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The “All Talk” show generated a remarkable amount of coverage, which Ms Sturgeon clearly enjoyed. “Many thanks for the conversation,” she tweeted, as the stories multiplied.

“Nicola Sturgeon says she does not think she will speak to Alex Salmond again,” said The Scotsman; “Nicola Sturgeon claims Liz Truss asked her 'how she could get in Vogue,'” reported the Daily Record; “Nicola Sturgeon says she may not lead SNP into next Holyrood election,” said The Herald; “Attention-seeker jibe was a snub to Scotland,” said The Times. Not bad for an hour’s chat.

Iain Dale was attacked for giving her an easy ride, but perhaps he should instead have been congratulated for creating the relaxed atmosphere in which the First Minister gave away more about her frame of mind than she realised or intended.

“Who… can say with 100 per cent certainty what we'll be doing four years from now?” she asked. “The default position is that of course I’ll fight the next election, but I will make a judgment on that nearer the time” paving the way for that Herald headline.

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Given the 99.9 per cent certainty the Supreme Court will either reject or refuse to rule on her application to see if it is legally allowed to run what Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain has effectively described a big opinion poll, “nearer the time” will presumably be after the next general election and the probable “de facto” rejection of independence as with every one of her election victories.

What then? If the Conservative leadership contest is becoming damagingly bitter, at least there is a genuine debate of ideas about how the growing economic crisis should be tackled.

The last thing the SNP wants is a contest, and the last time one loomed, in 2004 after current deputy First Minister John Swinney proved a dud, Alex Salmond made a comeback to prevent Ms Sturgeon being trounced by Roseanna Cunningham.

If opponents are disdainful about the Conservative candidates’ abilities, the SNP’s line of succession would give Handforth Parish councillors a migraine.

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Conservatives have a choice of an ex-Chancellor who delivered the Covid rescue package which saved millions of jobs and a Foreign Secretary who secured international trade deals, but what can any SNP leader-in-waiting claim to have delivered? Helping Ms Sturgeon deliver the square root of hee-haw except booze pricing which turns alcoholics into drug addicts?

She is indeed the SNP’s Sun Queen around whom everything revolves but is remarkably reluctant to concede L’etat Eccosais is not her.

With some understatement she told Iain Dale that “not everybody in Scotland supports me and my party”, but in the same breath said Liz Truss’s call for her to be ignored “made me angry on behalf of Scotland”.

That was very kind of her, but I for one was not in need of her proxy anger and if Ms Truss’s remark was poorly judged, it was equally ill-advised to attempt to conflate the attack with an affront to all Scots when a majority regularly votes for an alternative.

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As ever, Ms Sturgeon uses election results as permission to regard Scotland’s interests and the SNP’s as interchangeable, and indeed the SNP’s main achievement in 15 years of power has been to turn civil servants, councils, charities and businesses into muzzled, submissive clients of the party because change has not been on the horizon.

But these days even Popes quit, and the SNP’s Sun Queen has set the next election as the defining moment of her career. That’s not something anyone is going to ignore.

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