Nicola Sturgeon's PR triumph at COP26 climate summit shows why the SNP dominates in Scotland – Dr Azeem Ibrahim
Yet unlike other UK political leaders, she was ubiquitous at the conference. She attended every day, and if you followed her on social media you could be forgiven for thinking that she was in the thick of the negotiations all throughout.
While UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson flew back to London after his opening speech at the conference to attend to government business in Westminster, Sturgeon spent two weeks chasing after global leaders for selfies. And however much you might find the political vanity of it distasteful, there is no denying the effectiveness of her efforts.
Scotland is not in a great place right now. Covid case numbers are creeping back up to worrying levels, the economy is in a very fragile state after a very rough 18 months, and the threat of general industrial action, not least in the healthcare sector, looms large.
Many have argued that at this time, the energies of the First Minister and her entourage of ministers would have been better directed towards the many immediate woes facing the country.
Yet for all the worries about Scotland’s, and Glasgow’s, capacity to hold a successful event for COP26, the summit worked out rather well in the end, with only minor hiccups. This was a triumph for the UK civil servants who managed it all through undeniably difficult circumstances.
Sturgeon’s political instinct to direct her entire energies towards this event for two weeks, rather than Scotland’s more immediate concerns, also seems to have been the correct tactical call from a politics and optics point of view.
Scotland came out of the summit with overall very positive publicity – soured only at the last minute by the clipping of the most ambitious aspects of the final deal by India and China.
Of course, Sturgeon and the SNP were always going to try to milk COP26 for all it was worth in terms of publicity for Scotland and the cause of independence. UK government organisers were wary of this for months, concerned that the SNP’s efforts might even “hijack” the event.
Sturgeon played an entirely obvious game. Yet her play worked. She played competently. This is where the truly SNP excels. They have built one of the most formidable media and spin machines of any political party in Europe.
In fact, the SNP government employs more media advisers than the BBC has journalists in Scotland at a cost of almost £3 million last year, which enables them to completely dominate the media landscape.
Sturgeon skipped her parliamentary duties including First Minister’s Questions to attend COP26 every day because the SNP knows that despite their failing record in all devolved areas, positive public perception can more than offset their lacklustre performance at governing when it comes to elections.
It is the same reason Sturgeon insisted on doing the daily press briefings on Covid, in contrast to other parts of the UK. Having her face on TV reassuring the public is much more vital than winning the argument in some obscure parliamentary debate.
Perhaps the most telling success of the SNP media machine is also directly related to COP: the way in which the party has succeeded in rebranding itself on environmental issues, especially on the question of North Sea oil.
“Scotland’s oil” has been the main rallying cry for the SNP since the 1970s. As recently as the 2014 independence referendum, an “oil bonanza” that turned out to be a mirage was the only way the pro-independence camp could possibly begin to balance Scotland’s post-independence budget, where Holyrood has a structural fiscal deficit of some ten per cent of GDP.
Yet despite having been the party of “maximum extraction” of fossil fuels for close to half a century, the SNP have now positioned themselves as champions of the climate, especially in opposition to Westminster’s perceived tendency to drag their feet on this issue. And the people of Scotland seem largely supportive of this move, despite cries of betrayal from the embattled oil sector.
Many have speculated about the sincerity of the SNP’s pivot on the environment, just as they speculate about the SNP’s motives on every issue except attaining independence for Scotland.
But to get caught up in that argument is to miss the point. The sincerity of Ms Sturgeon, and of the SNP overall, is irrelevant when put against the might of the SNP messaging machine.
The people of Scotland overall trust the SNP government in Holyrood, because they have been persuaded to trust them. And there is no other political force in Scotland or in the UK overall which is even contesting that ground.
Ms Sturgeon may not have achieved anything more than to boost her own profile and to publicise her cause at COP26. By contrast, the UK negotiating team brought out of the summit a number of very important international agreements that at least still leaves us with a fighting chance that we might limit emissions at the global level to sustainable levels, even if what was agreed is still far from addressing the entire challenge that faces us this century.
But when Ms Sturgeon’s media operation at this globally important event was this good, it’s easy to see why the people of Scotland are attracted to the SNP.
Ms Sturgeon and the SNP thrust themselves upon the limelight to be seen to be fighting for the climate, a cause that unites the overwhelming majority of Scots (84 per cent of whom are concerned about the climate), whereas neither the Prime Minister, nor the leader of the opposition in Westminster, were around after the opening ceremony.
To win in politics, one must be seen to show up. And nobody does that better than Sturgeon.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and research professor at the US Army War College
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is director of special initiatives at Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC
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