Nicola Sturgeon resignation: The First Minister's policy legacy on health, education, transport, business and environment
Ms Sturgeon’s departure casts a particularly long shadow over health, given that before her elevation to become First Minister, she served as the Scottish Government’s health secretary from 2007 to 2012. The move to scrap prescription charges, still considered a totemic policy of Scottish progressivism, was enacted during her reign over the health brief.
During the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon appeared on Scottish television daily, giving updates, taking questions from members of the press, and explaining her approach to lockdown restrictions. At times it appeared to be more cautious than that of her Westminster counterparts, and she was praised and criticised in equal measure.
The decision to make Scottish school children wear face masks in classrooms was particularly contentious, as was the decision to ban non essential cross-border travel between England and Scotland.
A personal low point for Ms Sturgeon during the pandemic was when she was forced to apologise to the Scottish Parliament and people after a photo of her not wearing a mask inside, while chatting to a group of women, emerged.
The worst horrors of the pandemic were seen in the nation’s care homes, where thousands of vulnerable Scots died. During the first wave of the pandemic, patients infected with coronavirus were discharged from hospital and into care homes.
Ms Sturgeon’s leadership legacy during the pandemic is likely to hinge on the findings of the Scottish Covid inquiry, and whether her decisions helped or hindered the nation.
More recently, she has been preoccupied by the NHS winter crisis, which has seen hospitals operating above capacity, patients waiting for days for emergency treatment, and as many as 50 excess deaths a week due to hospital pressures.
There’s a huge gulf in attainment between the richest and poorest children in Scotland, which Ms Sturgeon’s Government has not managed to successfully tackle. However, there’s little evidence of an overall decline in Scottish educational standards more broadly.
The Scottish Government spent £750 million on the Scottish Attainment Challenge in the last parliament and will spend a further £1 billion during the course of this Parliament, including up to £200m this financial year to support children and young people impacted by poverty.
Recently, the Scottish Government has been contending with strike action from the EIS teaching union over a pay offer. The union has unanimously rejected a fresh pay deal put forward by the Scottish Government and council umbrella group Cosla, meaning strike action will continue to close Scottish schools.
The First Minister has been keen to cement Scotland’s reputation as a global leader when it comes to action on climate change and safeguarding the environment. Under her leadership, the Government became the first in the world to declare a ‘climate emergency’, in response to the increasing threat from global temperature rise caused by human activities. The move has since been followed by many others across the world.
Since Ms Sturgeon took up the reins in 2014, emissions reduction targets have been toughened and remain among the most ambitious anywhere. The country’s aim to achieve net zero by 2045 is five years ahead of the rest of the UK’s 2050 goal – and the deadline set out by the United Nations to achieve the Paris Agreement objectives.
Overall, emissions have been cut by more than half – achieving the 2020 interim target for a 56 per cent reduction from 1990 levels – but analysts have warned long-term goals are at risk due to inadequate plans for how to achieve them.
Controversies over transport were not the most divisive issues with which Ms Sturgeon had to contend, but became a strong undercurrent among her Government's current difficulties.
Last week, transport minister Jenny Gilruth's frankness in admitting the SNP's pledge to complete dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness by 2025 would not be achieved – even though obvious for a long time – came in stark contrast to Ms Sturgeon at least twice last year failing to confirm the commitment.
The ongoing ferry fiasco at Ferguson Marine, which was nationalised by the Government in 2019, has dogged the First Minister even more directly.
While she has not been directly implicated in decisions which led to the two ships that are being built for CalMac running years late and hundreds of millions of pounds over budget, the scandal has repeatedly been raised at First Minister's Questions. The Government's ferry owning agency Caledonian Maritime Assets warned against the contract being awarded to the shipyard without a guarantee, and also opposed the first of the two vessels being launched prematurely – by Ms Sturgeon – in 2017.
Although foreign policy is generally not devolved to Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon has made her views on some international issues clear and has worked to make Scotland’s voice heard on the international stage.
She digressed from UK policy on Scotland’s super sponsor scheme for refugees, allowing Ukrainians fleeing the war to list the Government as their host to obtain a Homes for Ukraine visa from the UK Government.
The Government has seven "international offices” housed within British Embassy and High Commission buildings in Beijing, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin, Ottawa, Paris and Washington DC. An eighth is due to be set up in Warsaw, Poland, within this Parliament. However, she came under fire for paying a visit to Copenhagen in August last year to officially open the Nordic office there, amid bin strikes in Edinburgh and the threat of teaching union strikes over the ongoing pay dispute.
In terms of the impact on Scotland’s business community, the reign of Ms Sturgeon has had several milestone moments. While 2020 saw the onset of the pandemic, it was also the year in which the state-created and backed Scottish National Investment Bank debuted, aiming to provide long-term capital to companies and projects throughout Scotland to support the development of a “fairer, more sustainable” economy. It has not been without its controversial moments including the departure of then-chief executive Eilidh Mactaggart, but says it has £372.9m invested in firms, including healthtech firm PneumoWave and Orbital Marine Power.
Scotland’s deposit return scheme has received strong opposition from business leaders, including more than 500 figures from across the food, drink and hospitality sector at the end of last year calling for its introduction to be delayed beyond this August.
Ahead of the 2014 independence referendum, it was rare for any artists, performers or arts organisations to publicly or privately criticise the Scottish Government. It was telling how much that picture had changed by the time Ms Sturgeon had announced her resignation.
An enthusiastic champion of Scottish authors and a regular attendee of Edinburgh’s festivals, she had largely managed to maintain the support of a booming and expanding sector during her tenure – until the pandemic.
But the response to a so-called “perfect storm” of factors last year was what has led to a growing impression of a government that has turned its back on Scottish culture.
Holyrood’s culture committee was inundated with submissions warning of the impact of reduced audiences, soaring costs and rising inflation, after years of “standstill funding” for the arts. A 10 per cent cut for Creative Scotland’s funding in December's Budget left the impression of being completely out of touch with the need for swift action.
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