There’s an excellent column by Mandy Rhodes in Holyrood Magazine today that says something we realised quite a long time ago.
It’s simply this: Nicola Sturgeon is a disastrously weak leader.
Sturgeon herself has said on more than one occasion that she suffers from the psychological condition of so-called “impostor syndrome”, something which disproportionately affects high-achieving women.
Among the characteristics of impostor syndrome is a pathological fear of criticism and therefore an aversion to risk, because any failure or perceived failure will feed the existing belief that the sufferer isn’t up to their job.
And if Nicola Sturgeon’s reign as leader of the SNP has been characterised by one thing, it’s an aversion to risk and an absolute terror of doing anything unpopular.
Some readers may already dismiss these assertions as ridiculous on the grounds that simply by being leader of the SNP, Sturgeon already gets a vast barrage of criticism. But of course, all that does is reinforce the syndrome. When half of Scotland is constantly attacking you, the only thing that stops you being totally overwhelmed by your self-doubt is the backing of your loyal supporters.
And what that’s meant is that Sturgeon has shied away from every difficult decision she’s faced since becoming First Minister in 2015. Every time one comes up, her instinctive reaction is to kick it into the long grass and hope it goes away.
So the Named Persons scheme was delayed and delayed and delayed until it basically (and ironically) died of neglect.
Controversial gender reforms have been repeatedly pushed back and put out to multiple consultations, with Sturgeon refusing to publicly take any sort of stance or state her opinion, even though it’s been staggeringly obvious which side she’s on for a long time.
And when COVID-19 was almost eradicated in Scotland last summer, Sturgeon bottled the decision to close Scotland’s borders (despite public support for the idea) or maintain lockdown until the job was finished. The resulting resurgence of the virus has claimed thousands of lives.
But in fairness, Sturgeon has been consistent. In 2015, days before the UK general election, she insisted that it was “not about independence”.
In her speech to the SNP conference ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election, she played it down again, saying nothing stronger than that she wouldn’t “rule out” another referendum “over the next few years”.
In the lead-up to the Brexit vote, she said that wasn’t about independence either.
At the 2017 UK general election she repeated, word for word, her 2015 line that the election was “not about independence or about another referendum”. (This was widely reported at the time but weirdly we can’t find an original source for the 2017 version of the quote.)
She assured voters that the 2019 European elections weren’t about independence.
And yet just months later at the 2019 UK general election, despite having denied that any previous vote was about independence, her manifesto said that an SNP win would simply “endorse” an existing “clear mandate” for a new referendum.
The 2017 manifesto had also stated that a majority of SNP seats would merely be underlining an existing mandate:
So a pattern has emerged: every time there’s a vote, Sturgeon says it isn’t about independence, then afterwards she says it’s given her a mandate for a new referendum, and then the UK government says no and she does nothing about it until the next election, which she also says isn’t about independence, and off we all go again.
(A succession of UK governments has successfully managed to sustain that “democratically unsustainable” refusal to grant a new referendum for almost five years, despite the mandate being clearly established in the 2016 manifesto.)
Countless opportunities to act have been squandered because Sturgeon lacks the courage to risk her own popularity and status.
No attempt was made in five years to establish the legal right to hold a referendum – something which the SNP recently announced as their great masterplan for after the NEXT election. No attempt was made to leverage the SNP’s unprecedented position of power at Westminster between 2017 and 2019, by trading a new referendum for support for a Brexit deal which would have been far better than the one the UK actually got.
Chance after chance went begging, and every time Sturgeon refused to take the shot because she was paralysed by fear of losing.
But we’ve been over all that stuff before, and those specific cases are just symptoms of the real problem – Sturgeon’s weakness as a leader.
The transgender row currently tearing the party in two literally as we speak (NEC members are at this very moment being asked to agree to a definition of “transphobia” that most of them still haven’t even seen) should have been dealt firmly with years ago – a position should have been taken, stated and then defended.
Complaints from both sides about abuse should have been dealt with rather than ignored and allowed to fester to a point where, ridiculously, the party is being savaged from within both as misogynist and transphobic. But a weak leader too afraid to face down either side allowed a policy debate to turn into a vicious civil war.
And the other out-of-control bin fire currently raging in the SNP has the same root. It was weakness, impostor syndrome and paranoia that led Sturgeon to see Alex Salmond as a threat even after he lost his Westminster seat and was happily making a living as a TV and radio broadcaster and successful Fringe performer.
It was the attempt to definitively destroy Salmond’s reputation and thereby remove any perceived threat to her leadership authority that spiralled out of control into a highly damaging judicial review, and then into a criminal trial, which has backfired spectacularly and may well bring about Sturgeon’s downfall.
But it was only the last straw in a catalogue of examples of a deep-seated weakness of character. Sturgeon’s administration will be remembered only for failures and fudges. Scottish welfare and tax agencies delayed for years. Failure to save Prestwick or BiFab or sort out the CalMac ferries. Catastrophes in care homes and over exams. Worsening stats in almost all domestic fields. The absolute mess of the Growth Commission, which took the case for independence backwards and alienated large sections of support. The stitch-up of Mark McDonald. And of course the shameful, disgraceful, corrupt obstruction of the Salmond inquiry.
(And on the positive ledger? Um, the baby box. That’s about it. We honestly struggle to think of any other seriously notable achievements of the 2016-2021 SNP administration. The mitigation of the bedroom tax was won under Alex Salmond in February 2014. By all means remind us of any we’ve forgotten in the comments.)
All of it came from a lack of willingness to take tough decisions and risk damage to her Selfie Queen/National Mammy image and the adoration of her young woke activist base – most strikingly displayed in her abject begging for their forgiveness this week over the trans issue, when hundreds of women quitting the party over misogynist abuse hadn’t attracted so much as a passing word of regret.
The resilience of the Yes movement since its defeat in 2014 has been a thing of extraordinary beauty. But Nicola Sturgeon has been a weak leader when that movement needed a strong one, because she’s a weak person. That weakness may yet prove her downfall, and if it does it won’t be a day too soon.