In her column in today’s National, Lesley Riddoch addresses a crucial issue. The issue of leadership. She asks whether the leadership shown by Nicola Sturgeon in her handling of an unprecedented public health crisis can transfer to the constitutional issue which, despite having been all but totally ignored by the First Minister for the past few months, still looms largest in Scotland’s politics. As, indeed, it must. Because, as I recently found it necessary to remind Ms Sturgeon, disputes between the Scottish and British governments regarding measures to deal with the pandemic boil down to the matter of who decides. That is the very essence of the constitution. And constitutional politics underlies and overarches all other aspects of politics. To say that decision-making in relation to the coronavirus crisis is nothing to do with politics is, therefore, utter balderdash and totally unworthy of a politician of Nicola Sturgeon’s standing.
Lesley Riddoch describes and accounts for that standing very well. There is no disputing that Nicola Sturgeon has exhibited quite extraordinary leadership skills as she strives to steer Scotland through the uncharted shallows of the viral pandemic and the jagged rocks of the British government’s prideful ineptitude. Ms Riddoch’s exposition relieves me of the need to lay the groundwork for what follows. I think we can take as a given that, even taking due account of the extent to which she is flattered by the walking catalogue of defects and deficiencies that is Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon has done Scotland proud. We could hardly have hoped for better leadership in these most testing of circumstances.
But does that leadership carry over to the fight to restore Scotland’s independence? Are the estimable personal qualities and superb political skills that Nicola Sturgeon possesses fitted to the role of de facto leader of Scotland’s independence movement? Can Nicola Sturgeon provide the kind of leadership that the independence campaign so desperately needs?
Is Nicola Sturgeon the person to lead Scotland through the looming constitutional crisis as well as she has led the nation through the current public health crisis?
Will Nicola Sturgeon lead Scotland to independence?
In seeking to answer such questions, Lesley Riddoch has focused on Nicola Sturgeon’s success in attracting “unlikely bedfellows”. There is every reason to believe that the First Minister has made a very strong impression which has caused many former No voters and even staunch anti-independence campaigners to reassess their opinion of the First Minister. It remains to be seen to what extent this, together with fresh problems justifying the Union, will translate into reluctant acceptance of the need to bring all of Scotland’s government home. How many people will be aboard a train of thought travelling from Nicola Sturgeon’s near-impeccable performance of late to the necessity of restoring full powers to the Scottish Parliament? How many voters will be prompted and provoked to start that journey from No to Yes?
A fair few would be my guess. Among those who voted No in 2014 – or intended to vote No in the next referendum – because of scepticism about the ability of a Scottish Government to govern there can be few remaining who continue to entertain such doubts. The very least that can be said is that Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership has created a very positive impression. Whether it is enough to swing the vote is impossible to say at this time.
But all of this is a quite separate matter from the question of whether the leader who strides with such evident confidence and apparent comfort in the designer shoes of a top administrator and political operator is the leader who can march in tackety-boots at the head of Scotland’s Yes army.
Lesley Riddoch concludes that,
If she has the energy, Nicola Sturgeon’s sense of purpose, clarity and popularity can be carried over into the forthcoming Brexit emergency. But this time the planning, signposting, explaining, communicating and above all the FM’s actions must have one goal – to make it crystal clear to voters that the only way for Scots to guarantee our future is through independence.
She may be right. But, as Lesley herself might put it, ah hae ma doots! In coming to this conclusion Lesley has failed (or declined?) to address a very significant factor. She seems not to have taken account of the Yes movement’s willingness, or otherwise, to accept the leadership which Nicola Sturgeon might offer.
I’m tempted to add “At last!” to that. Because that leadership has nowhere been in evidence over the past several years. But I berate others for constantly looking backwards to past mistakes, misjudgements, missteps and maybe even misdeeds rather than looking to the next phase in the battle to free Scotland from Britannia’s jealous grasp. Nevertheless and at the risk of being judged hypocritical, I must refer to the failures and failings in the Scottish Government’s handling of the constitutional issue over the past five or six years as I make the undoubtedly controversial observation that, while Nicola Sturgeon has been been winning the trust of former No voters, she has been losing the trust of a significant part of the Yes movement.
Like it or loathe it; accept it or reject it, the political reality is that many Yes activists have lost confidence in Nicola Sturgeon. They doubt both her ability and her willingness to lead the independence campaign. Far stronger doubts lurk in the minds of those persuaded that the next phase cannot be a replication of the previous campaign’s obsessive ‘positivity’ but must be instead a down and dirty confrontation with the British political elite in a campaign to end the Union.
Do we think she’s hard enough?
Nicola Sturgeon’s suitability for the task of leading Scotland through the constitutional crisis to a satisfactory outcome has yet to be established. It cannot be assumed from the leadership shown in recent months. For perfectly good reasons, some in the Yes movement will be hard to convince. Nicola Sturgeon has obstacles to overcome if she is to successfully make the transition from the leader she has been to the leader she must be. Many of these are obstacles of her own making.
I hope she makes it. I would like nothing better than to see Nicola Sturgeon bring forth aspects of herself that have not hitherto been much in evidence. I strongly suspect that she has the hardness. I’m not so sure she is prepared to be hard. She may not even be willing to try. There is a perfectly rational argument – which has surely occurred to her – that having built the reputation she has it would not be in her own personal interests to gamble that reputation on a very different kind of politics.
Then again, Nicola Sturgeon may reckon that she needs a win in the constitutional battle as the crowning achievement of her political career. She may defy the doubters and move effortlessly from diplomatic administrator to political cage-fighter. If she does – and I cannot stress this enough – we must back her to the hilt!
If Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership of the independence campaign is to succeed, the Yes movement must be prepared to follow. We must be prepared to set aside our doubts and our grumbles about the past and give her our full support. But she cannot expect unquestioning obedience. Discipline? Yes! But not the discipline of soldiers obeying commands. The self-disciple of people who do what is asked of them because what they are asked to do makes sense.
There is a very simple test of Nicola Sturgeon’s suitability for the task of leading Scotland to independence. One question; the answer to which will determine whether her way makes sense. Is she prepared to reject the Section 30 process?
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