Nicola Sturgeon is ready for her close-up - Spectator Blogs

4 December 2012

In the rabid hamster-eating-hamster world of Scottish politics Nicola Sturgeon is a rarity: a politician of obvious competence who’s respected by her peers regardless of their own political allegiances. There are not so many folk at Holyrood of whom that could be said. The Deputy First Minister is not a flashy politician but she’s quietly become almost as important to the SNP as Alex Salmond. This, according to one sagacious owl, makes her one of the ten most interesting politicians in Britain. Hard though it is to imagine this, there are voters immune to the First Minister’s charms. Part of Nicola’s remit is to reach those parts of Scotland that are disgracefully reluctant to trust Mr Salmond.

So Unionists should take Sturgeon seriously. Yesterday she gave her first “major” speech since she assumed responsibility for the constitutional question. The Guardian’s Severin Carrell has written a fine analysis of it and Sturgeon’s speech is also the subject of my latest Think Scotland column:

She began with a fine line from TS Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. Of course, that could be the case if Scotland votes against independence too but, nevertheless, it’s a good line.

Similarly, the Deputy First Minister talked about “bringing the powers home to build a better nation”. This, like her defence of Holyrood’s history was a matter of presenting the independence debate not as a stark choice between two choices but, rather, as the natural progression of choices made in the past. You need some memory these days to recall the time when the SNP opposed devolution, placing its faith in a Single Heave theory of constitutional change.

Noting the distinction Neil MacCormick drew between “existential” and “utilitarian” nationalists, Sturgeon suggested most SNP supporters are part-existential and part-utilitarian. That is, happily, even conveniently, Scotland should be independent because Scotland is a nation and an independent Scotland would be better than a non-independent Scotland.

Almost no-one disagrees that Scotland is a nation. Almost every Unionist in Scotland is also, at times, some measure of nationalist. This is something SNP supporters too often overlook. But from Sir Walter Scott to Donald Dewar, there’s a thick streak of nationalism running through Unionism. If there weren’t it is hard to imagine how Scotland could have survived – in thought and deed alike – as a distinct nation. That survival, in fact, may be one of this country’s signal achievements these past 300 years.

More contentiously, perhaps, the Deputy First Minister went on: “I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence.” Since I have often argued that Scots would retain a considerable British inheritance even after independence, I have some sympathy for Sturgeon’s view. Nevertheless, the “Britons for Independence” party has a pretty tiny membership, no matter how many SNP figures try to persuade you otherwise.

There is a slipperiness at work here, however. Many Scots, comfortable with their dual identities, do feel independence would threaten the British element of their identity. Consider the Irish. They too – as Nicola Sturgeon noted – have many strong and enduring ties to the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. They also enjoy a considerable cultural inheritance that can reasonably and simply be considered “British”. This exists even if it is also often denied.

Nevertheless, the Irish are not British in quite the same way or to the extent Scots are or would be after independence. We might still be more British than the Irish but we would, unavoidably I think, be less British than we are at present. For some people this will be a loss and while the depth of that loss may be questioned its reality should not be denied.

Actually, despite outing herself as a utilitarian nationalist, Sturgeon reveals that she is in fact also an existential nationalist. “My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.… I joined the SNP because it was obvious to me then – as it still is today – that you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery.”

Of course, one could make the same argument about local government. Yet here the SNP shows no interest in devolving power to the smaller battalions. I say this not with any spirit of rancour, merely with a half-raised eyebrow.

Be that as it may, I would also quibble with another part of Stugeon’s argument. She argued that Britain has under-performed and that this means Scotland has too. Or, as she put it:

“Over the past 50 years, Scotland’s average economic growth rate has been 40% lower than equivalent, independent countries.

Recently, the Economist Intelligence Unit published its ‘where to be born’ index that looks at a range of quality of life measures. The UK ranked 27th. But four out of the top five countries – Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark – are countries with many similarities to Scotland.

What do these other small countries have that we don’t? It’s not resources, talent or the determination of our people. What they do have is the independence to take decisions that are right for them. The example of these other countries should tell us that the challenges we face today are not inevitable. The problems can be solved – but only if we equip ourselves with the powers we need to solve them.”

Again, there is some truth to this even if rapid economic growth is frequently really evidence that you’re starting from a low base. The US economy will not grow as fast as, say, El Salvador’s. Moreover, in some very important ways Scotland is not at all like Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Indeed, beyond being comparably-sized countries I’m not sure Scotland has very much in common with any of them. We certainly do not share their commitment to local democracy or mixed private-public provision of government-sponsored services.

Most importantly of all, none of these countries were at the forefront of the industrial revolution. Nor, it follows, were they stuck with the legacy of decline common to many of the regions around the world once most-heavily dominated by heavy industry. In many important respects greater Glasgow is much more like Cleveland than it is comparable to Copenhagen. (The reverse is true of Edinburgh or Aberdeen.)

Most of the grievous problems Scotland faces are related to this sorry fact. From health to education to employment, community cohesion, dignity and much else besides it always comes back to the grim truth we have not managed to revitalise the west of Scotland. The rest of the country is doing fine; large parts of the west are being left behind. The divide between Edinburgh or Aberdeen and parts of Lanarkshire or Renfrewshire is comparable in kind to that between London and Tyneside.

There is a plausible argument that the Union will not alleviate these problems. It does not follow axiomatically that independence would. It’s not impossible that it could help but, looking at the ideas that find favour with the Scottish Consensus I’m not sure I’d wish to wager too much cash on that proposition. I would add that the woes of Tyneside, Wearside, Teesside and Merseyside are evidence that Westminster may have failed these places but since their rustbelt woes are much the same as Glasgow’s it is not necessarily obvious that Glasgow’s problems are either peculiarly Scottish or peculiarly susceptible to Scottish solutions. Again, it is nice to think they must be; it is not evident that they actually are.

There is an irony too in that the SNP have decided to appeal to Labour-voting or Labour-sympathising voters in the west of Scotland by decrying the failure of past Labour government’s to improve their lot even as the SNP’s actual policies are frequently hard to distinguish from the past Labour policies that the SNP argues have done little to improve life in the parts of Scotland that most need that improvement.

Independence, according to Sturgeon, offers “A chance to begin again in response to the 21st century.” Perhaps it might. She added, “There is little point in bringing the powers home to just carry on as before” and, again, this might be true. But that too makes it odd that the SNP’s actual policies are, broadly speaking, rooted in a view of Scotland, its needs and its society, that is largely unchanged in at least 20 years.

Whole thing here.

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Show comments
  • eric the scot

    Utilitarian drivel. Sturgeon and salmond
    are not nationalists at all. They are hard left radical socialists who know they have no chance of creating their socialist utopia within the UK structure. So they are no different from the other socialist rabble currently behind the yes campaign. Sturgeon stood in front of a packed George square recently and preached in front of thousands of angry Muslims here ideology of craven multiculty left wing drivel.

  • Newmains Jimmy

    One would be hard put to find any poet and any one poem of his further from the world of the SNP than TS Elliot and Little Gidding.

  • Beefeater

    Policies? Its all in the policies. How can Scotland be socialist on its own terms? There is nothing Scotland can do to socialism to make it Scottish. What form of welfare governance would reflect a Scottish self-determination? Socialism with a Scottish face is a pretext for a gang of politicians to take control of a taxing jurisdiction. Why does the SNP not call itself the Palestine Liberation Organization – Scottish Branch and have itself declared the “sole legitimate representative of the Scottish people”. Then get a General Assembly vote declaring its observer status at the UN. In exchange for the loan of an image of oppressed stateless people, the Scottish nationalists can offer to take in Palestinian refugees – not West Bank Jewry which it will leave in place to boycott.

  • Jupiter

    She looks like Wee Jimmy Krankie

    • Spammo Twatbury

      Er, no. THESE people look like Wee Jimmy Krankie:

  • Matthew Whitehouse

    The biggest bugbear I have is the fact that Free Pre-scriptions, Free Education north of the border are ONLY afforded by the fact Scotland is heavily subsidised by England. It has always been fashionable to hate the english from Scotland / Wales / N.I. – So, all I will say is this: Vote for independence, you deserve it!

    • MichtyMe

      Scotland is a net contributor to the UK Exchequer, this can be ascertained from government statistics and was confirmed in a report last month from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Do you have a source? The Scots Government “affords” these things because it deploys or perhaps manages it’s resources differently.

      • Stuart Eels

        I have in the past asked Scottish Nationalists to give official figures which prove what you say is true and am generally met with abuse, so come on give me some links where I can check “the facts”.

        • FF42

          This might be the report MM is referring to:

          My main takeaways:

          – Fiscal and economic situation of Scotland is very similar to that of the UK

          – Scotland would be slightly better off fiscally than the rest of the UK if you include oil allocated on a geographic basis. ie it is currently a net contributor. But Scotland would need the oil, which is a declining and volatile resource, to maintain its present lifestyle as an independent state.

          Comparing the current fiscal situation of Scotland as part of the UK is not an apples to apples comparison with the situation that would apply as an independent country. Take the much misunderstood expenditure figures. Many people in England don’t realise that the Scottish Government gets its entire revenue from the block grant which is worked out via the Barnett Formula essentially on a per capita basis to match equivalent spending in England. the Scottish Government as no tax raising or direct borrowing powers so it can’t spend more even if it wants to.

          The big difference with England is in designated expenditure by the UK Government. This expenditure is decided by UK wide rules that disregard where the money is going. So for example a pensioner in Glasgow gets the same as a pensioner in Birmingham. He doesn’t get less simply because there are relatively more pensioners in Scotland than England and to balance the per capita spending figures of the two countries. However in an Independent Scotland, pensions would be paid out of a Scottish budget and the Government would have to make a choice between reducing the pensions, increasing taxes or reduce spending on something else.

          Equally on the revenue side. Oil resources are not currently allocated to the countries within the UK. After independence they would be.

          • MichtyMe

            Thanks for inserting the link. Whether a deficit or surplus exists today is not the point, which is, does one think that having full fiscal powers would enable an administration in Scotland to arrange matters and decide policies which it thinks more appropriate to its needs and circumstances and thereby produce better outcomes or to just accept stuff decided by others.

            • Stuart Eels

              Yes thanks for that FF42, it now seems that MichtyMe accepts that Scotland is dependent on the Barnett Formula after all, didn’t take much to change the mind, I dread to think out the Scottish Referendum turns out and I support Scottish “Independence!”

  • FF42

    The problem, perhaps, for Nicola Sturgeon’s argument is that you can be a utilitarian unionist too. If we are looking for some kind of relationship with the rest of Britain then the UK is a ready-made solution. You get a bit of togetherness as well as a bit of separateness. While you might quibble about this and that, it’s somehow easier to stick with the package.

    • Matthew Whitehouse

      I can understand why someone who is Scottish would vote to keep the status quo… That is because of the unique way Scots are funded, they get a better deal than the rest of us… This is the main reason there is an unhealthy amount of frustration from the rest of us. My message to ALL Scots: Vote for Independence, you deserve it!

      • FF42

        Actually, I agree. Scotland isn’t as heavily subsidised as you think it is. But the block grant per capita should be the same as England, not approximately the same.

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