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At the start of October, I wrote about the growing gap between the Scottish National Party’s apparently rosy political fortunes and the growing number of problems building up below the surface.
Since then, this gulf has only continued to widen. On the one hand, new research from These Islands has revealed the true extent of the extraordinary hold that Nicola Sturgeon has on the Scottish electorate, and independence continues to do well in the polls.
Yet on the other, the Nationalists’ woes have continued to mount. MSPs on the inquiry into the Scottish Government’s botched handling of the investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Salmond, which ended up costing Scottish taxpayers over £500,000, have laid siege to Bute House. The question of what the First Minister knew, and when, is right at the centre of it.
Meanwhile, new data has demolished Sturgeon’s claims to have handled Covid-19 better than Boris Johnson. The FT explains: “Left unmentioned by Scotland’s first minister has been a less flattering fact: weeks of official statistics suggest that proportionately more people have actually been dying of coronavirus in Scotland than in England.”
But this wasn’t just a week for old problems. Oh no. “Accusations of untruthfulness and inaccuracy have been made against the Scottish Government” over claims that a struggling company’s problems stem from a lack of support from its overseas owner, according to The Herald.
The paper also reports that the Fraser of Allander Institute – “Scotland’s leading economic thinktank” – has ‘slated’ Sturgeon’s proposal to award a £500 bung to NHS staff and try to blame the British Government for taxing it. As income tax now goes to the Scottish Government, the First Minister could simply increase the gross bonus, as the excess would simply come back to Holyrood via taxation.
Internally, things are just as bad. The SNP’s legendary discipline is fraying at the seams. Salmond, less popular than he was but still a totemic figure for a big chunk of the Nationalist base, thinks his successor conspired against him and is out for revenge. In addition to unhelpful interventions in the inquiry scandal, his outriders are exploiting other policy splits, for example over nuclear weapons, gender issues, or independence strategy. Joanna Cherry, a high-profile MP and staunch ‘Salmondite’, has attacked her party’s “cult of the leader”.
This week has seen further developments. John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, has written to MSPs to say that he is “keen to consider” ways by which they might be allowed to see the legal advice from the Salmond case (although this does not, despite some coverage, seem to be the same thing as agreeing to release it).
Perhaps just as significantly, the SNP conference saw Sturgeon ‘lose the soul of the party’ when opponents of her leadership were elected to its National Executive Committee. According to the Times:
“Supporters of the first minister were organising fightbacks yesterday after critics of her leadership were elected to the national executive committee (NEC), which makes key decisions on candidate selections and policy. It is likely that the independence strategy will be challenged, while the party’s stance on gender recognition reforms will again come into sharp focus.”
But does any of this matter? In an important piece, Alex Massie sets out what he describes as the ‘Sturgeon Paradox’: no matter how badly her administration performs, her popularity only continues to grow. A favourable presentational contrast with the Prime Minister, and the mere Scottishness of the institution is heads, is apparently enough to deliver impregnable poll ratings.
That this argument utterly vindicates the direst warnings of devolution’s staunchest opponents obviously goes unremarked, but the article is nonetheless as real a tribute to the farsighted wisdom of Tam Dalyell and Michael Forsyth as any you’ll find.
Likewise Rory Scothorne, a left-winger whose instincts will not dispose him to reinforcing Boris Johnson, has a very interesting piece in the New Statesman whose gist could be not unfairly distilled, even or perhaps especially by someone with different priors to the author’s, to something not far off ‘devolution has been a disaster’. And in Northern Ireland, Sam McBride of the News Letter has yet another story about how the Province’s devolution settlement is being milked for cash by a local political class that is incapable of effective government.
Suffice to say, looking forward to the Prime Minister’s new ‘Union Unit’ suggesting that the solution is to offer all these institutions more powers.