It cannot have been easy being First Minister through Boris Johnson and through the bitter fall-out with her friend and mentor Alex Salmond and fail to achieve what you set out to do in politics. All these gifts and still Nicola Sturgeon fell short of her goal.
Let’s be clear that Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, which we must take at face value as a towel being thrown into the ring, amounts to the failure of a 25-year-old nationalist project. It started with the SNP agreeing to back the 1997 devolution referendum and ended with the demand for a re-run vote.
Alex Salmond never felt sure he would be the one to deliver independence which is why he tutored Nicola Sturgeon to be the torch-bearer for the final furlong. Her resignation is an admission that the flame has been snuffed out. In a speech that is a long goodbye, it takes a special myopia for an elected politician to overlook thanking their constituents first when they are either on the way in or the way out the door. But that just shows how relentless the focus on the mission was and what it cost the rest of us.
Look over the divided, depleted landscape the First Minister has left behind. Being the leader of the country with the shortest male lifespan in the UK, the highest numbers of deaths from drug misuse in Europe, a 20 per cent gap between the attainment levels of rich and poor pupils, and truly world-beating waiting times in the health service – two-year waiting lists for treatment leave people beyond anger, they are in despair.
This last winter, with the cost of living and public service cuts imposed on councils coming home to roost, there was a palpable shift in the public mood, which foreshadowed the downfall. People in my constituency, and across Scotland, according to other politicians, began to say enough is enough. ‘We need a change’ became not so much of an occasional chant but a chime from each encounter with voters, regardless of their political stripes.
That wave, building in the suburbs and the supermarkets, broke onto the political shores last week. The polling that arrived just after the First Minister stepped down confirmed what we were already hearing on the doorstep, change is coming.
That was the feeling in the hall at the Scottish Labour conference at the weekend. Nothing beats opening a conference like the fillip of two polls showing that Labour is gaining on the SNP and in contention to be in government, both in the UK and Scotland.
However, the message from Anas Sarwar and, in turn, Keir Starmer, while asking voters to look again at Labour, cautioned us that we must earn the respect of voters by proving we can be better in government. That we will do, and the next person who leads the SNP will have to do the same, except they will be chained to the legacy of failure of the last 15 years.
The new leader of the SNP has the in-tray from hell and the in-laws from Hades in the form of the Green party, which props up the government while demanding the half-baked deposit return scheme, for bottles and cans, steams ahead. If we thought the ferry scandal represented a monumental waste of money, wait to see what this ill-thought attempt to differentiate Scotland from the rest of the UK will look like.
That will not be an immediate concern for the candidates for the tarnished SNP crown. In the next few weeks, the SNP will suck the oxygen out of the room with a pre-occupation on whither the independence movement goes from here. Nothing new there, you might think, but the selectorate’s SNP leader will become the First Minister of Scotland and that ought to concern us all.
In the opening rounds, it looks like the party’s old guard is falling in behind the gravity-defying act of Humza Yousaf. If there was ever a case study in failing upwards it is the charming, but ineffective, Health Secretary. One of life’s regular duties is pointing out Yousaf’s mishandling of our precious health service. For his reward to be bestowed the leadership of the nation is a signal of the low quality on offer in this dogfight.
With Keith Brown, the deputy leader and the nationalists’ nationalist, apparently being lent on not to stand, the party does not have a candidate to sate the appetite for a ‘referendum tomorrow’ candidate. Kate Forbes threw her hat into the ring yesterday. Commentators seem to know so little about her that they latch onto her Christian religious beliefs which, much like Rishi Sunak’s Hinduism or Anas Sarwar’s Muslim background, should not be an issue or an obstacle to her standing. If there is to be an end to the polarisation of Scottish politics, and that raised a hollow laugh from many when Nicola Sturgeon made her valedictory appeal, then that would be a good place to start.
As Keir Starmer reminded us, it is not enough for Labour to wait for the other side to fail, we must prove ourselves worthy of the votes of people in Scotland, whenever a general election comes. But when it comes to a 2026 Scottish election it will be Anas Sarwar vs AN Other from the SNP. We can look to that election knowing whoever the SNP leader is will not match what has gone before or the change that is to come.
Jackie Baillie is MSP for Dumbarton, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and her party’s spokesperson for health