Nicola Sturgeon’s Legacy: Cuts, Privatisation and a Party in Chaos

She governed as the quintessential neoliberal.

by Jonathon Shafi

24 March 2023

Nicola Sturgeon attends her last First Minster's Questions. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne
Nicola Sturgeon attends her last First Minster’s Questions. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

How will history judge the Nicola Sturgeon era? That depends on how successful the hagiography of it is. Her personal talents and abilities are undoubted. For many, she has been a ray of light under the shadow of what feels like permanent Tory rule. But there is precious little of substance to report when it comes to delivering for Scotland’s working class who propelled the SNP to a position of unrivalled dominance in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum. She leaves behind a strategically rudderless party, an inbox full of failed policy and a marooned independence movement.

Indeed, that national movement has been set back. Despite the scale of the crisis in the British state over Brexit, the SNP leadership failed to set out the case for independence. Relying on pantomime exchanges with the Tories to mobilise support, the party failed to develop a coherent prospectus or the campaign infrastructure to take an inspiring vision to the country.

While the outgoing First Minister is the quintessential neoliberal, she at the same time enjoyed and nurtured a genuine relationship with a large section of the Scottish population. As she rose to power, most vividly at a post-referendum rally in the Glasgow Hydro in front of 12,000 people, her leadership set about defenestrating the new grassroots of the party swelled its numbers by around 100,000 people. The radical energies built up in 2014 not only spooked the British establishment, but the Scottish one too. Conferences priced out activist groups while many of the transformational ideas advocated by SNP members would be ignored, despite conference votes.

The Scottish National Energy Company is one such example. It grabbed the headlines but failed to materialise, despite near-unanimous backing from SNP members. While the public relations operation pitched the progressive Scottish government against the billionaire Tory, Rishi Sunak, they shook hands over freeports. These sub-national tax havens were also opposed at SNP conference. The party’s trade union wing had their motion on utilising taxation more creatively to aid in the cost-of-living crisis excluded from the last conference agenda. The proposal for a National Infrastructure Company was voted for, only to be captured, commissioned and killed. Even the Scottish National Investment Bank amounts to a corporate stitch-up.

Longstanding commitments to replace the council tax and pursue meaningful land reform were scrapped. The National Care Service was announced to much aplomb. But despite the name harking to the ideals of Nye Bevan, privatisation is at its core, forcing the STUC to call the plans “untenable.” The Unite union has also sounded the alarm over the involvement of private consultancy firms, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Meanwhile, Ernst and Young were asked by Ministers to conduct an in-depth examination of the government structure which runs Scotland’s ferry service under a brief titled “Project Neptune.” The government agreed to contracts worth £560,000 with Ernst and Young to carry out the work. The Ferries scandal rumbles on, and will be part of the former First Minister’s legacy.

Outsourcing and rolling out the red carpet for foreign capital to extract the nation’s wealth define the style of governance favoured by the SNP’s outgoing leadership. Investigative website the Ferret revealed that in 2020 government ministers were having meetings, outside of the public record, with big businesses seeking to cash in on Scotland’s renewables industry. The Scottish government would go on to launch a “green investment portfolio” worth £3 billion of Scottish green assets. This package, a substantial component of Scotland’s economic future, is to be bought up by private firms. ScotWind has resulted in large tracts of the renewable wind energy grid being handed over cheaply, to the likes of Shell and British Petroleum. Billions in profits will be lost every year.

At the same time the educational attainment gap, meant to be the first minister’s defining mission, has grown. Homelessness is at record levels and the number of children living in temporary accommodation has soared. Brutal cuts to the public sector and local government reflect a full-throated economic liberalism.

Even the plan for independence, such as it existed, was handed over to the corporate lobby without input from pro-independence think tanks or trade unions. The now infamous Sustainable Growth Commission took the economics of George Osborne and combined them with the Sterlinigsation currency policy, which stands to this day. This would mean Scotland would be left without a central bank for an indefinite period after independence, leaving the Bank of England to govern the country’s monetary policy. This rules out initiatives like a Green New Deal and would have made furlough impossible without IMF loans that come with the strings of privatisation. It also prohibits entry to the European Union, which the SNP leadership have placed at the centre of the argument for independence.

Nicola Sturgeon, and the tight-knit leadership regime around her, eventually ran out of steam. The holding pattern that suited them so well – the promise of an imminent referendum – fell apart as the Supreme Court announced that Scotland could not hold a referendum on independence without the agreement of the UK Government. This widely expected outcome was almost baked into the Scottish government’s strategy. Whoever takes over will therefore not have the luxury of manufacturing illusions in an imminent referendum to marshal electoral support and camouflage domestic failings.

The Sturgeon era hollowed out democratic engagement with policymaking and hardwired the process into the corporate sector. The independence movement has been left fragmented and exhausted after enduring repeated false dawns that in reality had very little to do with achieving Scottish statehood, and far more with winning elections. Nicola Sturgeon’s abrupt departure precipitated internal chaos which exposed yet more spin over membership numbers and led to the resignation of the party’s chief executive, and the erstwhile SNP leader’s husband, Peter Murrell.

Nicola Sturgeon’s exit was meant to be carefully crafted as it was drip fed through the pages of Vogue and the Guardian. But beneath the surface lay a crumbling project, surviving on public relations and evacuated of substance. While the SNP is not going to collapse, and the tectonic plates have yet to shift electorally, we can expect a churn of leaders as they take the party into an uncertain future. In large part because of the weak foundations left by the outgoing leadership.

Jonathon Shafi is a columnist for Novara Media and socialist campaigner, based in Glasgow. He writes the weekly newsletter ‘Independence Captured’.

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