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Nicola Sturgeon’s familiar friends
Written by Alex Massie
20 May 2021
Reinvention is the toughest ask in politics. Neither Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair quite managed it and although each won three thumping election victories, their final years in office were, in each instance, less rewarding than those first, heady, days of revolutionary idealism and vigour. By year eight or nine, you’ve either achieved what you’re going to achieve or you have not. By that stage, too, all the low-hanging fruit has been picked clean and you’re left with problems that are hard because they’re intractable.
All of which is a way of suggesting it might be wise to temper expectations for Nicola Sturgeon’s new government. The SNP has been in power for 14 years now and the sense persists that if it cannot address significant, if often also underlying, issues in health and education in 14 years why should it do so in 18 or 19?
Soon, too, Nicola Sturgeon will succeed her predecessor – he who shall not be mentioned – as Scotland’s longest-serving first minister. This will be a significant moment for a number of reasons and one of these is that it will prompt questions on Sturgeon’s own future and the identity of her own successor. In the absence of a second independence referendum, how long does Sturgeon wish to remain in office?
Until after covid, of course, or at least until such time as covid is not so very much more bothersome than influenza. And, sure, the nationalists must continue to insist another referendum is imminent because, if it were not, what precisely would this government’s purpose be? Be that as it may and allowing for the foolishness of making too many predictions, I cannot see a road to a referendum in this parliament (unless, that is, Boris Johnson decides to play the clown).
Judging from this week’s cabinet reshuffle, Sturgeon herself sees few potential successors within the SNP’s current Holyrood caucus and while the first minister will doubtless consider leadership speculation both presumptuous and tiresome, it is the kind of chatter that once started never quite goes away.
There are, therefore, only three contenders in the new cabinet. Kate Forbes, Humza Yousaf and, however much he might deny any leadership aspirations, Angus Robertson.
Other aspects of the reshuffle are worth noting. First, the quite sensible decision to reduce the number of cabinet secretaries from 12 to 10. Second, how an opportunity to refresh the government has been missed. This is a cabinet of Sturgeon chums (Shona Robison) and loyalists (Shirley-Anne Somerville) dressed up in its Sunday finest as a “serious” cabinet for “serious times”. Nevertheless, it can hardly be gainsaid that both Robison and Keith Brown were previously removed from their cabinet posts and here they are, back again. As with Angela Constance’s appointment to the drugs brief – despite having been sacked twice by Sturgeon – there is a strong whiff of “Not my first choice, but you’ll do” to some of these appointments.
And sometimes “you’ll do” is fine, anyway. A first minister requires cabinet secretaries who will not make too many headlines for headlines are typically made for all the wrong reasons. This reshuffle would be a fresher thing, for example, if Derek Mackay had not blown-up his own career, accelerating Forbes’ elevation to cabinet secretary status. Mackay, once considered leadership material himself, is a warning to all.
John Swinney, meanwhile, remains the first minister’s indispensable lieutenant. His time in the education brief cannot be considered a happy one and his new posting in “covid recovery” is an unavoidably nebulous affair. Better, perhaps, to consider Swinney the cabinet secretary for whatever is deemed the government’s “top priority” at any given moment.
Shirley-Anne Somerville inherits a mess as education secretary and an SQA assessment fiasco that may yet eclipse last year’s bourach and without the excuse of novelty or a lack of warning. Somerville will be a good soldier but, in truth, many of the problems in education would exist and be much the same regardless of who happened to be in government.
Meanwhile, Humza Yousaf is handed the poisonous health brief. A true cynic might suggest this is the means by which the first minister intends to bury his leadership ambitions. Huge amounts of cash are headed the NHS’s way – thanks, in large part, to our old friend the Barnett consequentials – but a good dollop of this has already been spent on above-inflation pay rises for NHS staff and, in any case, a lack of resources, while significant, is not the only reason some NHS targets have not been met in almost a decade.
Of the other cabinet secretaries, relatively little need be said save to note that Robertson was the obvious replacement for Mike Russell as the minister for Marr, Peston, the Constitution and External Affairs while Mairi Gougeon, Fergus Ewing’s replacement at Rural Affairs, both deserves her chance and is the beneficiary of the fact that there were relatively few alternatives available.
Somehow, then, the first minister has produced a new cabinet which, thanks to the return of Robison and Brown, looks just as much like the 2016 cabinet as like its immediate predecessor. There is something to be said for solidity and experience, of course. Unlike the media, a first minister can afford to take a dim view of freshness.
Even so, one final thing remains obvious: this iteration of the SNP stands or falls with Nicola Sturgeon. No-one else in the party comes close to rivalling her. She is the Sun Queen, around whom any number of tinier constellations must orbit. This reshuffle both confirms that but also, unavoidably, highlights a problem which will become larger, not smaller, in the years ahead: succession.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.