Seven months after lockdown and we continue to watch aghast as western leaders grapple with the consequences of Covid-19 and their often cack-handed responses.
Given the low expectations of an increasingly cynical electorate, there are no prizes for guessing which party leader enjoys the most positive net approval ratings: Nicola Sturgeon.
The first minister of Scotland seems impregnable to political criticism, whether it comes in the form of Downing Street condescension or the loud but vain attacks of Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories at Holyrood.
Sturgeon’s handling of the Covid crisis has been assured, so much so that political opponents tried to persuade the BBC to stop broadcasting her daily updates from Edinburgh, convinced as some of them are that the broadcaster was merely reinforcing her role as Scotland’s voice of reason in the face of the misguidance and confusion that has characterised the UK government’s response.
Scotland was first to experience the new, stricter restrictions including the evening closure of pubs last week. The hospitality industry is furious, but to date there is little sign that the new conditions, which especially hit Glasgow and the central belt, are being blamed on Sturgeon personally or her government more generally. Boris Johnson must cast an envious eye northwards when he considers the response south of the border.
So far, so good. Casual observers may have been surprised last weekend to witness the SNP leader pop up live on Sky News not to address the pandemic, nor even her party’s demand for a new referendum on Scottish independence. Instead she was there to deny accusations about her handling of the Alex Salmond affair, and even to have a go at her erstwhile mentor, Salmond himself.
Sturgeon is under pressure to be more open in her disclosures to a current Holyrood inquiry into her government’s handling of the complaints of sexual misconduct that led eventually to Salmond’s recent High Court trial, at the end of which the former first minister was acquitted of all charges.
At an earlier stage, before Salmond had even been charged, he had won a judicial review of the way the administration had handled the original complaints. The Scottish government was forced to pay out more than £500,000 towards Salmond’s legal costs. A parliamentary committee is now investigating what went wrong, and its members are complaining with increasing volume about the government’s alleged lack of cooperation.
One target of the committee – and many critics within the SNP – is Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive and a man said to run the party with an iron fist. The fact that he is married to the party leader and first minister is significant to many critics.
Sturgeon has at times been accused of colluding with Salmond to protect him from his accusers at an earlier stage, but also of plotting to have him humiliated by high court prosecution. It surely cannot be both, her defenders argue.
It is unusual to witness Sturgeon on the back foot. She has been accused of dissembling when faced with questions about what she knew of the accusations facing Salmond, and when she knew them. Mystery surrounds several contacts between the two, including a meeting at Sturgeon’s home one weekend in 2018.
Senior civil servants have also been accused of withholding information requested by the Holyrood committee, amid dark murmurings about the control the first minister wields over the bureaucracy.
For once, Sturgeon felt she had to come out fighting. “I think the reason perhaps he (Salmond) is angry with me – and he clearly is angry with me – is that I did not cover it up. I didn’t collude with him to make these allegations go away and perhaps that is at the root of why he is as annoyed as he appears to be,” Sturgeon told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
For good measure, Sturgeon blamed much of the criticism of her on the “age-old” situation where “a man is accused of misconduct against women and often it’s a woman that ends up sitting answering for them”.
In response, Salmond said: “I have made no public comment since I was acquitted of all charges in the High Court in March and have made it clear that the first time I will comment is in front of the parliamentary committee.
“This committee was established to inquire into the conduct of the first minister, her special advisers and civil servants after her government’s behaviour was found to be ‘unlawful’, ‘unfair’ and ‘tainted by apparent bias’ and at enormous cost to the public purse.”
The Salmond camp appears convinced that it can prove collusion in a plot against the former first minister. The internal tensions suggest a party threatening to become divided between two powerful personalities, and the two people who steered the SNP to power in 2007 and at successive elections since. If the SNP wins the 2021 Holyrood election – and nobody doubts that it will right now – the party will have earned power for up to 18 successive years.
Party division is quite acute. So much so that when Sturgeon’s response to the errant MP Margaret Ferrier arrived so quickly – suspending the MP from the party for travelling while awaiting a Covid-19 test, and publicly calling for her to quit – there was instant speculation that the speed of condemnation was because the Rutherglen and Hamilton West MP is seen as a Salmond supporter rather than a Sturgeon loyalist. Since the controversy, it emerged that Ferrier travelled by train from London to Glasgow knowing that she had tested positive, and had also visited numerous places around her constituency while awaiting her results. The MP is refusing to stand down.
So why the current split? SNP watchers and insiders are agog at each incident involving parliamentarians, eager to interpret whether this move or that are part of the wider battle for ascendancy. There is little doubt that the Salmond camp are gunning for Murrell, as they openly question the way the party is controlled by the husband and wife team in charge.
Meanwhile, there is a growing camp within the independence movement that believes Scotland should demand an immediate referendum. Scottish discontent with Boris Johnson as prime minister, and the Tory party in general should be exploited immediately. Next May’s election victory should be taken as a mandate for independence, instead of waiting for Downing Street’s permission to hold another poll, many activists believe.
The opposition, particularly Labour and the Tories, are seeking to exploit such divisions, so far to little avail. Ruth Davidson is heading to the House of Lords next spring – a fact Sturgeon fails rarely to point out when the two clash in parliament. Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, who batted off a no-confidence threat within his own party recently, seldom lands a convincing blow on his SNP counterpart.
The Salmond-Sturgeon split and the parliamentary investigation is fascinating Scotland’s chattering classes. There is little evidence to date that it is of concern to an electorate whose lives are dominated by the impact of Covid-19 and by many other concerns, not least the looming reality of Brexit.
For months now support for independence has surpassed 50% in the opinion polls, reversing the 55-45 result of the referendum in 2014. Sturgeon’s strength lies in her enduring popularity among voters, especially within the urban heartlands that belonged once to Labour.
From Inverclyde to Dundee, around the populous areas of Glasgow, Lanarkshire and even Edinburgh, what were once solid Labour-voting constituencies are now SNP heartlands. Labour could rely once on the votes of the working and middle classes in Scotland, yet now its vote seems to be balkanised to smaller groups of older, traditional voters, and young people who might have been attracted by Corbynite radicalism.
The Sturgeon effect has been studied closely by Steven Purcell, once Labour’s youngest-ever leader of Glasgow city council, Scotland’s biggest local authority and one party stronghold that fell finally to the SNP in 2017.
“Some of the old guard, traditional Labour supporters are still there, but low profile and much older now, and in the traditionally strong urban areas. Their power has been supplanted by a younger generations – under 50, upwardly mobile, aspirational,” observes Purcell. “They own their own homes, work in white-collar jobs such as finance, IT, often public sector. They have witnessed the SNP in power for 13 years now, and for that reason and also because of 2014, they do not fear the prospect of independence in the way their parents’ generation may have done.
“They look around and see things that need to be done, whether in terms of investment in education, infrastructure and so on. They think that is being managed more effectively in Edinburgh, and that more powers could tackle problems on a larger scale.”
In parts of England, that constituent group might be a more promising target for the Conservatives. Would an aspirational, upwardly-mobile group not be more concerned about the higher taxation reality of an SNP Scotland?
“You might think so, but in truth that same middle class Scots voted for Labour in the past,” points out Purcell. “Income tax levels may be less of an issue for them. It doesn’t seem to be a significant issue for anyone but the hard-core Tory voter, and levels of Tory support are stuck at just a little more than 20% in Scotland.
He characterises the younger SNP voter as “fiercely loyal” to the independence idea, and to Sturgeon personally. “This is especially true of women. To them, Nicola can do little or nothing wrong. They see any criticism as the response of an old, tired, male-dominated hierarchy. The image of Old Labour means nothing to this generation of voter, and increasingly that may be their view of what we might call the ‘Old SNP’ personified by Alex Salmond and his close circle.
Purcell believes that to many former Labour voters, the SNP is seen as a natural successor to the party for which they previously supported. “They see the SNP as a left-of-centre party rather than the ‘Tartan Tories’ of old, and not as ‘dangerous’ as a far-left alternative. There is also a ‘unionist’ vote amongst the working class, and certainly I have seen evidence of a mini-revival for Tories within that sub-group of people. So the independence question is replacing class as a motive for voting, in some eyes at least.”
With all that in mind, the handling of Covid is a positive for Sturgeon and the SNP, as long as they do not become heavily distracted by the off-stage battles within party and the broader ‘Yes’ movement. Successive polling tells us that Sturgeon is trusted within Scotland. Her strengths in communication and public empathy have gone down well, even though critics point out that the Scottish government’s handling of the pandemic has been little more successful than the rest of the UK, and beyond.
Opinium Research found last weekend that Sturgeon’s current positive rating is +20%, compared to Boris Johnson’s much poorer -16. In fact, only one British politician had a higher figure (+23): the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. But that may be another story, for another time.