The meaning of Freeman’s gaffe

“Contrary to received wisdom, in many ways Sturgeon needs independence more than the independence movement needs her.”

BY RECEIVED WISDOM, the Scottish Government has had a good crisis. The ruling SNP looks set for a bumper return at the upcoming devolved elections, and the first minister commands impressive personal approval ratings.

However, these apparent successes are products of political style and effective public relations. The underlying facts make for grim reading. By some measures, Scotland’s coronavirus death rate compares rather poorly with England’s. Public satisfaction with devolved public services has been falling for some time – last year, those numbers hit record lows. Still, few will deny that Sturgeon’s cautious messaging has played well – compared, at least, to Johnson’s tendency to libertarian bungling.

But there are growing signs that the mask is slipping. The SNP’s internal elections last week brought openly factional and petulant talk right into Scotland’s public sphere. Arguably the worst offenders were a range of senior centrist nationalist politicians led by Alyn Smith MP, at least insofar as Smith brought social media fratricide into his newspaper column. It had the hallmarks of a party too accustomed to power, more worried by internal bloodletting than by the threat of opposition parties.

And yesterday, the government managed to turn coronavirus good news into a public relations gaffe. The first minister had tried to announce that level four Covid restrictions would be lifted across Scotland this Friday. Health Secretary Jeanne Freeman then appeared to contradict Sturgeon, telling BBC Scotland that “all options were on the table”, before being forced into an embarrassing climbdown. As recounted below in our main story, it reads like something out of The Thick of It, or, more damagingly, Johnson’s Westminster.

This ineptness falls in the field of pandemic public relations, the one area where Holyrood has previously won the battle. Freeman’s quickly reversed clanger thus takes on some overall political significance, if only because these are the fine margins of Sturgeon’s battle for political supremacy.

Yet with scheduled elections fast approaching, will any of this damage the SNP? The build-up of problems, ranging from the Salmond enquiry to the pandemic death rate, would normally be enough to take down any incumbent administration. But independence remains popular. And between the centrists who adore Sturgeon and the Left who want away from Westminster in the Starmer-Johnson era, few outsiders have the ability to really hurt the ruling party.

Opposition forces simply have no coherent alternative narrative. Scottish Labour’s efforts to reheat ‘devo-max’ or ‘radical federalism’ testify to this. The unionist parties have simply no answers to a decade-long crisis of capitalism that often manifests as a yawning democratic deficit. Thus, nobody else could cohere a viable government.

If this seems like a familiar conclusion, it has important consequences. Contrary to received wisdom, in many ways Sturgeon needs independence more than the independence movement needs her. She may have won the acclaim of centrists and liberals across the Anglosphere, but the project of independence serves to excuse deepening doubts about the record on public services and coronavirus.

This, more than internal party warfare, is why Sturgeon cannot sever her link with independence. Why else have her personal approval and electability held up, when centrist liberal politicians worldwide have enjoyed a decade of failure?

Most likely, the key questions will emerge after the election, when the Scottish Government will have its latest ‘mandate’ for a new referendum. What sort of confrontations will they risk? If the official routes fail, will Sturgeon contemplate a ‘plan B’? Or will it take a new SNP leader, willing to engage in a more serious constitutional battle with Westminster, rather than just continue with the Groundhog Day of endless Edinburgh versus London public relations battles?


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