Looking down: the Sturgeons sit at the pinnacle of Scottish life

Trouble at the top

It wasn’t always chauffeur-driven limos, fawning crowds at the Glasgow Hydro and a mansion in Charlotte Square. Only 20 years ago, the SNP was a very different and considerably less glamorous beast. In a cramped set of rooms above a pawn shop in central Edinburgh, a tiny group of underpaid but passionately committed Nats worked long, thankless hours for the cause.

At the apex, as he would be for many years to come, sat the bulky frame of Alex Salmond. At his side was the party’s bearded, cigar-toting chief executive Mike Russell. Below them were the bright young things: economist Andrew Wilson, Europe expert Angus Robertson, press officer Kevin Pringle, and Duncan Hamilton, a brilliant law graduate. Small but perfectly formed, this gifted bunch worked, played and even lived together as they plotted the break up of the UK.

They weren’t always taken seriously, but they were deadly serious — and in time they became, to an astonishing extent, successful. Today, the SNP is Scotland’s dominant political force. The party has 35 MPs, 63 MSPs, 429 councillors and a membership north of 100,000. In 2014 it came within five points of winning independence. It has usurped Labour as the nation’s establishment party.

It was widely predicted that either Wilson or Hamilton would one day replace Salmond as chief Nat. Both were elected to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999 and given front-bench jobs. But someone else had her eye on the hot seat. A young MSP called Nicola Sturgeon had become a party member while still at school — she recalls how an English teacher brought her in a form to join Labour: ‘I was like, f*** you, I’m going to join the SNP.’

Sturgeon was on the outer rim of the inner circle. She was hard to know — cautious, reserved, not quick to make friends. But she was smart as hell, and her ambitions were every bit as great as those of her male colleagues. When Wilson lost his seat and Hamilton left politics for the law in 2003, her route to the top was clear.

As First Minister, Sturgeon has a grip on the SNP that even Salmond in his pomp could only dream of. She has put her closest allies in the top Cabinet jobs (loyalty is valued more highly than ability), has no real rival, and her husband, Peter Murrell, is the party’s chief executive. Scotland’s most powerful couple shuttle along the M8 between the chilly New Town vastness of Bute House and their modern, detached Glasgow home. Their entire life is politics. It is hard to imagine what either of them would do without it.

And although the vast, glittering mothership that is today’s SNP bears little resemblance to the rackety, patched-up vessel of two decades ago, one thing has not changed: the party is still run by a tiny clique of people bound tightly together by a passion for the single great cause. That group remains suspicious of outsiders, tight-lipped about the inner workings of the party and the government, and when provoked can be ruthless in response. Increasingly, this is a problem.

There are undoubted advantages to being married to the boss. For one, Peter Murrell is unlikely to find himself out of a job for as long as his wife reigns. There have been grumblings that no one has carried the can for the party’s dreadful general election performance, which saw it lose 21 of its 56 seats. Murrell has no shortage of enemies in the SNP, and is regarded as a street fighter who will play dirty whenever it suits him. But no one is going to take a public stand against him while Sturgeon is First Minister — it would be little more than a suicide mission.

How Scotland is governed

Further, the couple are each other’s greatest source of strength and support, and have the added advantage of sharing and understanding the strains of everyday political life and the particular stresses of leadership. At home, where Murrell cooks steak and chips, spaghetti bolognaise or curry while Sturgeon irons his shirts, they can work through the various issues facing the party and the government.

The downside, and it is one that is increasingly commented on within the SNP, is that there is little room for other voices at the top table. It is obviously impossible for anyone to replicate the closeness of the pair’s relationship. No one else is party to the couple’s private conversations, which is when a lot of important decisions are taken. Sturgeon anyway struggles with delegation — she regularly intervenes across government departments, especially those where she was once a minister. This closed shop is all very well when things are running smoothly, and people will put up with it despite personal frustrations. When the ends start to fray, however, it means fingers can only point in one direction.

The half-hearted ‘reset’ of the SNP’s plans for a second independence referendum did nothing to quell internal fears that the leadership has lost its mojo. Despite Sturgeon’s promise to listen and consult before making a decision on the timetable for another vote, the process was really just a narrow calculation involving the usual suspects — Murrell, deputy first minister John Swinney and a few others.

Since the Brexit vote, the First Minister has stumbled repeatedly. Her initial threat of a new referendum on independence was intended to have a double effect: to stir up 2014’s Yes coalition and Scotland’s anti-Brexit majority, and to give her leverage over Theresa May during the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU. Sturgeon hoped she could carve out a separate EU deal for Scotland. The first wrinkle was that May simply said no to another indy vote. The second was that the Prime Minister and her colleagues showed little interest in Scotland having a bespoke version of Brexit. ‘May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions,” says an SNP insider. “The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested.’

The final problem was that Sturgeon misjudged the Scottish people. Her determination to fast-track the process to independence — she announced her plans even before May triggered Article 50 — struck many voters as rushed and cynical. As they tried to get their heads around departing the European Union, with all the risks that entails, the idea of rolling the dice further by breaking up the UK simply looked reckless. As a steady stream of statistics showed Scotland’s public services in decline, attention shifted to the SNP administration’s policy record — was there more show than substance? Was the party’s monomania getting in the way of effective governance? Could it be trusted?

The verdict in the general election was brutal. A drop of 40 per cent in the number of seats held by the SNP — just two years after the party had gone from six to 56 — is a staggering failure. Sturgeon mislaid half a million votes over the same period. Salmond and Robertson, her two biggest beasts at Westminster, were booted out. And of all things, the SNP decline was matched by the resurgence of the hated Scottish Tories.

This result forced Sturgeon’s ‘reset’. But it’s fair to describe the response from a number of influential Nationalists this week as ‘underwhelmed’. In effect, Sturgeon has simply pushed back the deadline for another referendum by six months to a year. Why this should make a difference to voters fed up of the relentless constitutional debate is unclear. It certainly strengthens the suspicion that she is desperate to hold a vote before the next Holyrood elections in 2021, after which, on current trends, the parliament is likely to have a unionist majority even if the SNP remains the largest party. MSPs would then block any attempt to rerun 2014.

Senior SNP sources, yesterday

‘The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position,’ says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches. The strain on the First Minister was clear from her performance at Holyrood this week. Her tone as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent, and there was no real humility or admission of error. One Tory who was in the chamber said: ‘What struck me was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories. There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished.’ It’s not just opposition politicians who hold that view — senior Nats had a similar response. ‘The leadership of the party appears to have believed its own hype,’ says one. ‘It viewed itself as untouchable. It has miscalculated.’

Campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests Sturgeon is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her small clique seems unable or unwilling to absorb this. “They’re still pushing far too hard [on independence],” says a Tory source. “The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand.”

This is where the Sturgeon-Murrell duumvirate becomes an issue. It is easy and perhaps natural for the pair to dismiss external and even internal criticism as self-serving and ignorant. No one, they must feel, understands the pressures of leadership like they do — Sturgeon has even studied biographies of Margaret Thatcher for insights into ruling effectively. But an echo chamber of two carries obvious risks. Who speaks truth to power? How do they sort the wheat from the chaff? What if they’re both wrong?

‘Nicola talks the game of a strong domestic agenda, but it’s clear the voters want to see her demonstrate it rather than just say it,’ says an SNP source. ‘There is now an effective opposition who will go at her over this for the next four years. Is she able to change tack? Is she listening?’

That, in the end, is the million groat question. A focus group of one — her husband — cannot always provide the right answers. If Sturgeon doesn’t start listening to other voices soon, she may soon find herself first deafened, then defeated.

This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on July 1, 2017