Nicola Sturgeon: The new champion of liberalism

Scotland’s social democrat leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has reinvented herself as a defender of establishment liberalism.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon takes a selfie with students as she officially opens the revamped Kilmarnock campus of Ayrshire College in Kilmarnock
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon takes a selfie with students as she officially opens the revamped Kilmarnock campus of Ayrshire College in Kilmarnock, Scotland, December 12, 2016 [Reuters]

Not that long ago, Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon was the most exciting social democrat in European politics. 

She took charge of the SNP – and with it an absolute majority at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature – in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The SNP lost that referendum, but left-leaning Scots, many of them former Labour voters, flocked to her side.

At the 2015 UK general election, she won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats on the basis of what was, by modern British standards, a radical pitch: higher taxes on the rich, an end to austerity, and the abolition of Trident, the UK’s Clyde-based nuclear deterrent.

As she celebrated her first anniversary as Scotland’s first minister, in November 2015, she was in total control of the Scottish political landscape. Her approval ratings were sky-high. Her party, whose membership had more than quadrupled under her watch, maintained a remarkable hermetic discipline. Even sections of the UK press traditionally hostile to Scottish nationalism gushingly acknowledged the strength of her appeal.

But in the months since then, Sturgeon has shed her insurgent image and recast herself as a defender of the liberal status-quo; as a rock of establishment stability in a world churned by the tides of right-wing populism. 

Sturgeonism and Blairism

“The last 12 months have seen a narrative develop that the established political and social order is under threat,” she wrote recently. “Let us all hope that, in time, 2017 will be seen to have been a turning point – one in which the values of liberal democracy were able to show that they can and will prevail.”

The shift was substantive as well as rhetorical. 

In advance of last May’s Holyrood elections, Sturgeon moved decisively to the centre, ditching her commitments to an increased top rate of income tax, a far-reaching programme of land reform (Scotland has the most unequal distribution of land ownership anywhere in Europe), and the overhaul of the Council Tax, a deeply regressive system of local government levies.

OPINION: The difference between right and left-wing populism

Worse still, she began to shear the radical edges off the independence project. 

After the June Brexit vote, some economists raised the possibility of English banks relocating to Scotland in order to secure their European financial “passporting” rights (Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay part of the EU and Sturgeon is determined to maintain Scotland’s access to the European single market).

Despite the fact that a massive increase in the size of the Scottish financial sector would be disastrous for Scotland’s long-term economic prospects – heavily weighting the country’s output in favour of the kind of speculative, laissez-faire activity that led to the 2008 crash – Sturgeon did nothing to stop a slew of nationalist politicians from publicly endorsing the idea. Indeed, she went one step further, appointing, in September, Andrew Wilson – a corporate lobbyist and former PR man for the Edinburgh financial industry – to head up a new SNP commission on economic growth. 

Sturgeon’s revamp was accelerated first by Brexit and then by the election of Donald Trump. She aims to position the SNP – which is routinely attacked by supporters of the UK as “insular” and “separatist” – within what she believes is the moderate, tolerant European mainstream. That means free trade, open borders, and a “competitive, dynamic” economy cushioned by, at best, a modest welfare state.

Problematically, that vision is indistinguishable from the one advanced by the previous generation of failed social democratic leaders. If you remove independence from the equation, Sturgeonism – with its emphasis on European integration, liberal identity politics, and finance-led growth – has a lot in common with Blairism. 

Failure of liberal politics 

It’s not difficult to see why a strategic realignment of this sort, at this time, is a political dead-end. Across Europe and the United States, politics is polarising and the centre-ground is giving way. As the crisis deepens, it makes no sense to embrace the same package of discredited Third Way policies that created the conditions for the crisis in the first place. 

Central to Sturgeon’s thinking is the assumption that Scots will back independence in a second referendum if it looks like the least disruptive of the available constitutional options: independence in Europe with minimal social and economic change; sovereignty at all costs, but without the struggle. 

This, too, is doomed logic. Scots may have voted by a large margin to remain within the EU, but they don’t share the SNP’s obsessive loyalty to Europe. If forced to choose between the EU and the British one, there is no guarantee that they will vote the way Sturgeon wants them to.

In fact, in the seven months since Brexit threatened to strip Scots of their European citizenship, polls have actually registered a decline in support for independence.

There are two powerful ironies at work here. 

The first is that Sturgeon’s decision to reinvent herself as a champion of European liberalism, at the expense of her initial reputation as the saviour of Scottish social democracy, was completely unnecessary. No external factors forced her hand. Her status in 2015 was unassailable. She had a working majority at Holyrood and, within the limits of devolution, could have passed any piece of legislation she liked. (Now, she is two seats short of a majority and relies on the support of other parties to pass her reforms.)

The second is that she has chosen exactly the wrong moment to become a standard-bearer for the status-quo. Liberalism is the source of, not the solution to, Brexit and Trump. More of it, however vigorously articulated, won’t make them go away.

Sturgeon still commands huge authority in Scottish politics. Although a sense of inertia is beginning to shroud her administration and its lacklustre legislative agenda, she benefits from terminally weak opposition. The next Scottish election is in 2021. It would be a pointless, and potentially costly, mistake to fight it in defence of an ideology so clearly in decline.

Jamie Maxwell is an Edinburgh-based writer. He has contributed widely to the Scottish and British press.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.