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JOHN McTERNAN: Nicola Sturgeon’s record as first minister – long in days, short on substance

Nicola Sturgeon becomes Scotland's longest serving First Minister today, but what does she have to show for it? Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire.
Nicola Sturgeon becomes Scotland's longest serving First Minister today, but what does she have to show for it? Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire.

All political careers end in failure, goes the saying.

So as Nicola Sturgeon becomes the longest serving Scottish first minister, this seems an appropriate moment to make an assessment of how well she is doing.

At the peak of the pandemic the verdict would have been simple.

Nicola – and it is one mark of her success that she is uniformly known by her first name – was in her pomp.

While the fiscal firepower of the UK Treasury kept Scottish businesses afloat and Scottish workers in jobs, the First Minister was able to dominate the airwaves in Scotland with her daily Covid briefings.

Confidence in the Scottish Government was high and support for independence rose, peaking at a record high in October 2020.

With Boris Johnson in No 10 acting as the SNP’s not so secret weapon, all seemed set fair for Nicola Sturgeon’s ultimate political prize.

Yet, just as we have all learned to live with Covid, it seems Scotland has learned to live without independence.

Despite political attempts to reignite support – with a draft bill and a new campaignopposition to separation has returned to the same levels as the 2014 referendum.

And with the granting of any second indyref firmly vetoed by the current government, the Peggy Lee question arises – Is that all there is?

Nicola Sturgeon results don’t match record term

So what does seven years and 186 days of Sturgeonism add up to?

Another day, another selfie for Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Robert Perry/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

Over that time span, Margaret Thatcher delivered privatisation, Right to Buy, welfare reform, a victory in the Falklands and a defeat for Scargill.

Blair managed education reform, rebuilding the NHS, halving child poverty, and the Iraq War.

Scottish Labour abolished tuition fees in higher education, banned smoking in public places, brought in free bus travel for older people and free social care.

What is Nicola Sturgeon’s record over a similar period?

Her declared “defining mission” is to close the attainment gap between working class and middle class pupils.

The target date of 2026, has been abandoned, with any further deadline dismissed as “arbitrary”.

Transport problems are self-inflicted

If aspirational policies are too demanding, what about operational effectiveness?

Across the board in transport, the First Minister faces self-created problems.

There is still no profitable use for the nationalised Prestwick Airport.

The new ferries being built for CalMac by Ferguson Marine, also nationalised, are late, over budget and in danger of being rejected by CalMac as unfit for service.

At least there is a common sense justification for a bailout via nationalisation – a vital national capacity is being preserved.

Nicola Sturgeon’s government’s handling of Scotland’s ferries has not been its finest hour.

On the railways, there really is no good explanation as to why the first step of ScotRail under state control is to slash evening rail services.

Of course, this is part of a long running industrial dispute – but that comes with the territory.

When rail was privatised the decisions on wages and staffing were for management to settle.

Now it’s government ministers in the firing line and they don’t seem to like the responsibility.

You hardly need to be the harshest of political opponents to ask – if you can’t run a railroad what is the likelihood you could run the economy of an independent country?

Nicola Sturgeon’s domestic record doesn’t stand up to scrutiny

It is a cliché that the longer UK Prime Ministers are in office, the more interested they are in foreign affairs.

They are treated much better when they are abroad, feted by governments and met so much more politely by the foreign press than they are by journalists at home.

This seems true of “late period” Nicola Sturgeon too.

Nicola Sturgeon with ouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington this month. Photo: AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib.

She is relaxed speaking at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC about Scotland’s foreign policy.

At ease, reflecting on the contribution a unilateralist Scotland could make to NATO with its nuclear umbrella provided by three member states – the UK, the US and France.

But politics is about performance as well as pledges, perspiration as well as inspiration.

Alasdair Gray popularised the line “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”.

It’s a stirring thought, but a testing challenge.

After eight years as First Minister, it is hard to name a single thing that Nicola Sturgeon has done that passes that test.


John McTernan is a British political strategist and commentator, who was Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Director of Political Operations from 2005 to 2007.

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