Sturgeon becomes Scotland's longest serving First Minister - but what has she achieved?

25 May 2022, 07:36 | Updated: 25 May 2022, 12:21

Nicola Sturgeon has passed a milestone in Scottish devolution.
Nicola Sturgeon has passed a milestone in Scottish devolution. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Nicola Sturgeon has reached a major landmark in her political career, and in the history of Scottish devolution, by becoming the longest-serving First Minister since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

While the anniversary is passing in rather more muted terms than she may have liked given her isolation with Covid, it does provoke reflection of just what she has achieved while holding the most powerful position in modern-day Scotland.

It is no small feat to have been First Minister, and the first female FM at that, for 2,743 days (as of today) - her predecessor Alex Salmond was in post for 2,742 days until he resigned after failing to secure a Yes vote in the independence referendum.

Why? Well because the electoral system in Scotland was devised to try and ensure there was no chance of one party monopolising the parliamentary system. So she has bucked that trend.

Another firmly bucked is the idea that the electorate gets bored with its leaders. Her popularity ratings may be lower than they were in the midst of the pandemic and her daily TV appearances, but a poll just last month found that 50% of voters were satisfied with the job she was doing - compared to 34% who were not. And her party won the biggest share of the vote at the council elections earlier this month.

It cannot be under-stated just how unusual it is for a political leader to continue to score so highly in satisfaction rates this far into their leadership.

So she must be delivering something the public wants... but just what? Her colleagues will point to an expansion of childcare, the establishment from scratch of a Scottish welfare system, including measures to combat child poverty, and putting climate change at the top of the political agenda.

But that childcare expansion pledge is not yet totally fufilled. The Scottish Child Payment is undoubtedly putting cash into the pockets of the poorest of households but she has shied away from raising it to the kind of level which could eradicate child poverty altogether in Scotland. And critics will say climate change only became vital when she wanted to strike a coalition deal with the Scottish Greens, and gain international kudos at COP26 in Glasgow. Prior to that emissions targets had been consistently missed.

She has of course nationalised Scotrail but it's yet to be seen what difference that makes to train services and ticket prices. Right now her government has to resolve a train driver pay dispute which has seen hundreds of services axed. And in terms of ferry services, the scandal around the failure to have two ferries sailing and serving Scotland's islands, and just how the contract was awarded, continues to smell. There are also mounting questions about the government's deal with steel magnate Sangeev Gupta.

Education was her top priority, she said, when she became FM, particularly closing the poverty-related attainment gap. That has not been achieved. Her government also took Scotland out of international education comparitors - and resoundingly messed up the exams process during the pandemic. In fact many of Scotland's educational organisations are now in the process of being scrapped because of that failure. Universities too have concerns, mainly about funding given the policy of no tuition fees, something which is said to be contracting the number of places available for Scottish students, with an emphasis on rich, international ones.

Meanwhile in health, A&E waiting times have been at record levels and delayed discharge from hospitals has soared again. Social care is in crisis - with a National Care Service years away. Drugs deaths have reached record levels because as she said, she "took her eye off the ball". And try getting an NHS dental appointment.

She is also pushing ahead with the reform of the Gender Recognition Act which has divided her party, and much of Scottish society. The Holyrood committee tasked with scrutinising the Bill has received more consultation responses than anything else in the history of the parliament - with 59 per cent of respondants against the proposed new law. Yet she is ploughing on regardless, perhaps in the belief that this will be her social legacy.

Personallly for her the last few years have not been easy - not only has she dealt with the relentlessness of the coronavirus pandemic, but she had to face the grilling of Holyrood's inquiry into how her government handled sexual harassment complaints against Alex Salmond.

Of course the number one priority of her party and its supporters is independence, and yet she is no closer to delivering on that than she was when she was sworn in on 20 November 2014. Indeed public support for that constitutional project has reduced - subsumed by pandemic concerns and now the cost of living crisis.

And yet, those popularity ratings do not lie.

Without doubt she has a remarkable ability to connect with people, to be down to earth with voters (if not always with journalists). To be just like them - to sound like them. She has no airs and graces, will take a selfie with anyone who asks, and many Scots lap it when they feel she's "getting someone telt" (again particularly journalists or indeed Tories). Despite being known as a micro-manager she also inspires fierce loyalty in those who work closely with her.

But she has also been a lucky First Minister. Lucky in the poor quality of her opposition in Holyrood over much of her eight years. Lucky in being able to draw a line between Scotland and England over the issue of Brexit and Europe. Lucky in having a Conservative like Boris Johnson as the sitting Prime Minister. His popularity in Scotland sits at minus 69.

Luck of course only takes you so far. She says she will serve a full term as FM after being re-elected last year and that she will deliver a second independence referendum by the end of 2023. If she doesn't - and there seems to be no resolution around just how that will happen with the support of the UK government - it is entirely possible her period as First Minister might end at that point. Though it would only be the loss of such a referendum which would see her "make way" as she told the Loose Women panel.

Today though, she has reached a milestone. And it's one that successors, of any political stripe, will find hard to match.