A year on - what is Nicola Sturgeon's legacy?

15 February 2024, 14:13 | Updated: 16 February 2024, 18:01

A year on from Nicola Sturgeon's resignation what is her legacy?
A year on from Nicola Sturgeon's resignation what is her legacy? Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Politicians love a legacy, I blame Ozymandias.

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But Nicola Sturgeon's successor Humza Yousaf may very well be looking on the works of Scotland's longest serving First Minister and despairing.

Her decision, a year ago today, to announce she actually didn't have anything left in the tank and was standing down as SNP leader and First Minister was without doubt a political earthquake and the tremors are still being felt - particularly under Yousaf's feet.

The brutal leadership battle split the party and saw the departure of its then chief executive Peter Murrell, Sturgeon's husband, after false membership figures were released to the media. But then came the news the party had lost its long-standing firm of auditors, the Police Scotland investigation into SNP finances and the raids on party HQ and the Sturgeon home, the arrests of her, her husband, and former party treasurer Colin Beattie MSP who were all released without charge, talk of burner phones, of corruption, and who can forget the discovery of a luxury motorhome parked in Mr Murrell's mother's drive, but apparently paid for unwittingly by party members.

So is that Nicola Sturgeon's legacy? Leaving behind a divided party still trying to heal and waiting for the shoe to drop when Operation Branchform finally concludes?

Well, yes and no.

On the credit side of the ledger there is no denying she made the SNP an election winning machine. Her personal popularity perhaps even more than her policy agenda, saw Scots vote for her time and again - she won eight elections while in charge and the opposition just couldn't lay a glove on her.

She undoubtedly also had policy successes. The introduction of the baby box - derided by critics as yet another "free" thing when the NHS could do with more health visitors, a legitimate enough argument - set a tone about caring for the youngest Scottish citizens. Retail politics perhaps but of a kind which says the state is a good thing.

Then there's the Scottish Child Payment. Admittedly her government had to be pushed by charities, the third sector - even some opposition parties - into accepting this was not only a good idea, but affordable. Again, it tells those struggling at the sharp end of life on social security in a cost of living crisis, that the government can do something to help. Latest statistics suggest it's lifted 90,000 children out of poverty. Undoubtedly another good thing.

She also put women's rights on the agenda. Perhaps not always in the way she intended and we will get to that, but legislation tackling domestic abuse and coercive control has changed the legal landscape.

Then there's the Bute House Agreement she thrashed out with the Scottish Greens. For her it would be chalked up as a success putting her minority government on a stable footing - even if many in her party have become somewhat disillusioned with the pact.

However there is also a debit side. Perhaps for her the two biggest failures of her First Ministership were not progressing the practicalities of independence and failing to close the poverty-related attainment gap in schools, something she said was her priority.

On independence her decision to go to the Supreme Court closed down the idea the Scottish Parliament could hold a second independence referendum free of Westminster approval. It has also led to the dog's breakfast of a policy passed at last year's SNP conference which is less than clear about what the party will ask of the next UK government if it wins the most, or is it a majority, of MPs or of votes cast?

When Yousaf took over, he ditched a number of unpopular policies, unpopular in sections of his party as well as more widely - that she had been championing. Deposit Return Scheme was binned after the UK government said it didn't comply with the internal markets regulations, Highly Protected Marine Areas sank, a ban on alcohol advertising was shelved.

But the one he doggedly refused to ditch was Sturgeon's Gender Recognition Reform Bill, a piece of legislation that tore the SNP apart, saw countless members leave and join Alex Salmond's new party Alba, sparked the resignation of government minister Ash Regan, and galvanised women across Scotland to get involved in new feminist grassroots groups and organisations.

By the time she resigned the Bill had passed in Holyrood but had also been sanctioned by Scottish Secretary Alister Jack with the first ever use in the history of devolution of a Section 35 order, preventing it becoming law. Some believe that the heart went out of her for the fight ahead on this issue which added to her reasons to go - though I find that hard to believe given how wedded she was to the whole idea.

It was left to Yousaf to challenge the s35 order in court - and to lose.

More recently we have seen questions about her cherished reputation for competence, the very thing which saw Scots put their trust and faith in her during the pandemic, particularly when they looked at the clown show of Boris Johnson's premiership.

The UK Covid Inquiry performed like a psychologist's couch - we saw her in front of counsel moving from robust defence of her actions to unexpected tears. But it exposed the operation of government at the time with a First Minister who seemed to operate with an ever decreasing circle of advisers, who would make decisions unilaterally at times without recourse to Cabinet, who would chair gold command meetings that went unminuted. Inquiry counsel Jamie Dawson described all of this as "hubris". She said she had done the best she could, and it was for others to judge.

There is no denying Nicola Sturgeon made the SNP the force in Scottish politics, the establishment party. She was a force to be reckoned with but her leaving has seen her party falter and her apparent refusal to listen to a wider group of advisers while in charge saw policy misjudgements which proved hugely divisive across Scottish society.

Polls over the last year show SNP support has fallen, even if support for independence itself remains at around half the population. Believers in the independence project are holding fast, belief that the SNP is the way to deliver it is slipping. It will be an irony not lost on Yousaf.

Labour appears to be resurgent, according to the polls, and the Conservatives remain confident that as they collapse across the rest of the UK, Scotland will still see them return the six MPs they currently have. All of that is to play out at the General Election.

The process of change for the SNP and Scottish politics as a whole hasn't ended yet and who knows where and when it will and what further part Nicola Sturgeon will have to play in it all.