By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham
Nicola Sturgeon has dominated Scottish Politics and the Scottish National Party (SNP) since she became First Minister of Scotland on 20 November 2014. Her role in shaping the SNP’s political agenda dates back to 2004 when she became deputy leader of the SNP.
Nineteen years is an extremely long time in politics and too long a time to play a central role in shaping the agenda of any political party. The difficultly is that this length of time in office is too often associated with plan continuation bias, or a tendency for an individual to continue with an original course of action that is no longer viable. For too long, the SNP has framed the governance of Scotland around a politics of independence rather than an approach to governance that focusses on delivering immediate better outcomes for the people of Scotland.
Sturgeon’s vision was formed around achieving some future utopian ideal based around an independent Scotland. To Sturgeon, independence was always going to be better than a Scotland that remained within the United Kingdom. Today, she has decided to step down as First Minister and SNP leader. There is no question that Sturgeon has made an important contribution to Scottish politics and in shaping the future of the Scottish people. But, now is the time for a new shared vision to be forged that will focus on people first, and independence second, and perhaps never. Sturgeon was too concerned with forcing independence on Scotland as a top-down process; Scottish independence must emerge as an inclusive bottom-up process that is driven by and for the people rather than imposed by any one political party.
For Sturgeon, Scottish independence was her number one priority and this shaped her time as First Minister and distorted the relationships between the Scottish and UK Governments. It is time for Scotland to have a First Minister who is willing to develop a constructive and co-created political agenda with Whitehall that works in Scotland’s interests but framed within an appreciation of the wider interests of the United Kingdom.
There are many problems in the next First Minister’s in-tray. These include the cost-of-living crisis, energy and food poverty and health challenges. An overarching problem is that there are fundamental problems with public service provision across Scotland. Sturgeon’s successor should focus on providing world class public services to the Scottish people. This should include a renaissance in Scotland’s education, health, and social care provision. Scotland’s education system used to be world class, but this is no longer the case. Another key priority for the next First Minister is to address many of the problems with health care provision across Scotland. The Scottish economy also needs some attention. Economic diversification must be encouraged and supported by the Scottish Government, and this must include major advances in facilitating decarbonisation and the greening of the Scottish economy.
The next First Minister should focus on developing a clear strategy for Scotland that places people first. Nicola Sturgeon stood for Scottish Independence. One could argue that in a post-Sturgeon era that there is no clear strategy for independence. This is to fall into the trap of assuming that Sturgeon’s strategy had the clarity required to shape a new and independent Scotland. There are many lessons here to be learnt from Ireland. Ireland has a well-managed and highly diversified economy and currently is running a budget surplus on its national accounts. Scotland needs to be in a very similar position before deciding to explore going it alone from the United Kingdom.
The SNP needs to prove to the Scottish people that independence is in the current and long-term interests of all living in Scotland. There is only one way of proving this. The next First Minister should focus on developing a vibrant Scottish economy supported by the best possible public services. The high road to Scottish independence is in ensuring that Scotland has a diverse and resilient economy that is more than able to support an independent Scotland. In other words, the Scottish economy must provide the taxation revenue required to support an independent nation. This is a politics of financial independence from the rest of the UK, and once achieved then independence would become a possibility rather than an utopian vision. Nevertheless, financial independence from the UK is only the first step on the high road to independence with the second step requiring an inclusive and bottom-up acceptance that all living in Scotland would benefit from independence.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.