Who could take Nicola Sturgeon's place to champion Scottish independence?

Scottish nationalists and their opponents are left to wonder if another talented leader can emerge

Nicola Sturgeon announcing she was stepping down as First Minister of Scotland on February 15, in Edinburgh. Getty Images
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Nobody does nostalgia like the British. Celebrating something new by looking backwards is one of our oldest traditions. And like all traditions, we make it up as we go along.

In May, King Charles III will take part in the “tradition” of the coronation. He is already king, and became king the moment his mother Queen Elizabeth II passed away. A coronation is therefore not constitutionally necessary. Edward VIII did not have one and in 1936, he reigned for a year, then abdicated. But Britain loves regal pageantry and Buckingham Palace insists King Charles’s coronation will be "rooted in long-standing traditions", while at the same time "reflect the monarch's role today and look towards the future”. Linking past-present-future is what monarchy and British traditions are all about.

The coronation will be broadcast to a TV audience of hundreds of millions worldwide.

But another British nostalgic tradition came into play in the past few days with the decision by Nicola Sturgeon to quit as First Minister of Scotland. That tradition means (most) political rivals spoke publicly of her enormous talents while privately hoping that without “Nicola” — as everyone calls her — her Scottish National Party is in trouble. She is a world-class politician, of course, but no one is indispensable even if the tradition of British nostalgic pessimism means believing we can never be as good in the future as we once were in the past. Scotland’s own “national anthem” sung this month at the Six Nations rugby matches is a masterclass in nostalgic pessimism. It mourns long-dead heroes: “Oh Flower of Scotland / When will we see your likes again? / That fought and died for / Your wee bit hill and glen.”

I have found her empathetic, warm and, in the best sense, combative and clever

Certainly Ms Sturgeon’s surprise decision has led Scottish nationalists, and their opponents, to wonder if another talented leader can possibly emerge, or if Scottish independence is now dead for a generation. We will learn of possible successors and their talents soon. But after eight challenging years in a very tough job, the First Minister, as she says, needs (and deserves) a break. Yet she is just 52 years old, and my firm prediction is that in a couple of years, a re-energised Ms Sturgeon will again make a positive contribution to Scottish public life in some way.

As for independence being dead — you can’t kill a dream, and it’s been some Scots’ dream for decades. But what will significantly damage the case for independence isn’t Ms Sturgeon leaving. It’s the Labour party winning the next general election.

Last year, after I published a book called How Britain Ends, on how the union of the UK was close to breaking up, I had a number of private conversations with Scottish Conservatives, those strongly opposed independence. Two prominent Tories separately told me that a Labour government was the only chance of saving the union because they both admitted that the Conservatives are so damaged in Scotland. A majority of Scots have not voted Conservative since 1955, and the Conservative party’s Brexit mess and England-centred government made Scotland ripe for the SNP — but now also poised for a possible Labour recovery.

Brexit also helped the SNP independence cause since two thirds of Scots want to stay in the EU and many resent being taken out by “English votes”. But Labour is committed to improve relations with the EU and is talking of big constitutional changes, including abolishing the House of Lords. The upper house of UK Parliament is so unpopular that an Electoral Reform Society poll found only 12 per cent of voters thought it should remain as it is. This opens the door to a new upper house with strong representation from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as English regions. The offer of “Devo Max” (maximum devolution) — more powers for Edinburgh but stopping short of independence — would also help keep Scotland in the UK. It makes the independence case, and inevitable disruption, much less attractive to swing voters.

I have great respect for Ms Sturgeon as a politician and as a communicator. I have found her personally empathetic, warm and, in the best sense, combative and clever. She will be missed, but as my grandfather used to say, the graveyards are full of people who were once deemed “irreplaceable”. Scots should be proud of Ms Sturgeon’s contribution to public life, especially during the coronavirus outbreak when she showed the kind of leadership, engagement and empathy that prime ministers Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak simply don’t have.

Scotland’s population is tiny, five and a half million. That’s roughly the same as Colorado. Yet with Ms Sturgeon, her predecessor Alex Salmond, former prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Scotland can claim plenty of talent. And so, perhaps, the greatest tribute to Nicola came from Donald Trump. The former US president said: “Good riddance to failed woke extremist Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland! This crazed leftist symbolises everything wrong with identity politics.” I laughed out loud when I read these words. So did most of Scotland.

Thanks, Nicola. For annoying the worst US president in history, and much more, you’ll be missed.

Published: February 21, 2023, 2:00 PM