The rebranding of Nicola Sturgeon
The SNP leader has chosen the climate as her latest top priority.
The First Minister is having a grand old time at COP26.
She has no official role in the proceedings but she’s still managed to be photographed gabbing with Joe Biden, schmoozing with Angela Merkel and even welcomed an ‘uncomfortable’ meeting with Greta Thunberg. Nicola’s a different kind of politician, you see.
The climate change summit came along at just the right time, not only because it might save the planet but because it rides to the rescue of an even more important enterprise: the rebranding of Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP’s 14 years in government have charted the search for a relatable public image for Sturgeon. She has been heartfelt champion of the NHS, egalitarian face of the Yes campaign, bookish saviour of Scottish education, internationalist scourge of Brexit, caring mother of the nation, and identity politics progressive. It’s hard to tell which, if any, of these is the real Sturgeon.
It surely isn’t this latest phase as the Green Gaia of Glasgow Southside, for environmental policy is clearly not her metier. It wasn’t until Reykjavik 2016, and almost two years into her tenure, that Sturgeon gave a speech of any significance on climate change. Today she speaks like this: ‘This generation of leaders will not be forgiven, should not be forgiven, if there is not action taken over this next two weeks that lives up to the scale of the urgent challenge the world is facing.’ She has even picked up a couple of Green ministers for her government. Neither seems to do much and both do it badly when they do, so they fit in with their surroundings.
It’s not that Sturgeon has merely gone from indifference to intense interest on the climate; she’s done a 180 with the handbrake on. In 2014, she was campaigning for independence on the strength of the Scottish Government's white paper, which touted ‘up to 24 billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas remaining in the North Sea with the potential for production to continue for decades to come’ and pledged to use the tax system to ‘maximise oil and gas recovery, and to encourage development in the most technically challenging oil and gas fields’.
In 2015, she fought the general election from a personally branded helicopter that carried her around Scotland to address the voters. In 2016, she was still telling Holyrood: 'With up to 20 billion barrels of oil still to be recovered from the North Sea, it is clear that with the right investment and the right interventions now, the industry can and will have a bright future.’
Asking how Sturgeon went from drilling 20 billion drums of crude out of the continental shelf to pronouncing it 'fundamentally wrong' to do so — and made this philosophical crossover in just five years — is a futile exercise. There is no intellectual journey to be traced, no revolutionary iskra that radicalised her on the climate. The scale of the crisis was long established by 2016 — the year the Paris Agreement was signed — and Sturgeon herself was to be heard promoting renewables. She's hardly the first politician to undergo a Damascene conversion, though she might be the first to start the journey in an SUV and finish it on an upcycled BMX. What changed was not the science or even the parliamentary arithmetic all that much. What changed was the political needs of Nicola Sturgeon.
The SNP leader would protest her sincerity on this issue as she did on all her past priorities. I've no doubt that she cares about the climate just as she cared about the attainment gap, child poverty, and the health service. What I question is her preparedness to turn warm ‘n’ fuzzies into transformative policy, and the likelihood that she will stick with climate a few years hence when modish opinion and the strategic demands of the day throw up a new cause.
There is good reason for scepticism: just look at Sturgeon's record on the climate. The Scottish Government set itself seven sectoral targets for reducing emissions in 2018. It is failing to meet five of them: transport, industry, waste, services and residential. Ministers promised that 11 per cent of non-electrical heating would be from renewable sources by 2020; the target was never reached and fell back to 6.4 per cent last year. This summer, Sturgeon’s administration missed its ‘legally binding’ emissions standard for the third year on the trot. The legal pollution limit was met for the first time last year — because lockdown reduced the volume of cars in city centres.
It took a year for a £100 million green jobs fund to begin being allocated and a declaration that 'low carbon employment in Scotland could increase by at least 60,000 by 2020' turned out to lean rather heavily on that 'could': the actual figure was 3,300. The SNP inherited a target from the Lib-Lab Executive to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016; before the pandemic hit, it was hovering at 25 per cent.
Scotland exports three tonnes of disposable waste every minute and domestic recycling, which must hit 70 per cent by 2025, is currently at 45 per cent. A ban on dumping biodegradable waste in municipal landfills, due to come into force this year, has been kicked into the long grass of 2025.
Key to cutting carbon emissions is getting people out of cars and onto public transport, bikes or their own two feet. Yet between 1999 and 2019, the number of households with two or more cars jumped from less than one-in-five to almost one-in-three. The percentage of women and men driving to work has risen to six-in-ten and almost two-thirds, respectively.
Twenty years ago, less than one-fifth of children were driven to school; today, it is one-quarter. The number of cars travelling with a single occupant has surged from 56 per cent to 65 per cent, while bus travel is at its lowest level since 2002. There have been modest dips in the number of adults walking to work and children walking to school.
The SNP government continues to advocate for a third runway at Heathrow — Sturgeon even has a formal memorandum of understanding with the airport — and ministers still operate their own flight hub at Prestwick. The First Minister vows to cut Scotland's emissions by 75 per cent by 2030, a target Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, calls 'overcooked'. That's probably a good shout: Net Zero Secretary Michael Matheson confirmed in an interview last week that an independent Scotland would continue drilling for oil and gas.
What so much remote writing about Scotland fails to capture is the shortfall between Sturgeon's rhetoric and her government's record — and the chasm between the level of scrutiny applied to Westminster governments and that which is applied to their Holyrood counterparts.
Few London think tanks routinely do rigorous analysis of policy outcomes north of the border and the handful of homegrown outfits Scotland manages to sustain are mostly small, niche or politically committed. While the relationship between Whitehall and many third-sector organisations ranges from cool to openly hostile, SNP ministers benefit from the reliance of native charities and pressure groups on access and funding and a Civic Scotland with more than its fair share of nationalists in senior roles.
Scotland has long been a dominant-party system but, after two decades of the devolution experiment, it is plainly also a limited-accountability system. It's still democracy, of course, but democracy stripped down to its bare essentials. A reduced-to-clear political system made with own-brand ingredients but everyone gets mad if you point out the product is less than premium.
As important as COP26 and climate policy are, this goes to something more fundamental — a dysfunction in Scottish politics which locks in mediocrity and rewards those who embrace it. What happens when you're under-scrutinised and can expect to win the next election and the one after that? You set targets. You talk up your targets. You ‘overcook’ your targets. You miss your targets. You promise to meet your targets next year and it doesn’t matter if you ever do because the cycle of democratic inertia continues to churn in your favour.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 8, 2021.
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