I have to admit my hopes for Alex Cole-Hamilton, the new leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, were not high. I remember his performance at the Alex Salmond inquiry: embarrassing. I realise, like everyone else, the size of his party at Holyrood: tiny. And I can see the scale of the job he has ahead of him in trying to take on the SNP: huge. So all in all: not hopeful really.
But I think it would be fair to say that, in recent days, Mr Cole-Hamilton has shown something of an ability to generate good political headlines. Among other things, he’s been strong on vaccine passports and the NHS. But he’s also been good at nipping away at the First Minister and his most recent critique was particularly interesting. It’s worth talking about a bit more.
What Mr Cole-Hamilton said was that Nicola Sturgeon is “knackered” and will be gone before the next election. Indeed, he pointed out that if she stays until 2026, she’ll have been in power for as long as Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. He also suggested that when Ms Sturgeon does eventually go, there will be no one of the same stature to take over and the “edifice will crumble”. There are plenty of people in the SNP who agree with that prediction, including I suspect Ms Sturgeon herself.
But what I’d like to talk about a bit more is the comparison Mr Cole-Hamilton made with Thatcher because it’s more instructive that you think. Famously, Ms Sturgeon has said a few times that she was inspired to get into politics in the first place by her dislike for Mrs Thatcher and the Tory policies in the 1980s. But power and government can do strange things to people and, ominously, there’s nothing in the rule book that says you can’t end up turning into the thing you dislike.
Obviously, I don’t want to go too far: Nicola Sturgeon and Margaret Thatcher are utterly different people. But the working class girl from Ayrshire and the middle class girl from Lincolnshire both ended up running their countries for a long a time and some of the effects can be similar. Mr Cole-Hamilton said, for example, that one of the mistakes Sturgeon has made is that she’s controlling and won’t relinquish real power to people beneath her and all of that was certainly true of Thatcher as well.
Look a bit deeper and there are other similarities too – of character, convictions, and circumstances. As Mr Cole-Hamilton pointed out, Ms Sturgeon appears to be knackered and that’s probably because she’s been determined to take all the virus briefings herself and is something of a workaholic (again, very much like the woman she grew up hating).
There are other political qualities the two women share. Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech in 1990 – the one that was the catalyst for Michael Heseltine’s leadership challenge – accused Thatcher of an obsession with the EU and a feeling that it was out to get us. Mrs Thatcher, he said, seemed to “look out upon a continent that is positively teeming with ill-intentioned people scheming to extinguish democracy and to dissolve our national identities” and Nicola Sturgeon, it seems to me, has a very similar obsessional view of Westminster – driven, as Mrs Thatcher’s views were, by a strong (some might say sentimental) sense of nationality.
It’s also not difficult to detect, in those last days of Thatcher, a few warning signs for Sturgeon for the future. In many ways, their situations are flipped: Thatcher remained popular with her party to the end but had become deeply unpopular with many of her MPs whereas Sturgeon, broadly, retains the support of both her party and her politicians, although the seam of discontent represented by Alba should not be under-estimated.
However, there’s another interesting similarity with Thatcher that Nicola Sturgeon might like to note if she’s hopeful of converting many more voters from No to Yes. Charles Moore writes about it in the third volume of his Thatcher biography. The former PM was, he says, guilty of an intellectual and perhaps emotional failure to understand some ways of thinking, including Scottish nationalism. “She found it very hard,” he says “to see why a Scot might regard the governance of the UK differently from an Englishwoman (or man).” And couldn’t we say something similar about the First Minister? Can she see why a Scot might regard the governance of Scotland differently from her?
In his book, Charles Moore actually goes quite a bit further. Mrs Thatcher’s inability to recognise the validity of the other person’s point of view, he says, was a problem for her colleagues but it was a problem for the country too. The angry tone of some of her rhetoric, he says, could be disproportionate and off-putting to some voters. She also talked more and listened less in her later years, and most importantly she lost some of her ability to catch the political wind.
All of this, I think, carries a warning for Nicola Sturgeon but perhaps there’s a solution in there for her as well. Charles Moore talks about the famous “Sermon on the Mound”, the speech Mrs Thatcher made to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 and in particular her mention of the hymn I Vow to Thee my Country. Interestingly, it was a sense of nationalism that she was seeking to appeal to here, or what she called secular patriotism, and nothing could express it better, she said, than the words of the hymn: “I vow to thee my country all earthly things above; entire, whole and perfect the service of my love.”
Many nationalists – Scottish, British, whatever – may feel a connection to those words, or at least the sentiments they express (I don’t as it happens – I think they’re ludicrous). But consider the response to Mrs Thatcher’s speech at the time. The Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, for instance, was not impressed. There was certainty and conviction in the speech, and definitely a sense of purpose, but the Archbishop’s complaint was it did not have much to say to the “muddled seeker after truth” – in other words, the person who does not share the same certainty or conviction or sense of purpose of someone like Margaret Thatcher. Or Nicola Sturgeon.
What I’m suggesting here is that, seven years on from the 2014 independence referendum, there are a lots of voters in Scotland who fall into the muddled category. They are uncertain what’s best for the country. They haven’t made up their minds on how they might vote in another referendum. They are, to put it another way, muddled seekers after truth.
The question for Nicola Sturgeon is how she can convince such voters. Is it by continuing to display some of the qualities she shares with Margaret Thatcher and, to be fair, lots of other politicians? Certainty. Triumphalism. And occasionally a contempt for people with different points of view. Or perhaps she could try an alternative. Perhaps the muddled seekers after truth would appreciate a glimpse of other qualities. Like doubt. Or caution. Or humility.
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