YOU won’t often find me feeling sorry for politicians, but I’ve had to make an exception for Nicola Sturgeon over recent days. She’s rising to the unprecedented challenges of coronavirus, and her party is riding high in the polls – yet within the SNP, plotters are out to get her. The First Minister should be relatively secure and confident, instead internal enemies are circling.

It’s repellent to behold. Power and ambition seem more important than keeping the party of government united at a time of national crisis. Labour and the Tories are doing less to undermine the FM than some on her own side.

Commentators, myself included, have rightly given Sturgeon a hard time for her handling of coronavirus. She’s been too close to the failed, confused – frankly dangerous – policy of Boris Johnson’s government. Now, though, she’s putting clear distance between Scotland and what’s going on south of the border. For that she deserves praise and respect. Her decisions and leadership will save lives in the long run.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t still huge failings in Scotland’s coronavirus response too. There are plenty of deadly errors, most of them the same problems which beset England and the rest of the UK: the rate and level of testing, protective clothing for health workers, the disgrace that’s seen care homes become charnel houses.

But Sturgeon is now trying to shelter the Scottish public from the disaster that is the Johnson government. Johnson is easing the lockdown, Sturgeon’s advice remains ‘stay home’. The UK government’s messaging is confusing. That muddle will cost lives. Sturgeon’s messaging is clear. The UK Government instruction to ‘stay alert’ is all but meaningless. The Prime Minister is in hock to Conservative Party high-rolling donors who want workers back in the harness so he’s rushing to unlock the lockdown. The economy is being placed above health. Profits before people.

As if to underscore the danger of Johnson’s direction, Germany is now seeing infection rates rise as the country starts to ease restrictions. Berlin handled the outbreak with competence. But moving too quickly back to normality risks more deaths as the German experience seems to indicate. Britain has become Europe’s coronavirus clown – other countries are amazed, horrified, by the incompetency of the Johnson government.

The more we rush, the more people are going to die. Sturgeon seems absolutely aware of that, and to be acting accordingly. So, praise to her where it’s due.

Over in SNP-land, however, things are different. There’s been a drip, drip, drip campaign against Sturgeon for some time. We’ve had people like Jim Sillars, former SNP deputy leader, call for “a complete clear-out of the highest levels of the party”. He added that because of the “rot” a new independence party might need to be set up.

Sillars, like many Sturgeon detractors, is motivated by the fall-out from the Alex Salmond trial – the biggest fault-line in the party’s shifting tectonic plates.

Then came Kenny MacAskill, claiming ‘dark forces’ were at work in the Salmond trial. Was the former Justice Secretary genuinely asking Scotland to believe MI5 were behind the prosecution? It seemed the SNP was slipping into some form of post-trial fugue state.

Chris Duffy, national secretary of SNP Students, said MacAskill showed “a level of delusion that should mark him as unfit for office”.

It’s Joanna Cherry, though, who’s seen to long hold the centre of gravity when it comes to the undermining of Nicola Sturgeon. The MP recently wrote: “Currently, we are at the peak of a crisis led by a leader who is widely respected and trusted. However, when the peak of the crisis is over and we start to return to some degree of normality, that won’t be enough.

“After the Second World War was won, when Britain went to the polls, voters chose not the leader who won the war but Clement Attlee, who had a radical plan for the peace.”

Many assume, rightly or wrongly, that Cherry is speaking about herself in the role of Attlee. There have been reports that she made “brazenly disloyal” comments about the government and party leadership.

Some prominent SNP politicians have flirted with the nastier, divisive elements of the online fringe. This ‘cybernat’ wing has sometimes attacked Sturgeon, seeing her as too progressive on social issues like trans rights, and too cautious on independence. Is it surprising, then, amid this division that a new independence party has been set up, the Independence for Scotland Party?

And all this as a recent opinion poll found the SNP, under Sturgeon, would command a huge lead at the next Holyrood elections.

The SNP has always had a fractious, bitter, conspiratorial base, which some politicians have pandered to in the past. Now, it seems as if the base is coming overground, as if the base is set on taking the party over. For that to happen, Sturgeon must go. How could a populist vision of any party ever be led by a thoughtful, restrained, social democrat? Populist parties need big gobs and even bigger egos at the helm chucking red meat to hardline supporters.

As someone who voted Yes in 2014 and would, most likely, vote Yes again in any future referendum, the state of the SNP is appalling to behold. I’m not an instinctive SNP supporter, but I’ve voted SNP in the past due to the combination of Sturgeon’s social democratic credentials, and her gradualist, caveated approach to independence.

However, will I ever vote SNP again? What if I vote SNP in 2021, backing Sturgeon’s vision for Scotland, and end up with something very different if she’s dethroned, something which I’ve no trust in, and which, frankly, repels me?

I reckon many moderate Yes voters like me – greatly discomfited by nationalism, but hopeful that a better Scotland can be forged away from the failed Westminster model – would think twice about voting for an SNP without Sturgeon at the helm.

Don’t get me wrong. Sturgeon is no saviour of the nation. She’s a flawed human being like the rest of us, and a politician to boot – so she’ll never work miracles. But her heart is in the right place and she’s a woman of intelligence, dignity and integrity. The same can’t be said about many of her party colleagues.

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