THE 2010 General Election was held in the aftermath of the financial crash, and after 13 years of Labour government. PM Gordon Brown sought to counter the sense it was time for a change by arguing it was “no time for a novice”. His appeal failed.

After 14 years in power, as the country tackles another emergency, Nicola Sturgeon is making much the same election pitch. Scotland, she says, needs “experienced leadership” at this time of crisis. Where Brown’s message failed, Sturgeon’s appears to have more traction. So it’s pertinent to ask if Scottish voters are right to entrust Scotland’s recovery to her leadership.

Covid is a crisis in two parts. For the last year we’ve endured an acute health crisis. The full force of the economic crisis is yet to be felt. Its effects will cast a long shadow. Scotland’s hospitality and tourism industries have in particular been hit for six. Who can predict with any confidence how long it will take for the economy to bounce back, businesses to be rebuilt and the damage done to our public finances repaired?

Salmond v Sturgeon divide shows independence has lost its bloom

Ms Sturgeon has won widespread approval for her handling of the health crisis. She’s been no more successful than other UK leaders in mitigating the pandemic’s effects. Yet she’s cut a more reassuringly steady figure at her daily press briefings, in tune with a national mood of extreme caution. Only the most churlish of opponents would fail to concede that her ability to communicate with clarity and empathy has been a demonstration of effective leadership.

However, locking down for prolonged periods an entire population, whilst retaining its confidence, involves different skills to helping Scotland back on its feet. And restoring to health our economy will need more than effective communications. Protecting lives has demanded caution; restoring livelihoods requires bold and imaginative action, including being prepared to work with, not in isolation from, the UK Government. There’s little in Ms Sturgeon’s ministerial record to suggest she’s up to the task.

Scotland’s economic performance after three SNP terms remains stuck in a rut, persistently lagging the UK as a whole pre-pandemic. Economy growing more slowly. New business formation below the UK average. Low rate of business scale-ups. Low levels of business investment. Export targets missed and – unlike the UK as whole – stubbornly failing to grow as a share of the Scottish economy.

Experts point to a Scottish Government that’s lost its economic focus. Three years ago the Fraser of Allander Institute contrasted the Scottish Government’s clarity of purpose in 2007 “to deliver faster sustainable economic growth”, with growth of a different kind. A plethora of economic strategies (even an Arctic Strategy), plans, initiatives, targets, agencies and councils, which are the hallmark of Sturgeon-led government. Last week’s Oxford Economics report for the Hunter Foundation reaches much the same conclusion. The impression is of a government proferring announcements in the absence of real achievements.

A recent addition to the cluttered landscape is the much vaunted Scottish National Investment Bank, established to provide Scottish businesses with ‘patient capital’. The capital may be patient, but Ms Sturgeon’s demands for positive PR are not. At its November launch she breathlessly declared the SNIB to be “one of the most significant developments in the lifetime of this Parliament”. This is like declaring yourself the winner of the Edinburgh Marathon before you’ve even crossed the start line.

Given the poor returns from Scottish Government investments – think Prestwick Airport, Ferguson Marine and BiFab – waiting a few years before passing judgement on the SNIB’s significance might be wise. But hey, needs must when you can’t pat yourself on the back for closing the educational attainment gap, reducing poverty, hitting cancer treatment targets, tackling drug deaths and other ‘priorities’ discarded along the way.

So how to explain this failure to deliver? In a word – temperament. Unlike her predecessor, the First Minister seems to have little interest in or affinity with the nation’s wealth and job creators.

For all his faults, Alex Salmond at least seemed to grasp that before money can be spent improving public services, the wealth to pay for them has to be generated first. Nicola Sturgeon seems happier playing Lady Bountiful – even raiding UK Treasury-provided Covid emergency funds to extend in an election year otherwise unfunded free school meals and free bus travel.

The FM’s famously on top of her brief. Yet pressed in interviews on economic, financial or business issues, she often seems ill-at-ease, the trademark fluency deserting her. Speaking English as if it were a foreign language – lines learnt, not innate.

Scotland’s business community has noticed and is grumbling. Sir Tom Hunter spoke for many when he said last summer: “We do not believe the Scottish Government understands or engages enough with business”. A few months later Steve Dunlop (no relation) surprisingly quit his job as Scottish Enterprise’s CEO amid well-informed speculation the agency felt unsupported by ministers. And many entrepreneurs who were enthusiastic independence backers in 2014, like Jim McColl, have become increasingly scunnered with the Scottish Government’s lack of grip on business issues.

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Nothing betrays how out of touch Nicola Sturgeon is with the priorities of Covid-blighted businesses and job seekers than her assertion independence isn’t a distraction from Scotland’s recovery, but essential to it.

Whatever your view of independence, it takes a special kind of ideological delusion to think it sensible to inflict upon your country – already reeling from health and economic crises – a constitutional crisis as well. If ever there was a time to pull together it’s now. Instead, years of painful negotiations followed by further years of SNP induced austerity are foreshadowed, as a separated Scotland adjusts to leaving the UK’s arrangements for pooling and sharing resources.

The contrast between Nicola Sturgeon’s careful response to the health crisis and her careless approach to the economic crisis couldn’t be clearer. That’s the ‘experienced leadership’ she’s offering. Scotland deserves better.

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