Nationalist movements are usually big-tent political operations. They tend to be ideologically centrist or even incoherent, forced by their political commitments and environment to be all things to all people—or at least to all of “the people.” In claiming to speak for the nation as an integrated whole, nationalists draw the fundamental political boundary not between left and right, but between self and other. On one side is the national self united under one nationalist banner struggling for freedom against the oppressive foreign other, who has no part with “us.”
Thus all nationalists tend to preach inclusivity, yet none more so than Scottish National Party leader and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, who just announced her resignation. For nearly 20 years, she sat aside or at the pinnacle of the Scottish independence movement, long praised in media and academia for its commitment to an inclusive “civic,” rather than divisive “ethnic,” form of nationalism. Throughout her stints as deputy leader and then leader of the SNP as well as deputy first minister and then first minister of Scotland, Sturgeon consistently voiced her personal and political commitment to inclusion.
In 2012, she insisted, “The Scotland we seek is modern, welcoming and inclusive.” After the SNP’s victory in the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary election, she identified “inclusion” as “the guiding principle for everything we do. It encapsulates what we stand for as a party and it describes the kind of country we want Scotland to be.” In 2021, she pointed to the right of 16- and 17-year-olds, as well as of noncitizen residents, to vote in Scottish elections as “a tangible symbol of the inclusive country we are.”
Sturgeon was long the happy warrior against the dying embers of Scottish sectarianism, attempting to limit Protestant Orange Order marches in Glasgow and even defending the criminalization of sectarian songs at football matches. She opposed Brexit in part because “in an age when intolerance and bigotry seem to be on the rise, the values of the European Union—values of democracy, equality, solidarity, the rule of law and respect for human rights—are more important than ever.” In her resignation news conference on Wednesday, Sturgeon said, “I will always be a voice for inclusion” and appealed to the better angels of Scots’ nature, urging them “to depolarize public debate just a bit, to focus more on issues, and to reset the tone and tenor of our discourse.”
The irony in all of this rhetoric is that Nicola Sturgeon rarely practiced what she preached. The soon-to-be-former first minister was always vigorously dedicated to her own brand of anti-Conservative, anti-London sectarianism. In 2019, she declared, “The Scotland we seek is open, welcoming, diverse and inclusive, and no Tory is ever going to be allowed to change that.” In 2022: “I detest the Tories and everything they stand for.” Earlier this year, she condemned some undefined share of the opponents to the SNP’s gender self-recognition bill as “deeply misogynist, often homophobic, possibly some of them racist, as well.” She is rightly famous for her 2014 confession that “Thatcher was the motivation for my entire political career. I hated everything she stood for.” This last statement is or should be the most striking of all, for in both fanaticism and divisiveness there is no British politician of the last 50 years that Sturgeon resembles more.
Sturgeon’s failures of inclusion in word have been met by failures in deed. Since Sturgeon became first minister, Scotland has become only less equal, less fair, and less inclusive. Life expectancy in Scotland has stagnated since 2014, while the life expectancy gap between the least and most deprived areas of Scotland has widened, not narrowed. The country’s Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality, has, if anything, slightly increased since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, while persistent poverty rates for adults haven’t changed in a decade. Housing wealth inequality has been on the increase since 2011. Despite an effort costing more than $1 billion to “substantially eliminate” the educational attainment gap between the most and least advantaged schools in Scotland, academic performance differences remain as large as they were among the youngest students while only slightly smaller among older cohorts.
Shortcomings are, of course, consistently the fault of “Westminster,” “London,” and “the Tories,” despite the fact that Scotland today is about the most autonomous subnational government in the world. That this line of political argument is taken seriously at all is thanks in part to the panicked concessions made by the three major UK-wide political parties in 2014 on the cusp of the Scottish independence referendum. Fearing a “Yes” victory, Westminster politicians pledged a robust set of new powers to be devolved to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. Their signal mistake, however, was in creating a politically disastrous—or beneficial, depending on your view on independence—imbalance between taxing and spending. About one-fourth of all revenues raised in Scotland today are through taxes devolved to and levied by Holyrood or Scottish local governments, while some 60 percent of all public spending is through them. The result is a rather dishonest form of social democracy in Scotland, where the SNP takes credit for spending while the Conservatives in Westminster take the blame for limiting it (by limiting taxation). It is the very nature of Britain’s constitutional settlement since 2016 that has allowed Sturgeon’s Scotland to be so long on rhetoric while so short on accomplishments.
Of course, the SNP could have thrown caution to the wind, realized its social-democratic promise, and ramped up taxation on the small portion of Scottish revenue-generation that it does control. But the SNP never did that. It chose instead to deviate from Tory income-tax policy set in London by a paltry 1 percent, maintain a local property-tax regime akin to California’s Proposition 13 (which sharply limits property taxes), and operate a business tax regime it brags is more friendly than England’s. Rather than take up the mantle of Old Labour, the SNP under Sturgeon came to resemble instead a professional-class party much like the Liberal Democrats or Canada’s Liberal Party. That Sturgeon decided to go down with the ship of transgenderism is particularly telling. No issue today better defines the gulf between the interests and values of working-class versus professional-class voters.
Nine years of Scottish “inclusivity” show that inclusion is rarely as it appears. Rather than a promise to incorporate all citizens or stakeholders in a manner in which everyone feels welcomed and comfortable in being themselves, inclusion is just another managerial-class buzzword to empower some interests over others. Of course, this is how politics should be, at least within limits. Governments are elected to serve the interests and values of the voters who put them into power, while keeping an eye on the public interest. It is telling that Nicola Sturgeon’s devotion to radical inclusivity required not only the exclusion but the demonization of her feminist, Christian, and unionist critics. It is fitting that it contributed to her downfall.