That question asked by Macduff in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth was given the answer, “alas poor country, almost afraid to know itself”.
Now things aren’t that bad, but the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon allows us to ask if the 2014 poll on independence was indeed a once in a generation event, and that the Scots government should attend to health, drugs and education issues for the next couple of decades.
I am always sorry to see able women leave the highest positions in politics. There are still too few in a world still dominated by the male, pale and stale. The pile on that Sturgeon has had to endure proved too much even for this tough campaigner who has achieved phenomenal election success and recognition during her political career.
But that very success begs an important question. If, with a huge majority in the Scottish Parliament, with being driven out of the European Union against their wishes and with shambolic Tory governments operating in London, Sturgeon could hardly move the dial on Scottish opinion for independence, who can and in what circumstances?
The fact is that, with small movements either way Scottish opinion is roughly 55% to 45% against independence, much as it was in the referendum in 2014. Sturgeon wanted evidence of the settled will of the Scottish people in opinion polls around a 60-40 split in favour over a sustained period before she risked a second referendum. That is why splits began to develop in the SNP with former leader Alex Salmond’s breakaway Alba Party criticising Sturgeon’s cautious approach.
But other things have been going wrong for the outgoing Scottish First Minister. Education improvement targets have been missed and the country has one of the worst drug problems in the world. The Supreme Court ruling that the Scottish government does not have power to call a referendum on independence put a massive roadblock in Sturgeon’s path.
However it is often a second rank issue that is fatal to long standing leaders. The poll tax showed Margaret Thatcher as out of touch and dismissive of advice. So with the Gender Recognition Act for Nicola Sturgeon. It was shown to be flawed in spectacular fashion within days of passing through the Scottish Parliament and is the wrong issue to take through a constitutional struggle with Westminster.
The currently declared candidates to succeed Sturgeon shows the difficulty the SNP are in. Humza Yousaf, the Health Secretary, seems to be the continuity candidate, but health issues have increased under his watch. The other two candidates may be defined by the gender row. Ash Regan resigned from government over the issue and the rising star, Finance Minister Kate Forbes is a strong member of the presbyterian Free Church of Scotland. On the other hand, the latter candidates may gain support if SNP members want to distance themselves from the gender issue.
It would seem that Labour can only benefit from Sturgeon’s departure. The loss of its 40 odd MPs was a massive handicap to winning a UK election. Getting half those back would help get Keir Starmer across the line. It will depend on enough Scottish voters concluding that they need to focus on what a Labour government at Westminster can do to help with health and education rather than the independence issue.