IT seems most folk trust Nicola Sturgeon to run Scotland over Boris Johnson – regardless of party-political allegiance.
A new Panelbase poll, commissioned by Scot Goes Pop, found 53% of folk sampled think it would be safer if airport checks and border controls (currently controlled by Westminster) were in the hands of Holyrood. Only 21% said they’d feel “less safe” if the First Minister was completely in charge.
Labour voters were more likely to trust the FM (59%) and even Tory voters preferred Nicola to Boris in charge (38% against 35%).
That prompts a lot of pride and a fair amount of guilt. After all, this rise in trust has come about because of a pandemic that’s claimed tens of thousands of lives and there’s no escaping the fact that Scotland mostly looks good because our closest neighbour has the worst Covid death rate in Europe. We all know the grim reality – we are not so far behind.
So, it would be rash to feel o’er chuffed. Pride comes before a fall, and things could easily change.
Yet, in life and in politics, leaders must play the hand they are dealt.
And clearly, Nicola Sturgeon and her team, with only a fraction of the powers and resources available to Number 10, have played a strong hand, exceeding the low expectations of naysayers and winning over substantial parts of the pro-Brexit, pro-Union and Conservative vote. And not just on any old subject, but on the most difficult issues for a party calling for radical, disruptive constitutional change – trust and safety. Well done to James Kelly of Scot Goes Pop for choosing such insightful questions.
So, what exactly is it about the First Minister’s approach that’s won over sceptics during the Covid crisis, and can it be transferred to the case for independence?
Firstly, Nicola is a planner. She signposts changes to let folk respond, adjust, get their heids round new situations and prepare, instead of announcing changes overnight, like folk who’ve never done a school run in their lives. That means there have been few of the confidence-hammering U-turns we’ve seen over kids returning to schools down south.
Secondly, Nicola explains her thinking clearly and accessibly, instead of insulting the intelligence of voters with a “hail fellow well met” routine that fails to conceal Boris Johnson’s struggle with detail and inability to master a brief. Crucially, the BBC have given the First Minister a daily platform to build a relationship with voters – and evidently the more folk hear and see Nicola Sturgeon in action and can Go Compare with Boris, the more they like her style.
Thirdly, Nicola has charted a different course to Westminster, which is more in sync with scientists and public opinion. And that’s an important lesson to learn. The First Minister has a daily BBC platform precisely because she is acting, not just speaking.
Mind you, the words chosen and the way they are delivered do really matter. Scots are massively (perhaps unduly) impressed by articulate speakers. The suppression of both our mither tongues has left a legacy of silence and hesitation. So, a little piece of empowerment is delivered every time Scots realise the calm, articulate, authoritative voice of government belongs to a woman from Irvine, not a blustering man from Eton. This smart, un-daunted, hard-working woman argues intelligently, robustly and intelligibly – instead of hiding behind cliché, posh evasion and status like her counterparts down south. She sounds like us. She explains herself like us. Nicola Sturgeon sounds like we hope we would do under pressure – day after day after day. And, in a country where being funny is perhaps more important than being right, Janey Godley’s voiceovers are the ultimate compliment. Godley’s colourful version of the FM’s thinking gives punch, focus and the gist of an hour-long exchange with journalists in 50 pithy seconds. It’s not quite a Chuckle Sisters act – the politician and the comedian are not exactly on the same legislative footing. But they are on the same wavelength. And the FM’s been wise enough to embrace her straight-talking, sair-footed alter ego instead of loftily rebuffing the gallus Ms Godley.
MEANWHILE, doon the road, UK press briefings feature a Prime Minister whose credibility will never recover from the Dominic Cummings scandal and Matt Hancock, a prickly, defensive man who won’t answer questions and seems hyper conscious of his ever-diminishing status.
So, let’s agree, the First Minister’s got very special communication skills.
The question is, can they be transferred to make the same spirited case for independence, or does this surge in personal trust and support relate only to the special conditions of the pandemic?
Of course, many aspects of Covid don’t carry over to any other situation. This is first and foremost a health emergency and much of Nicola Sturgeon’s support probably arises from her resolute refusal to campaign for independence right now. As soon as party politics and independence are mentioned, it’s entirely possible the spell will be broken.
Boris Johnson and his henchman aren’t going anywhere – so the very visible and audible comparison between the two leaders will continue.
And another public emergency is looming in the shape of Brexit. Up till now it’s been perceived as more of a political stooshie. But that was before the Scottish public witnessed UK Government fiddling while folk died. Now that same government is determined to press on regardless with the biggest peacetime change to our lives (Covid-excepted) promising no disruption to food, jobs, standards or medical supplies. Not just galling and even nauseating for the 62% who voted Remain, but scary too. Because who believes Boris now?
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Already unlikely bedfellows back the First Minister’s call for an extension to the transition period and Henry McLeish’s call for a Scotland-only deal has prompted some encouraging noises from Michel Barnier.
Indeed, just like the Covid crisis – where the World Health Organisation’s rules have been endorsed by the Scottish Government but largely ignored by Westminster – another powerful international player is about to demonstrate the vast difference between the standards, outlook and politics of the British and Scottish governments. Except that this time, when the public emergency of Brexit begins, when the dreadful terms of the trade deal with an utterly discredited US President Donald Trump are laid bare, and when it becomes apparent that our country is even less prepared to tackle the climate crisis (our next public emergency), there won’t be a choice of approaches, a choice of leaders or any protection for Scots by having a sensible woman in charge.
Nicola Sturgeon’s trusted and popular approach to Brexit will be kicked roundly into the long grass and Boris will have the field and the airwaves to himself again. Will that seem acceptable to the majority of Scots who prefer the FM’s Covid track record to the PM’s?
The credibility and trust a leader gains – or loses – in a public health emergency like Covid don’t evaporate. If she has the energy, Nicola Sturgeon’s sense of purpose, clarity and popularity can be carried over into the forthcoming Brexit emergency. But this time the planning, signposting, explaining, communicating and above all the FM’s actions must have one goal – to make it crystal clear to voters that the only way for Scots to guarantee our future is through independence.