Rounding off just over eight years in power Nicola Sturgeon made her 286th and last First Minister’s closing speech last week. As she finished her speech and made her exit, she received a standing ovation from MSPs. At this moment I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of sadness but also pride, as this signifies for many an end of an era. Undeniably Sturgeon has been a prominent and powerful figure within Scottish, UK and global politics.
She has spearheaded numerous successful campaigns and with a total of eight election wins, she has an electoral record that most other politicians could only dream of. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she was admired for her leadership and calm head in the face of adversity with one poll by Ipsos finding that 82 per cent of Scots thought that Sturgeon had handled the pandemic well, meanwhile, only 30 per cent felt that Boris Johnson had managed the pandemic effectively. This was largely down to her ability to directly communicate and transmit messages to the Scottish public with clarity. This was one of her most outstanding qualities. She made you want to listen and is widely considered to be a highly competent public speaker and skilled political operator.
I was struck by just how much it came across that Sturgeon cared about equality and social justice. She was a rare politician who could be related to, who you felt had her heart in the right place and who truly wanted what was best for her fellow Scots. Her humanity was cemented further when I watched her as a guest panellist on Loose Women where she discussed the Baby Box policy that she had introduced which ensured that all parents of new-borns were provided with essentials and some extras - such as clothing, a digital thermometer, a cellular blanket, books and poems - in an attempt to make sure every child has an equal start in life.
During her time as First Minister, Sturgeon created a more gender-balanced cabinet and increased the number of female employees recruited by the Scottish Government. This alongside her position as the longest-serving and first female First Minister of Scotland surely makes her an icon and inspiration to many women and girls throughout the UK and the wider international community.
But, what will her legacy be, and to what extent, have the policies she promoted under her tenure impacted Scottish society and influenced the trajectory of Scottish politics?
Let’s consider the political environment in which some of these policies were implemented and under what circumstances Sturgeon had to function. She had to work in a situation where her ability to govern was limited as a result of the constraints of devolution. All of this was in the face of a UK Government which often attempted to restrict legislation that they disagreed with and actively attempted, and sometimes successfully, managed to halt. A substantial amount of time and energy was spent by Sturgeon mitigating the impact of the Conservative policy implemented in Westminster.
For example, included in Sturgeon’s list of achievements is that she successfully managed to reduce the harm caused by the highly unethical Tory bedroom tax. This assisted 91,000 households in maintaining their tenancies. She also was successful in reducing the effects of the benefit cap, helping a substantial number of households. This, for me, demonstrated her commitment to making use of the powers of the Scottish Government to protect the interests of potentially vulnerable people.
Another achievement that I believe Sturgeon can be truly proud of is the huge strides that were made towards tackling child poverty in Scotland. Although official poverty statistics published by the Scottish Government for 2019-2022 show that one in four children are still in poverty, the Child Poverty Action Group noted that we have not yet seen the impact of newly implemented policies such as the increases to the Scottish Child Payment. This has seen the Scottish Child Payment increase by 150 per cent which is estimated to have benefitted around 387,000 children in Scotland. It is deemed the most robust and progressive anti-poverty measure in the UK.
As if this wasn’t enough, Sturgeon was also successful in obtaining collective backing for the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act which set out statutory child poverty targets and imposes an obligation on the Scottish Government to produce plans on how exactly they will meet those goals.
The Scottish Government under Sturgeon’s guidance has shown that it is prepared to use tax powers to make effective use of some of the resources that Scotland has. This includes the support that has been provided to fund more robust welfare safety nets for working and non-working families. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the effects of these tax and benefits policies will mean the poorest 30 per cent of households with children will see their finances improved by around £2000 a year.
That’s not to be snuffed at.
Sturgeon has made massive steps, larger steps than any other politician, towards putting in place the foundations and some of the necessary machinery to eliminate child poverty. She has shown a very honest commitment towards the cause of child poverty and has done her best to utilise devolved powers to confront the issue head-on.
Most importantly, based on evaluations by the Scottish Government, underlying these statistics are that some families are now able to support themselves and put food on the table without experiencing stress and shame as a result of having to depend on food banks. Children are offered more opportunities to participate in cultural and social activities with their friends from which they were previously excluded and the mental health of several parents has improved as they have gained some relief from financial pressures.
And whatever your opinion is you’ve got to admit, that’s pretty decent.
By no stretch of the imagination does this mean that the job is completed in terms of eliminating child poverty in Scotland. The cost-of-living crisis has meant that the number of people who are struggling to meet their primary and secondary needs is far too high. It will be up to Humza Yousaf, the new SNP Leader and First Minister, to take up the mantle and continue to drive the progress that has already been made by his predecessor on these issues.
Although not without her ups and downs, it is fair to say that Nicola Sturgeon can be proud of her time in office and the mark she has left on Scottish politics. The imprint of which can be used as a progressive framework for successive governments to work from.