And so the Age of Nicola dawns. Elected First Minister by the Scottish Parliament yesterday; sworn in this morning. Taking First Minister’s Questions this afternoon. Alex Salmond’s departure was a long drawn-out affair but it will not take Nicola Sturgeon anything like as long to leave her own distinct impression on Scottish politics.
I am not sure why folk at Westminster thought the referendum defeat would plunge the SNP into crisis. That might have been the case if the result had been 65-35 but that, despite what some thought, was never, ever, a likely outcome. Senior SNP strategists knew winning might be difficult but they also reckoned that anything above 40 percent support for independence would be enough to change the dynamics of Scottish – and British – politics for good. Forty percent was their firewall and they knew that, absent calamity, they would get that.
So it has proved. Conventional wisdom assures us that Nicola will move the SNP towards the left. But such a shift, if it happens, is more likely, I think, to reflect a shift in emphasis than a radical upheaval of the SNP’s message. The party has triumphed by occupying the centre-ground. It would be strange to abandon that territory now.
Clearly, however, there will be some change. It is quite evident that issues of gender equality are more important to Nicola than they were to Alex Salmond. Equally, she will treat energy policy seriously but it ranks lower on her list of political passions than it did on her predecessors’. I’d expect her to reveal a cabinet that enjoys a 50-50 split. She might even joke that there’s no reason why men cannot be expected to do as well as women. No reason why they cannot be expected to hold half her ministerial posts.
That means jettisoning some of the old guard. Most of us, I think, expect Kenny McAskill and Mike Russell to receive their jotters. These changes are shifts of style as much as substance since the SNP’s fundamental unity is not in any great doubt. The party has grown to love Nicola.
If Alex Salmond was filling a 12,000 seat arena for a rally we’d be tempted to reckon it an act of unpardonable hubris; Nicola doing so just seems like proof we’re still enjoying – or enduring – remarkable times. It has been an unusual year; why should normality return now?
The thing is, Nicola impresses people. People like her. More importantly people like to like her. She might be pretty much a career politician but she’s also an instantly recognisable type: the bright, working-class girl whose rise is down to her own hard work and diligence. She’s no soft touch – Alistair Carmichael can attest to that – but her public image has softened in recent years. It helps that she has the ability, rare in politicians, to admit mistakes. That’s impressive, too. So too the manner in which she is evidently grounded. She’ll carry her own bags onto a plane; a small thing, perhaps, but a telling one.
As for policy, well, here again there will be evolution not revolution. As deputy leader for the last decade she can hardly ditch the SNP’s record. But it is also worth noting that she arrives at Bute House better prepared for office than any of her predecessors. There will be less learning on the job.
Which is just as well since plenty of challenges lie ahead. She might call for an end to austerity but with the British government borrowing more than £10 billion a month the idea there won’t be tougher times ahead is mere wishful thinking. But I have a suspicion that, at least initially, Nicola may pay more attention to what the Scottish parliament can do than what it can’t.
That doesn’t mean we should not expect the SNP to continue to agitate for more powers (even more powers for the sake of having more powers), merely that what you do with your responsibilities matters just as much as the nature of those responsibilities.
Still, difficult problems remain. How does the NHS cope with an ageing population? How can the too-often lamentable state of Scotland’s schools be improved? How, indeed, can the government do more with less? (Raising taxes will be one possibility.)
Nicola’s leadership inevitably invites speculation that the SNP’s centre-of-gravity now shifts from the north-east to Glasgow. Perhaps it does, though in truth this also merely reflects the fact that the west and central belt is where the party can still make inroads.
Most of all, however, the SNP remains a cause more than it is a party. This is its great advantage, especially in an age in which politics-as-usual is easily reckoned broken. We all know what the SNP stand for; it is much harder to say the same for any of the three main Westminster parties. (This, incidentally, also helps explain Ukip’s rise: they too have a cause, whether you like it or not.)
The nationalists are a movement and a movement’s supporters will forgive many heresies and contradictions so long as these sacrifices can be reckoned necessary if the country is to move closer to the eventual prize. Even diversions may be permitted so long as the eventual destination does not remain in doubt.
So that cause endures. It is not lost, merely unwon. The SNP might talk left but what they really do is wrap themselves in the flag. La patrie, c’est nous. We stand for Scotland. Everything we do is for Scotland. Our interest is the national interest. What works to advance that is more important than any consistency or some other measure of ideological purity. It permits an endlessly flexible approach that confounds opponents. It’s like nailing tartan jelly to a wall.
And, again, the Nationalists benefit from being in power and in opposition at the same time. In power in Edinburgh, in opposition to whichever government holds the reins at Westminster. That allows them to have it both ways: what is good is made in Scotland; what is bad emanates from London. Only the SNP can protect the national interest; only the SNP can be the will of the Scottish people made flesh. This is their great structural advantage and I see no reason why we should expect that to change any time soon.
In other words, the more things change the more they remain the same. Nicola offers both reassuring continuity and, for someone who has been in the public eye so long, a refreshing change. The best of both worlds, if you will.