PERTH, United Kingdom
You were supposed to take two messages from Nicola Sturgeon’s first conference speech as leader of the Scottish National Party.
First, independence remains very much on the agenda and the constitutional question will rumble on.
Second, hers will be a party and a Scottish Government that drives its tanks onto Scottish Labour’s lawn like never before.
The pledges on free childcare and more money for the NHS were hardly earth-shattering, rehashing existing policy and promises from the White Paper, but they went down very well with the faithful. (It turns out free childcare can be delivered without independence and the NHS isn’t going to be privatised after all. Who knew?)
She told the party what it wanted to hear — and no doubt what she sincerely believes — that, despite the outcome of the referendum, Scotland will be independent sooner or later.
She rallied: “Our country is alive, engaged, restless for the next stage of our journey. 1.6m Yes votes for independence is an achievement our forebears could only dream of. But it becomes our base camp and from here the summit is in sight. The challenge is great, but our determination is even greater. Because the prize is prosperity, equality, opportunity. The prize is independence.”
The real fire came, though, when she turned her guns on Labour.
She told delegates: “Labour was once the party of progress. Now it is just a barrier to progress. Next May, we’ve got the chance to clear the Labour roadblock out of the way.”
Later, she added: “I want us to be known as the party of economic and social progress as well. In the 20th century, that progressive spirit was the province of a radically reforming Labour Party. Those days are gone.
“The referendum put beyond any doubt that, for Labour, the trappings of Westminster power are far more important than the pursuit of a fairer Scotland. If there had been any doubt at all, the alliance with the Tories in the No campaign removed it once and for all.”
Most blunt of all was her pronouncement that Labour had “lost its soul”.
The polls have the SNP far ahead of Labour at both Westminster and Holyrood and this speech was the appetiser for both campaigns. Real Labour is dead. What remains is a pale imitation, a shell, a political machine with no purpose except the retention of office.
The SNP, she was saying, is the Labour Party now.
Scottish Labour will dismiss this as rhetoric and wishful thinking. Margaret Curran will say it was the Nationalists, don’t forget, who brought down James Callaghan’s Labour government and ushered Margaret Thatcher into power in 1979. Jackie Baillie will recall that, for much of their existence, the SNP were known as the “Tartan Tories” and their fondness for corporation tax cuts and the socially regressive council tax freeze prove they haven’t really changed. Asked about Sturgeon’s appeal to the Labour core vote, Jim Murphy will say the SNP doesn’t believe in nationalism as a means to achieve social justice, it feigns a belief in social justice to achieve nationalism.
There is much to be said for these arguments but they sound, even to this neutral observer, outdated and unreflective of the seismic changes Scottish politics has undergone in the last few years.
Then Sturgeon went after the greatest of all Scottish Labour greatest hits.
She contended: “They’ve got no positive case to make, so they will fall back on the same desperate mantra as before. You’ve got to vote Labour, they’ll say, to keep the Tories out.
“That is the biggest con-trick in Scottish politics and we must not fall for it again. Scotland did vote Labour at the last general election, but we still ended up with the Tories.
“And if the people of England vote Tory again next May, it won’t matter how we vote. A Tory government is what we’ll get. Or worse, a Tory/UKIP government.”
Instead, she appealed to the people who will be watching her speech on YouTube or hearing about it on Facebook during their lunch hour in the next few days, give the SNP the balance of power at Westminster and we will force a minority Labour government to devolve more powers to Scotland and act progressively on reserved matters.
If I were a member of the Scottish Labour Party – such as that remain – I would read every word of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech before casting my vote in the leadership election. Then I would vote for the candidate who seems most up to the challenge of facing such a formidable foe.
In this Labour-targeting context, the speech was markedly left-wing. There were teasers about economic growth and enterprise but the main feature was social democracy.
Ms Sturgeon promised: “The agenda of a fair society underpinned by a strong economy is one that will be the daily business of the party and government I lead. In two weeks’ time, I will set out our programme for government – the legislation and policies that will shape our priorities until the next election.
“At its heart will be radical action on land reform, empowering communities, raising attainment in our schools and tackling some of the deep injustices in our society, like domestic abuse and gender inequality. Labour may have abandoned social justice. But in the SNP, the people of Scotland will always know they have a party of true social democracy.”
The optimistic vision was incongruous with the setting for conference. A one-time Tory bastion turned Nationalist heartland, Perth is the town we must pretend is a city, a slate-grey, charity-shop studded conurbation left behind by the financial thrust of Edinburgh and the cultural vibrancy of Glasgow. This middling economy is as nothing compared to parts of Glasgow, Dundee and Lanarkshire and their seemingly intractable socioeconomic challenges. It underscores the task the Nationalists’ new figurehead faces.
And by no means are all the cards decked in the SNP’s favour. They lost the referendum and all the stirring speeches and ginned-up members in the world won’t change that. More than half the country took a look at the SNP’s prospectus for independence and said No Thanks. The 44.7% are incensed at the thought that The Vow might not be kept. The 55.3% will be no less exercised if they feel their democratic will is being disregarded by a party that acts like it wants to dissolve the people and elect another.
During the referendum, the SNP’s critics charged that the Scottish Government had turned its attentions from governing to campaigning for independence. Scotland, former Labour leader Johann Lamont liked to say, was “on pause”.
A simplistic soundbite, perhaps, but one not entirely unacquainted with the facts. After seven years of SNP government, the policy prize cabinet is not quite bare but there’s more than a little shelf space left. The scorecard for the health, education, and justice briefs are especially mixed.
The importance of the NHS and childcare pledges, reheated though they may be, is that they project an SNP which cares about more than just the constitution.
And while the Nationalists trumpeted the dynamism of grassroots movements in the referendum, in other policy areas they have all too often been centralist and top-down, to say nothing of heavy-handed.
The release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was controversial, especially after he lived for almost three years rather than the three months assured, but it could at least be touted as an act of liberalism. No such excuses for the ill-conceived Offensive Behaviour Act, a case study in the limits of good intentions, or authoritarian pushes on tobacco display, state guardians, and the abolition of corroboration.
The SNP, like all nationalist parties, can suffer from an ambivalence towards liberty: It can see limitless potential in national independence but is more circumspect about personal independence, fearful that individuals want the wrong freedoms and would misuse them anyway.
Sturgeon has an opportunity to prove that the SNP truly is a modern, social democratic party by moving on from such clunky statism. Regulation and redistribution can be pursued cooperatively, from the bottom up, and believing in the power of government need not mean diminishing the autonomy of the individual.
The new SNP leader was born to give speeches and this was one of her best. She was warm, witty, girder-strong, and sincere. She proved that she has vision and the determination to see it through. No wonder the SNP is on such a high.
The soon-to-be First Minister had delegates cheering her every syllable. What comes next is the hard part: Winning over the voters.