To watch Nicola Sturgeon address the SNP’s annual conference is to observe a leader at the height of her political prowess.
They leap to their feet for her, drown even the weakest lines in rapturous applause. They are hers, like teenagers in a dreamy crush. She would never, ever break their hearts.
Alone among leaders of UK parties, she faces no plots and no whispers; no pretenders to the crown are jostling to succeed her.
Her complete and unquestioned command of the SNP is such that delegates whooped and cheered even when she delivered her clearest statement of intent so far on independence as a longer-term goal.
She told them: “I believe with all my heart that Scotland should be an independent country. But I respect the decision that our country made last year.
“So let me be clear. To propose another referendum in the next parliament without strong evidence that a significant number of those who voted No have changed their minds would be wrong and we won’t do it.”
Her diehards might want UDI yesterday and some in the mainstream may fear independence is a now-or-never deal; Sturgeon will not be swayed by emotion or panicked by others’ impatience.
This is her party and she’s calling the shots. Read her lips: No new referendum until I say so.
And that would involve a sizeable shift in public opinion – not just 51% but “a clear majority” in favour of a breakaway. The earliest opportunity would be British exit from the European Union if the forthcoming referendum saw Scotland vote to stay while the rest of the country chose to leave.
That looks unlikely at this point and the SNP believes the UK and the other 27 member states are better together.
There was plenty of red meat for the hardcore too, with the First Minister execrating the wicked Tories for austerity, Trident, and their rhetoric on refugees and migrants. Labour, who are far greater figures of hatred within SNP ranks, were lambasted for its flip-flopping on Wednesday night’s fiscal charter vote. (Language was carefully deployed with the grassroots in mind, too. A reference to “the UK” became “these islands”; the wonders of independence morphed from “what we believe to be true” to “what we know to be true”.)
Starry-eyed Corbynistas who daydream of a “progressive alliance” with the Nationalists will have had their hopes dashed by Sturgeon’s blunt dismissal of the Labour leader as ineffectual and out of step with his party on nuclear weapons and the welfare cap.
“There is much that I had hoped the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn could work together on. But over these last few weeks, it has become glaringly obvious that he is unable to unite his party on any of the big issues of our day.”
Then, the sucker punch: “Labour is unreliable, unelectable and unable to stand up to the Tories.”
But for all the high-minded talk about Scotland’s future, this was a speech keenly aware of the need to claim the present. The party has spent the last four years campaigning for independence and an historic general election. Time for some bread and butter.
So Sturgeon vowed a re-elected SNP government would build at least 50,000 new affordable homes, at a cost of £3bn. And she went on the offensive over the Nationalist scorecard after eight years in government.
“We will stand proudly on our record. Over the past eight years, while Westminster has cut our budget, we have delivered better services. Our school leavers do better than ever before. We have rebuilt or refurbished one fifth of all school buildings. Crime is at a 41-year low. And NHS waiting times are among the lowest recorded.”
This is what my old English teacher Miss McEachern would gently call “a unique interpretation of the text”.
For all Sturgeon’s bullishness, the Scottish Government’s record is mixed on health, education and justice. The affordable homes pledge demonstrates a commitment to reclaiming the mantle of competent, reliable government. The sensible centrist party with Middle Scotland and young families at its heart.
And if re-elected – let’s drop the pretence, when re-elected – she will need to pursue her domestic programme with singular determination. No more rows about MPs’ conduct. No more questionable cash handouts. No distractions over the timing of a second referendum.
As she told the gargantuan hall in Aberdeen on Thursday morning, “Let’s get on with the job.”
She means to and won’t be rushing things. In an interview with Holyrood magazine, she confirmed her intention to lead the SNP into the 2021 Holyrood elections, suggesting she will remain in power – the voters permitting – for another ten years.
Hear that? The earthy ring of arriviste Grantham lingers in the air. It was Margaret Thatcher who announced her intention “to go on and on”. She too stayed in the job for more than a decade.
Sturgeon wouldn’t care for a comparison with the Iron Lady for many reasons, not least the fact that it didn’t end well. But she dominates her party as assuredly as Mrs T did hers – perhaps even more so – and a similar grade of steel will be required to take her team through another ten years of incumbency and, ideally, a second referendum.
If Sturgeon set aside her aversion to Maggie long enough, she might learn from the last woman who brought the country round to a controversial vision.
“We will not disguise our purpose, nor betray our principles,” Thatcher told her party’s 1982 conference. “We will do what must be done. We will tell the people the truth and the people will be our judge.”
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Rob Bogaerts / Anefo at Nationaal Archief by Creative Commons 3.0.