Nicola Sturgeon is one year into her premiership and six months away from her first election.
In the hyperactive world of Scottish politics, it’s easy to forget that the First Minister has no mandate from the country.
Unlike Gordon Brown, this is not because she is too frit to face them; the only thing she has to fear is being crushed by throngs of worshipful supporters.
Three factors make this so.
First, a significant slice of the populace has been converted to nationalism as a political philosophy and in some cases a devotional order. The SNP could be led by Stabby McStabberson, the Friendly Neighbour Serial Killer and their only complaint would be that Crimewatch didn’t have him on enough.
Second, the SNP leader sits at the apex of a personality cult. She is discussed in reverent tones by the faithful and a selfie with her is akin to a winning Lotto ticket in the minds of many. Few heads of government boast their own clothing range.
Third, and most important, it’s not just the true believers who swoon for her. The voters love her. She was named Scottish Politician of the Year at an awards bash on Thursday night. It was the fourth time she had picked up the gong though the first as a religious icon. The nod from the great and the good was a predictable honour for someone whose popularity ratings are just the right side of Pyongyang and whose opponents even admire her and not altogether grudgingly.
If any of this adulation has gone to her head, it doesn’t show too often in public. She should be an insufferable egomaniac but in fact comes across as grounded and sensitive to the responsibilities of the office. She looks the part and more or less acts like it too. This was confirmed during a general election campaign in which she dominated north of the border and saw her stature grow across the rest of the UK. For all the pomp (and pomposity), Alex Salmond was always SNP leader first and First Minister second, a prisoner of his own belligerence.
Nicola Sturgeon is a proposition of a different order. A tribal Nationalist, to be sure, but one at ease with other points of view. She may deploy the tedious “talking down Scotland” saw from time to time but it is impossible to imagine her questioning the patriotism of her opponents, as Salmond did when he denounced Unionist politicians as “a parcel of rogues”. There is a welcome broadmindedness to Sturgeon, even if it has yet to spread to all sections of her party.
And what of that party? Where stands the SNP after 12 months of Sturgeon at the helm? It has secured an historic general election victory and seen its Commons seat tally soar ninefold. We can now say without doubt that the SNP is the natural party of government in Scotland and looks set to remain so for many years to come. In power at Holyrood, the third party at Westminster, newly embedded across civic Scotland, the Nationalists may still romanticise themselves as plucky outsiders but they are the Scottish establishment now.
Barring an unforeseen mahapach between now and May, Sturgeon will lead the SNP to victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. Another majority is likely, a stonking one a real possibility. Kezia Dugdale is talented and conscientious but Scottish Labour’s priority is rolling up their sleeves for a generational rebuild. Winning elections won’t even be a consideration for some time. Ruth Davidson is a tenacious parliamentary performer but spends her days doing CPR on the Scottish Tories with one hand while preparing a tourniquet with the other. This is the SNP’s election to lose and that’s probably the only feat they couldn’t pull off.
What makes this remarkable is that, under any other circumstances, the SNP would be fighting for its political life. It is a two-term incumbent government with a starkly mixed record on health, education and justice. Nationalism and the absence of an effective opposition have suspended the rules of democratic politics in Scotland.
What goes up, though, must come down. Eventually the voters will do for you or your colleagues will. “We all get taken out in a box, love,” former Australian prime minister Paul Keating consoled one of his ousted successors.
The First Minister is entitled to enjoy the laurels but should be careful not to rest on them. Sturvation needs to stop banging on about her poll ratings, the political equivalent of retweeting your own praise. The concert tours and signature hoodies and Vogue photoshoots are cute but the country needs a leader, not a star. It’s a short branded-helicopter trip from confidence to hubris. Her predecessor began his tenure as a blokey man of the people and ended it a talking swagger.
Scotland faces substantial challenges and the SNP government has too often proven itself less than equal to them. If it does not tackle the organisational chaos of Police Scotland, the troubled Queen Liz hospital, disappointing education outcomes, and sluggish employment numbers, it will come to be defined by these and other failures.
These are problems of policy and of personnel. The SNP’s governing agenda lacks coherence; other than “do the opposite of what England does”, you would struggle to sum it up in a sentence. For instance, the First Minister has made some encouraging noises on standardised testing and school autonomy. Does this mean she is an education reformer or merely a pragmatic defender of the status quo? I honestly can’t tell.
Labour runs scared of SNP populism, correctly gauging that it has potent appeal. Demagoguery is fine in opposition and good for a few years of government but when you actually have to do things, it causes problems. If you have spent your career rabble-rousing about reform, economic rationalism, and private sector involvement in health and education, you find yourself without the tools to improve public services. Sturgeon is caught in a web of her own weaving. She has acquired power but if she uses it to make change, she risks alienating one or other part of her coalition. To decide is to divide and if all politicians want to be loved, nationalist politicians need to be loved.
However, if she doesn’t decide, she risks vindicating opponents’ cries that hers is a protest party and nothing else. There are those who would cheerily sacrifice the family pet to get independence. Schools that fail their children and A&E wards that make their elderly parents wait five hours are small potatoes. The rest of the country, the vast majority, need more from the First Minister.
Policy is only as good as the implementer. A number of senior ministers are plainly not up to the job and there is only so long the First Minister can go on ignoring this fact. Cabinet posts shouldn’t be handed out like fistbumps to BFFs. There is real talent on the Holyrood backbenches and in the junior ministry; the overlooked and under-promoted are entitled to feel miffed about this lopsided set-up.
And the tone is in need of change. The danger to the SNP is that it becomes perceived as the nasty party of Scottish politics. Anger and accusation are not the hallmarks of a mainstream party of government. Grievance is not your friend; kindle resentment long enough and chances are it will find its way back to you. The First Minister’s tweets to victims of cybernat abuse are nice and all but maybe ponder why McCarthyite neds are so attracted to your party and cause. Sturgeonisation of the SNP won’t be complete until the party speaks with one voice: positive, inclusive, tolerant.
Nicola Sturgeon deserves her latest award after another year of hard work and dizzying success. What matters is what she does next. Maybe she’ll just mark time until a second referendum. Maybe she fears making things better will weaken the Yes case. Maybe she has no earthly idea what she wants to do.
Those of us who believe otherwise expect much from her. After eight years in government, it’s time to live up to that potential. It’s time for progress.