NICOLA Sturgeon has had a rather good year. The First Minister was the big personal winner from a momentous general election and her party secured the effective lead opposition status at Westminster as Labour’s self-harm accelerated.
I know she will have taken genuine satisfaction from that. But I also know she will be delaying any proper sense of achievement until she secures her own mandate as First Minister in May.
That is by no means a foregone conclusion, despite the remarkable poll from TNS BMRB this week showing record levels of support. The demographic detail suggests the foundations for future party success are strengthening; support among the under-35s is approaching 3 in 4, in the under-55s it’s nearing 7 in 10. On any measure that is completely remarkable.
But if we learn anything from the last few years it is that the world can change, in an instant. Significant numbers remain undecided and Sturgeon and team must work hard to earn the privilege of leadership for five more years.
The two leaders of her main opponents are stronger and far more attractive than their party. When the focus is more on them they could do well.
It would be churlish and ungenerous of anyone to suggest that Ruth Davidson is anything other than an engaging and highly capable leader of the Scottish Tories. The party’s brand remains possibly irresolvably damaged, but she is properly “box-office” for large sections of Scottish society.
Kezia Dugdale has an even harder job. Barely 15 per cent of under-35s support her party. Like Davidson she is articulate, able and a very modern political figure who speaks to a modesty and human appeal. But her once all-powerful party is now in disarray and drifting to the self-indulgent fringes of politics at a UK level, enjoying posture and pose far more than effecting change.
These three women will dominate May’s election. The Greens under the sharp and likeable Patrick Harvie should do well, but Willie Rennie’s Liberals, despite his own likeability, now look a sampling error away from oblivion in most age groups and regions.
Sturgeon herself is the dominant political figure not just in Scotland but with growing influence across the UK and, potentially, beyond. This year could see her play a big role in the European referendum and it is quite conceivable that Scottish support for Europe could tilt the balance for the UK staying in. She could also sway votes across the UK as a non-establishment, respected voice of reason.
But first she must win in May. As she builds her case she is aided by the strength and resource of her Westminster team, not least her party’s Deputy Leader, Stewart Hosie, who is in charge of the manifesto, and her Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, a seasoned campaign strategist.
And, of course, they have some guy called Salmond on call; his folly of a vanity project to build a new Forth crossing doesn’t seem so much like that now, does it?
Crucially in government Salmond had one thing that Sturgeon hasn’t got; Nicola Sturgeon.
The troika of Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney made a formidable combination. Now Sturgeon and Swinney do too. But three is not a crowd in politics. She and Swinney could do with the political underpin they provided to Salmond.
There are a number of potential candidates for that, but the stand-out one for me is Derek Mackay. The Transport Minister has had a long apprenticeship in the SNP and chairs the party as Business Convener.
The bridge crisis is his greatest ever test. At times it looked like it could slip from his control and it may not be over yet. But his reputation across the transport industry is strong and strengthening. He is well supported by Keith Brown and Swinney who have guarded his back while letting him earn his spurs; that’s a winning culture.
And nothing grows the strength of any leader like living in the storm. The crisis and the turbulence it has had him endure make him an even more eligible candidate for promotion to the cabinet than he was before.
He has room to grow; his polish in private needs replicated in some of his communications in a media age. But he is a properly impressive person of real character.
If they win that new mandate in May, the pressure will only increase on the SNP in government. The challenges are growing fast on public finances and services. My core appeal on taxation is to remember that revenues matter far more than rates. Substance not symbols is what we need. Colossal strategic decisions need to be made – much more substantial than the Queensferry Crossing choice was in its day.
And big lessons need to be learned from Labour’s travails; the centre ground is where the SNP must encamp as the unifying national party of their name suggests. Social democracy is Scotland’s centre ground and the vibrancy of its economy, tax base and revenues are mission critical to making it a reality
Most important though is finding a way to translate the remarkable unity of purpose the party shows into unity of purpose for the country. We could all do with that in 2016. «