Euan McColm:Business as usual in new political era

Sturgeon looks set to be less combative than her predecessor. Picture: PA
Sturgeon looks set to be less combative than her predecessor. Picture: PA
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SCOTLAND has changed forever, haven’t you heard? Everyone says so. The election of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister marks the dawn of a new era. Our politics is transformed. Not only this – and you may want to brace yourself – Scotland will never be the same again.

Sturgeon was sworn in as the head of the Scottish Government on Thursday amidst a flurry of hyperbole about the “historic” nature of events. Later that day, she made her debut at First Minister’s Questions, where she made the reckless promise that she would seek consensus and listen enthusiastically to suggestions for how Scotland might be improved regardless of their source.

The following day Sturgeon unveiled a new Cabinet, balanced 50:50 between the sexes. Look! Half of them are men and half of them are women – Scotland is transformed.

But there comes a time when a government has to stop talking about how things are radically different and actually make them so. The establishment of Sturgeon’s Cabinet must mark the point where that happens.

The two months since the independence referendum have, undoubtedly, been fascinating. Not only did the defeated SNP bounce back, immediately, to become one of the UK’s largest parties – with a remarkable 80,000-plus membership – but the departure of Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, has left the main opposition party in turmoil.

While there has been no shortage of big political developments since Scotland rejected independence, politics itself has been rather fuzzy. Lots of chatter about new eras and public engagement in the democratic process is well and good, but the debate since September has been short on detail.

There is little doubt that Alex Salmond’s departure from the office of First Minister will change the tone of our political debate. Sturgeon is more relaxed, less combative, and – to a degree – genuinely more willing to reach compromise with others.

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But will her government differ radically from Salmond’s? Don’t be silly. Why on earth would she want to change a winning formula?

In putting together her new Cabinet, Sturgeon dispensed with the services of just two senior colleagues – Mike Russell got the heave from Education, while Kenny MacAskill’s long predicted departure as Cabinet Secretary for Justice finally came to pass. What she has come up with by way of reorganisation isn’t what we might call revolutionary.

There were – fully anticipated – promotions for Keith Brown and Angela Constance, both of whom challenged unsuccessfully for the deputy leadership of the party, losing out to MP Stewart Hosie.

The promotion of Roseanna Cunningham to the skills and training brief was surprising. Cunningham has been rather semi-detached since her bid to become SNP leader failed in 2004. She had been on course for victory until Sturgeon pulled out to take second billing on a joint ticket with Salmond, who then swept to victory.

Friends of Sturgeon’s say she has long been troubled by tension with Cunningham, who had been a confidante and mentor, and that this promotion recognises a talent that’s had no outlet, while building a personal bridge.

The most significant promotion Sturgeon made on Friday, though, was to appoint Finance Secretary John Swinney as her Deputy First Minister. In the story of the SNP’s success, Swinney’s role is often under-appreciated. Salmond may have brought verve and chutzpah to the role of SNP leader but his promises were underpinned by Swinney’s solid management of the finance brief. His influence on Salmond (Swinney is one of very few people who is able to suggest to the former First Minister that he might be wrong) was substantial and we can expect Sturgeon to depend on him just as closely.

The story goes that Sturgeon is a considerably more left-wing politician than Salmond and that, under her First Ministership, there will be a renewed focus on matters of social justice. With the SNP determined to cosy-up to traditional Labour voters, this is the right story for Sturgeon to tell. Crudely, she can rely to a large extent on the support of those who already support independence, which means she’s free to explore a more left-wing agenda with little risk of losing those in the centre and the right who want to see Scotland leave the UK.

But, while the rhetoric may have a more left-wing tone, the SNP, under Sturgeon’s leadership, is not about to make any substantial ideological shift.

On being nominated as the Scottish Parliament’s candidate to become First Minister, Sturgeon said she would lead for all of Scotland, for those who voted No in the referendum as much as those who voted Yes.

This, you might not unreasonably point out, is what the job entails and to suggest she would govern in any other way would be unconscionable. But, given the often rancourous debate since the referendum, it was a reassuring note.

Underpinning Sturgeon’s pledge was the fact that she remains absolutely convinced the route to electoral success runs down the middle of the political spectrum. Those close to Sturgeon say they expect her to be “radical” but argue that this doesn’t mean her actions will be ideological. Her leadership, they say, will succeed if she is “bold and courageous” rather than yoking herself to a left-wing agenda.

Scotland has changed, of course. Much of what has been said about a new dawn of democratic engagement appears to be true. The SNP is a party unrecognisable from the one that languished in the polls a decade ago.

But, despite this, Sturgeon’s leadership of her party will be business (pretty much) as usual.

The SNP’s election victories of 2007 and 2011 were not achieved by the promotion of a left-wing or “old ­Labour” agenda but by a centre-ground manifesto that appealed to the small “c” conservative nature of many Scots.

Nicola Sturgeon may be a very different politician to Alex Salmond but those expecting a difference to the SNP’s priorities will be disappointed. «

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