Euan McColm: Election turns Sturgeon into image of Salmond

Salmond unveils a painting of himself by Gerard Burns at The National Gallery of Scotland. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Salmond unveils a painting of himself by Gerard Burns at The National Gallery of Scotland. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

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The First Minister will become as divisive a politician as her predecessor in the battle to hold on to her party’s seats in Westminster, writes Euan McColm

Alex Salmond was not always the divisive character he’d become by the time he stood down as First Minister after defeat in 2014’s independence referendum.

These days, the former SNP leader is an elder statesman in the art of grievance, but when he began his second spell as party leader, back in 2004, Salmond was a leader for all Scots.

Under the watchful eyes of his advisers, Salmond perfected a line that said a vote for the SNP was not necessarily a vote for independence. So successful was he in delivering this message that sufficient numbers of unionist Scots were willing to take a punt on the nationalists in 2007 to enable them to form a government at Holyrood.

Salmond was the model of reason, cutting cosy deals with the Conservatives to get legislation through Holyrood and styling the SNP as champions of Scotland rather than of independence.

Eventually, he became so successful that it was impossible for him to continue to be a leader for all Scots. The parliamentary majority in 2011 that allowed the SNP to hold the independence referendum placed the then First Minister firmly on one side of a debate that, by its very nature, created division.

As the campaign unfolded in 2014 and it became increasingly clear that the SNP was leading the Yes movement to defeat, Salmond’s interventions became increasingly intemperate. The more he lashed out, the less statesmanlike he appeared. By fighting the referendum, Salmond could not avoid becoming a divisive character – the most divisive – in the Scottish drama.

Nicola Sturgeon had been by Salmond’s side throughout the referendum campaign; she’d been responsible for making some fairly outlandish claims herself, not least on the subject of the NHS, which would be destroyed if Scotland didn’t vote to the leave the UK.

Perhaps in the interests of a quieter life, Scots ignored her role in the referendum and bought into the notion that Sturgeon could be – as Salmond had once been – a leader for nationalists and unionists alike. The new First Minister was keen to make this point in her first speech after taking office.

Now Sturgeon has plans for her own independence referendum, she can no longer claim to be a leader for those on both sides of the constitutional debate. Just as the independence question ultimately confirmed Salmond as a deeply divisive character, so it will Sturgeon.

Next month, Scots will vote for members of Scotland’s 32 councils before returning to polling stations in June for the general election. Both events will be seen as verdicts on the First Minister’s plan to hold a second independence referendum either late next year or early in 2019. It could hardly be any other way – the constitution dominates our political debate. All parties have made it central to their messages.

The results in both May and June will be pored over to see whether Sturgeon is gaining support for her proposal to break-up the UK. Unionists will inevitably hail even the smallest losses as evidence the SNP’s bubble has burst.

In SNP HQ, there is little expectation that the party will repeat the phenomenon of 2015 when it won in 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies. Party strategists are bracing themselves for a few defeats at the hands of Tory and Liberal Democrat candidates (The SNP hasn’t identified any seats where it feels at risk from Labour, throwing up the prospect of the party that once dominated Scottish politics coming fourth in terms of the number of MPs it returns to Westminster).

Campaigners for both unionist parties and the SNP tell me that they detect, if not growing, strengthening opposition to Sturgeon. The more the First Minister talks up the prospect of a second referendum, the more she angers a substantial section of the electorate. This is all anecdotal stuff, of course, but when even SNP campaigners highlight the issue, I’m inclined to think there may be something in it.

Doubtless, as a young politician with a bright future ahead, Sturgeon’s dreams of leadership cast her as a unifying figure, but the reality of referendum politics makes that an impossibility.

Some unionist campaigners are privately concerned that the sort of vitriol they’re hearing concerning Sturgeon will become louder during the debate and prove just as much of a turn-off to moderate voters as the screeching fury chimps of the cybernat jungle were in 2014 (politics being a contact sport, participants are more concerned by the impact on themselves than on their opponents).

SNP strategists hope that a strengthened Tory government at Westminster combined with the vanishingly small prospect of Labour being match ready at any point in the foreseeable future will help nudge enough No voters to change their minds that the second referendum becomes winnable.

But what if the constitutional fault-line is already fixed, with tribes on either side defiantly loyal to their positions?

We can probably risk taking for granted that very few people who support Scottish independence will vote for the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats in June. The SNP will, of course, secure the largest share of the vote (probably by a thwocking margin of over 20 percentage points) but if the result shows that the unionist parties’ combined vote is greater than the nationalist one, we’ll know that – for now – the tribes remain steadfast.

Any successful political movement requires momentum (the force, not the Corbynista support group) and the First Minister certainly had it to spare when she took the reins of the SNP. But does she still have the wind at her back?

Sturgeon came to office promising to lead for all Scots and pledging real reform of public services, but as we hurtle towards yet another election that will be dominated by the constitution, the First Minister looks less a unifying figure than a tribalist, fighting a war of attrition with the majority of voters.

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