Euan McColm: Nicola Sturgeon set for greatness

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Robert Perry
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Robert Perry
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‘Sturgeon’s ever-greater profile is about so much more than the referendum’

FIRST Minister Alex Salmond’s campaigning brilliance may have turned the SNP’s long-cherished dream of a referendum on Scottish independence into a reality but the party’s star of 2013 was his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.

Salmond dominated the Holyrood debating chamber over the year (sometimes through the force of his personality rather than a grasp of detail). Sturgeon’s, however, was the key public face of the battle to break up the United Kingdom.

She saw off not one but two Scottish Secretaries – Michael Moore and Alistair Carmichael – in television debates, gave confident interviews to national and international media, maintained (you know ... for kids?) a steady presence on Twitter, and crossed the country to appear at public meetings both grand and obscure.

Sturgeon’s ever-greater profile is about so much more than the referendum on 18 September, 2014. It’s about how Scotland might be, at some point in the future and regardless of the outcome of the referendum, under the leadership of Salmond’s current deputy.

Sturgeon’s priority may be securing a Yes vote but an unintended – though far from unhelpful – consequence of the campaign will be to showcase her credentials as a credible future First Minister.

A week before Christmas, the Deputy First Minister was interviewed by Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. The DFM – who was recently named on the programme’s “power list” of influential British women – was not so much asked about her leadership ambitions as confronted by Murray with the fact that her aspiration in that regard was already established.

Sturgeon didn’t deny that she might one day like to take on the top job in her party and – perhaps – in Scottish Government (how could she? in 2004, she stood for election to succeed John Swinney as SNP leader, standing aside to make way for Salmond when it became clear that her fellow MSP Roseanna Cunningham was going to win that contest).

Instead, after explaining that she was deeply loyal to Salmond, Sturgeon spoke of the importance of ambition in politicians. It was refreshing to hear. Foolishly, we have decided personal ambition, though perfectly fine for the rest of us, is one of very worst characteristics a politician may possess. We make the mistake of conflating it with self-interest and miss its importance as the engine that drives the very best we elect.

So, Sturgeon’s personal ambition is to her credit. This is not to say that the Deputy First Minister is angling to replace Salmond. Her loyalty to him is sincere (and nor is she a schemer and plotter). But the current shape of the SNP at Holyrood makes her future leadership – should she still want it – as close to a dead cert as we can find in politics.

At the top of the SNP’s parliamentary group are three crucial MSPs: Salmond, Sturgeon, and the Finance Secretary John Swinney. Unusually for three such powerful political personalities there is a remarkable lack of tension between them. There is also an understanding that, when the time is right, whenever that might be, Sturgeon is next in line for the party leadership.

Swinney, having endured rather than enjoyed four years at the helm before Salmond’s triumphant return, has found his niche in the finance brief and has no ambition to become leader again.

Among Sturgeon’s cabinet colleagues, there are no obvious contenders. It’s difficult to name one who could gather together a credible team. Other potential future leaders – Derek Mackay or Jamie Hepburn, say – would see any challenge as pointless and destructive. From a generation after Sturgeon’s, they have time on their side.

Talk of Sturgeon as First Minister might seem premature. After two Holyrood election victories, Salmond remains the pre-eminent politician in Scotland and, although polls show support for independence is below 30 per cent, they also show the SNP is on course for 2016 Holyrood election victory, which would be a nice hat-trick for the party leader.

But there is one flaw in the idea that Salmond could lose the referendum then lead the SNP to Holyrood victory: an understanding among SNP strategists that defeat to the Better Together campaign in September would require a quick rethink of the party’s constitutional pitch.

Publicly, of course, the SNP’s line that it’s “in it to win it” is rock solid, but in private strategists do consider the possibility of defeat. And it is generally accepted that any change to the party’s constitutional position – the rock on which it stands – would “logically” be the job for a new leader. It’s far from inconceivable that referendum defeat could be followed by a quick change of leadership and “recalibration” of the SNP’s message under Sturgeon.

There was, it’s worth pointing out, some disappointment recently in SNP circles at opinion poll findings showing Sturgeon has not yet succeeded in winning over female voters who are turned off by Salmond. Though there was some comfort to be had in the fact that Sturgeon was more popular than Labour’s Johann Lamont, Better Together campaign leader Alistair Darling or – not at all surprisingly – Prime Minister David Cameron.

As we go into 2014, Sturgeon will continue to be the most prominent SNP politician in public debates. And when we see her in the months ahead talking about the issues that drive her, we can reasonably assume these will one day be the priorities of her Scottish Government.

The result of the referendum may be Nicola Sturgeon’s primary objective, but the experience of the campaign will be another step on what appears to be her unstoppable rise to becoming Scotland’s first female First Minister.

Twitter: @euanmccolm