Euan McColm: Prank allowed Sturgeon to take charge

The Renfrewshire Four were suspended by the First Minister. Picture: YouTube
The Renfrewshire Four were suspended by the First Minister. Picture: YouTube
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IT’S not possible to be all things to all people but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was giving it a go for a while, just then.

To the thousands of new SNP members who packed theatres across the country during her post-referendum tour, she was the revolutionary leader who would deliver Scottish independence despite the Yes campaign’s defeat.

To others – the sort of people who don’t go to political rallies on a Saturday afternoon – she was something else entirely. To the boring old middle-of-the-road voters who dictate election results, Sturgeon was a cautious centrist who planned to put good, sensible government before constitutional battles.

But this dual persona was always going to be unsustainable. At some point, the First Minister would have to find a single story to tell. And the sensible thing would be to make that story as widely popular as possible.

Inevitably, the more excitable members of the pro-independence movement were going to be disappointed by this process. But it was something Sturgeon had to do. All she needed was a way to do it.

Enter four SNP councillors without an ounce of sense between them.

On Tuesday, a video appeared on YouTube which showed SNP members of Renfrewshire Council setting fire to a copy of the report produced by Lord Smith’s commission on greater devolution to the Scottish Parliament.

This looked as dreadful as it sounded: a display of intolerance, anger and lunkheadedness for which it was difficult to see any excuse.

The morning after the video appeared, social justice secretary Alex Neil dismissed it as a silly prank, hardly the sort of thing to get worked-up about.

And, under Alex Salmond’s leadership, that would almost certainly have been the SNP line. The former first minister would never concede ground to opponents, especially when, as in this instance, they were demanding action.

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But Nicola Sturgeon is not Alex Salmond, and so, within an hour of Neil brushing off the actions of the four councillors, the First Minister had publicly condemned them and, privately, seen to it that they were suspended from the SNP.

If opposition politicians thought the four councillors had overstepped the mark, Sturgeon agreed. Her view was that this incident had the potential to damage the party’s cause and that demanded the strongest possible action.

Friends of the First Minister say that she was determined to act simply because the councillors’ conduct was unacceptable, but concede that she hopes a consequence of her actions will be that each and every member of the SNP, whether new to the party or an old hand, is in no doubt about the standards she expects.

The future looks bleak for those councillors, two of whom continue to work for SNP MSPs (a state of affairs that puzzles some senior party figures who wonder why this is still the case), and they should brace themselves for expulsion.

In a perfect world, of course, Sturgeon would not have to deal with this problem. She is angry about it, frustrated that elected colleagues could behave so stupidly.

But they did behave stupidly. And, in acting as she has, the First Minister has made life easier for herself.

A post-referendum rush to join the SNP has seen the party’s membership soar from around 27,000 to somewhere near 100,000. Yes, this is marvelous news for any party leader but those supporters brought with them the potential for difficulties.

The SNP’s new members were driven to become politically active by frustration over the referendum result. Their mantra is “independence, nothing less”. Meanwhile, Sturgeon’s focus is on next year’s general election and the following year’s Holyrood poll, and campaigns that will be designed to appeal across the political spectrum. The First Minister would very much like unionist voters to keep the nationalists in power.

By seeing that the Renfrewshire councillors were suspended, Sturgeon has addressed the tension between her members’ political priority – another referendum – and what she believes is necessary to win elections.

Sturgeon has at her disposal, in the SNP’s new members, a great resource. This is a political army that will deliver leaflets, donate funds, and do whatever lifting and carrying is necessary. They may be passionately – in some cases, obsessively – concerned about the constitution but they are willing to be led. We’ve just seen that happen.

Before Sturgeon acted in this instance, Labour was preparing to make the most of the councillors’ little film during Thursday’s First Minister’s Question Time. As it was, the matter was killed off in advance and Sturgeon breezed through the session without once having to mention the Renfrewshire Four.

Perhaps the biggest story of the early days of Sturgeon’s first ministership has been the contrast between her and Salmond. Before she assumed office, the conventional wisdom was that she would be a very different kind of leader, more consensual, more open to acting with rather than against opponents.

Once in office, Sturgeon told us that, yes, this was entirely correct. She was going to lead for all, and work with anyone who had good ideas for making Scotland better.

But her opponents should be wary of Sturgeon’s sweet talk. She certainly does do things differently to her predecessor. She undoubtedly is a more likeable, approachable character. But she is every bit as ruthless (in the best possible way) as her former boss. Opposition politicians who find themselves lulled by Sturgeon’s soothing words about a new politics would be wise to think about the past few days.

Sturgeon and her Deputy First Minister John Swinney have no intention of moving the SNP away from the fertile centre-ground of Scottish politics. While some in the wider Yes movement might be talking the language of revolution, the First Minister has her eye on the “small c” conservative Scots who handed power to the SNP in 2007 and 2011.

And Nicola Sturgeon will take on anyone – be they opponent or colleague – who threatens her chance of repeating that success. «

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