PUGNACIOUS former first minister is in danger of spoiling new leader's subtle, consensual style, writes Euan McColm
FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a carefully rehearsed foray into the front rooms of England on Sunday morning. Immaculately groomed and at her most relaxed, Ms Sturgeon gave a fine account of herself on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
Viewers in the rest of the UK, whose previous contact with the SNP might have come through watching the First Minister’s pugnacious predecessor Alex Salmond, may have been surprised by the change of tone.
Where these set-piece interviews were frequently tense when Mr Salmond was answering the questions, Ms Sturgeon’s meeting with Marr went smoothly. I daresay he was a little charmed.
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Certainly, some of my more sceptical London-based colleagues certainly were. A number reported back to me that they’d found her undeniably impressive.
To one Labour-leaning commentator this was especially bad news. “I didn’t realise she was so good,” he told me, before wondering whether she really could get in the way of a Labour general election victory.
Clearly, Ms Sturgeon has quickly found her place in the debate. The SNP may, in the past, have struggled to make itself seem relevant during a Westminster campaign, but by announcing that her party will vote on English legislation after the election and building an emotive story about the protection of the NHS, Ms Sturgeon appears to have remedied that problem.
And with places in the leadership debates secured, the First Minister can relax about justifying her presence and concentrate on her policy messages.
There was a particularly interesting exchange during the Marr interview when Ms Sturgeon was asked about the differences between herself and Mr Salmond. She explained that she wasn’t going to sit there and describe the differences between herself and her colleague; she had been his deputy for years, part of his government, and they were on the same team.
Having explained why she wouldn’t be describing the differences between herself and Mr Salmond, she then described them.
She was, she said, interested in reaching out in politics, in building alliances with those with whom she might not agree on every issue. Implicit in this was the charge that Mr Salmond was not at all interested in this consensual approach. It is a charge that sticks.
When Ms Sturgeon formally announced her decision to seek the SNP leadership last year, she did so telling the same story of a different approach. Then, it was an awkward metaphor about her walking in her own shoes (and them having higher heels than his) but the point was the same: Ms Sturgeon, though a sharp and efficient political operator, does not enjoy the sort of conflict on which her predecessor, a bare-knuckle fighter of the old school, thrives.
Ms Sturgeon is, I believe, sincere in her wish to do things differently to Mr Salmond. It could hardly be any other way, they are such different characters. He’s as aggressive and short tempered as she is calm and patient (though these qualities should not be mistaken for a lack of political steel. Ms Sturgeon is as capable of ruthless decision making as any successful senior politician).
Her sincerity is all well and good but, as the election campaign generates momentum, it’s easy to see how things could take a different tone.
Mr Salmond defied political convention by resigning from office in order to stay in the limelight. Defeat in the referendum may have made his departure as leader of the SNP and First Minister inevitable, but not for Mr Salmond was this an opportunity to catch up on some reading or spend more time in the garden.
In the weeks between the referendum and Ms Sturgeon’s election as his successor, Mr Salmond enjoyed himself, picking fights with Westminster parties that Ms Sturgeon would have to finish, and indulging in a narrative about the No campaign lying its way to victory.
Even now, with Ms Sturgeon in charge of the SNP, Mr Salmond remains a huge, looming presence. His decision to stand for Westminster means his profile is as high as ever and he shows no sign of getting bored of making headlines any time soon.
Ms Sturgeon responds to this reality by saying that her predecessor and mentor is a great politician and a great friend. She says that she would be a fool not to use the great resource that is Alex Salmond. Sometimes Ms Sturgeon says these things with such sincerity that one is tempted, almost, to believe her.
The truth of the matter is that Mr Salmond is an unstoppable – and worryingly unpredictable – force to be tholed rather than encouraged.
Ms Sturgeon and her deputy First Minister John Swinney see politics differently to the way Mr Salmond does. The new regime is of another generation which is prepared to consider matters of nuance and subtlety rather than simply throwing political punches.
Mr Salmond may have many talents but it would have dearly suited his successor and her team had he decided to move away from the front line. He is a dominant alpha male who loves the sound of his own voice, especially when it is cruelly (sometimes to a “steady on, there, old chap” degree) eviscerating an opponent. He is not suddenly about to stop enjoying this – the stuff of life to him – simply because Ms Sturgeon is now sitting behind his old desk.
Mr Salmond is now a loose cannon, unprotected by the squad of advisers and spinners who spent much of their time during his period in office concealing the worst of his temper.
There is no doubt that Ms Sturgeon commands the unswerving loyalty of her party. But there’s just one member she’ll never quite be able to control.
Ms Sturgeon has chosen to attempt a tricky path through the general election campaign, one where she emerges as a politician of substance, with the wisdom to see consensus where it is needed.
A swaggering Alex Salmond, with his gut instinct to fight and unstinting belief in his own brilliance, could quite easily trip her up along the way.