NICOLA Sturgeon pledged to “build a better country” and engage with the cross-party commission set up to deliver more powers to Holyrood after it was confirmed yesterday she will succeed Alex Salmond as SNP leader and First Minister.
Ms Sturgeon, who was the sole candidate for the SNP’s top job, will be formally endorsed as leader at the party conference in Perth next month and appointed Scotland’s First Minister after a vote at the Scottish Parliament. Yesterday, the leader-designate said she would work with the Smith Commission to deliver enhanced devolution but stressed that her ambition for Scottish independence remained undiminished and insisted that it could be achieved “well within my lifetime”.
She said her government would put job creation, fairness and the protection of public services at its heart and vowed that as First Minister she would be “open, accessible and determined to work with others across the political divide to find common cause and build a better country”.
Her appointment came about after Alex Salmond’s decision to stand down when Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom in last month’s independence referendum.
Ms Sturgeon said she would have “relished” a leadership contest but was “honoured” to have been chosen by the party as its leader. There were no other candidates when nominations closed yesterday.
Ms Sturgeon said her priority as SNP leader would be to ensure Holyrood gets the “extensive” new powers that were promised by the leaders of the main pro-Union parties in the run-up to the referendum.
“I will work to ensure that the Scottish Parliament gets the extensive new powers that Scotland was promised,” she said.
“I will always make the case for Scotland to be an independent country but with the Westminster parties already backsliding on the delivery of the new powers, my immediate job will be to hold them firmly to account.
“And today I am putting them on notice that I intend to do just that.”
Ms Sturgeon, who is currently Deputy First Minister, said a second independence referendum would only be held if Scots voted for a party committed to a fresh vote. The remarks appeared to distance her from Mr Salmond’s recent suggestion that there could be a unilateral declaration of independence following the election of a new nationalist government.
But Ms Sturgeon said: “Circumstances and public opinion will determine whether people want one [a referendum].
“A political party would have to offer that in its manifesto. I believe Scotland will become an independent country in my lifetime, but it will only happen when the majority of people have been persuaded it is the best option.”
Yesterday, she also announced that she would hold a series of rallies around Scotland for the tens of thousands of new members who have joined the SNP since 18 September, to set out her vision for the future.
“The SNP that I will lead has grown dramatically in recent weeks and we are now the third-largest political party in the UK,” she said. “We are in great heart as we look forward to the opportunities that lie ahead.
“Our new members bring an energy and a dynamism – and not just to the SNP. They are also a potent force who can help Scotland progress as a country.”
Next month, Ms Sturgeon will become leader of the party she joined as a schoolgirl at the age of 16. The 44-year-old, who is married to the SNP’s chief executive Peter Murrell, said in a newspaper interview yesterday that they had not ruled out starting a family once she becomes First Minister. “The assumption is, in my younger days I followed my career instead of having children. That wasn’t the case. Life just takes its own course, so who knows,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon paid tribute to the outgoing First Minister, but said she would be her own person in her new job. “Alex is a hard act to follow but I am determined to lead the SNP – and the country – from strength to strength,” she said.
Mr Salmond said he would be offering “no words of advice” to his successor. “Nicola is well capable of dealing with any events in the future,” he said. “But what I would like to say is congratulations to her. I think she will be an outstanding leader of the Scottish National Party and an outstanding First Minister of Scotland.”
Derek Mackay, the SNP’s business convener, confirmed that Ms Sturgeon would replace Mr Salmond as the deadline for nominations closed at 9am yesterday.
“I am delighted that Nicola Sturgeon will succeed Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP. She will be a fantastic new leader of both the party and our country.
“She will build on the substantial legacy and extraordinary achievements of Alex Salmond as the longest-serving First Minister, and make her own mark as she leads Scotland forward,” he said. “I am also delighted that there is a choice of three top- quality candidates for the post of depute leader.”
Keith Brown, Angela Constance and Stewart Hosie have all put themselves forward to become SNP deputy. The winner will be declared at the SNP conference next month.
Yesterday Mr Brown, who is transport minister, said he had the support of more than half of Holyrood’s SNP MSPs, including a number of cabinet ministers, local councillors and senior grassroots organisers.
Ms Constance, the party’s youth employment minister, made a direct appeal to the deluge of new SNP members, many of whom will have won voting rights and have equal representation under the party’s one-member-one-vote system.
Mr Hosie said that his aim was to secure the maximum number of SNP MSPs at the next Holyrood election, which he said would not be a rerun of the referendum but an opportunity to “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire” over devolution promises.
Five key challenges facing the new First Minister
1 Cabinet and ministerial frontbench
Ms Sturgeon will be faced with a choice of whether to stick with a tried and tested team or whether to put her own stamp on the government and introduce a number of new faces.
The influx of new members has allowed the SNP to claim it is now the UK’s third biggest party with 80,000 people on its books.
Will the new members, having being inspired to join the SNP during the independence campaign, demand another referendum from the newly installed leadership ?
3 Deputy role
Having been a high-profile deputy leader, Ms Sturgeon will have to work with a new No 2 who will have a direct mandate from the SNP, having won the only contested part of the leadership election.
Deputy leadership contender Angela Constance has already ruled out serving as deputy first minister, but Ms Sturgeon will still face a choice of who to appoint to the role from the contest winner and the field of experienced ministers.
4 Smith Commission powers
Ms Sturgeon has already said the Smith Commission talks and the negotiations on the package of further devolution promised will be her priority.
With independence having been defeated on 18 September, the SNP will use the talks to push for what many supporters will see as the next best option of devo-max – the transfer of all welfare and tax policy to Holyrood, but with defence and foreign affairs reserved in a settlement that is similar to that in the Isle of Man.
5 2015 General Election
The selection of SNP candidates to fight next year’s general election represent a pressing concern for the party.
Although the party remains a formidable campaigning machine, it has yet to select any candidates for Westminster constituencies in an election it has been tipped to make gains in.
Ms Sturgeon will be keen to get strong candidates in Labour-held constituencies in the city of Glasgow, where the majority of people voted Yes on 18 September.
Concerns could centre on campaign funds, with the well-financed SNP having spent heavily during the referendum.
These are a few of her favourite things
For a Sturgeon snapshot, The Scotsman asked her what she likes best. She said:
Favourite book/author - Fave book of all time is Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. I have lots of favourite authors, historical and current: LGG, Jane Austen, Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre, Louise Welsh to name just a few.
Sports team/football team - Ayr United
TV show - River City and Borgen
Song - Wild Mountainside – Eddi Reader and Adele, Someone Like You
Film - Gone with the Wind