Claire Black: Ascent of charismatic SNP leader

Sturgeon alongside the former party leader Alex Salmond after the 2005 general election. Picture: David Moir
Sturgeon alongside the former party leader Alex Salmond after the 2005 general election. Picture: David Moir
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On the final day of polling last week, Nicola Sturgeon appeared at a triumphal rally in Edinburgh. Underneath a grey sky, threatening rain and egged on by a wind that would disrupt even the most lacquered of hair dos, the First Minister mingled with the ecstatic crowd. She smiled, selfied and shook hands. It may have seemed a trifle premature since this was before a single vote had been cast. But now, one can only wonder what scenes we might have witnessed, had the crowd pre-empted the SNP’s extraordinary performance on Thursday night.

The sight of Sturgeon among adoring crowds – often a tiny dot of pink or red in a sea of anoraks and raincoats – became commonplace during the general election campaign. But Sturgeon’s transformation has been astonishing. She’s gone from dour-faced political automaton to most popular politician in the UK in a matter of weeks. Not since Tony Blair back in 1997 has a politician been met with such adoration, people – not bussed in supporters, but Joe Public – standing in the rain just to catch a glimpse, smiling, cheering, mouthing ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’. Not so long ago, though, she was characterised as, at best, irredeemably earnest and at worst aloof. She has spoken of her “thrawnness”, a characteristic from her Ayrshire upbringing.

She clearly does Twitter herself. She’s good at it, and can also be very funny

There’s no doubt about her ambition either – she joined the SNP at the tender age of 16. By 21, in 1992, she was the youngest candidate in the UK when she ran for the Labour safe seat (a quaint notion these days) of Glasgow Shettleston. She lost. She then failed to win three council seats over the following few years, choosing then in 1997 to stand in Glasgow Govan, which she also lost. Sturgeon only became a constituency MSP, for Glasgow Southside, eight years ago.

With that track record surely no one can doubt Sturgeon’s toughness, or her devotion to her party. But more recently what has come to the fore is another side to her. Charismatic, funny, open, gone is the froideur and instead she strikes people as warm and empathetic. Serious about politics, but switched on to ordinary life, she seems just like us. For David Torrance, author of Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life, it speaks to the fact that there is a large chunk of the electorate who want a politician who seems real and who would behave as they imagine they themselves would. “They crave that because they feel they haven’t had it,” he says. “And it cannot be denied that Nicola is an appealing political figure. She’s learned how to project the warmer, fuzzier aspects of her personality which have always been there. Everyone I spoke to made that point – she hasn’t changed, but the presentation has.”

Political commentator Euan McColm agrees. “How she looks does matter and it is a big part of it,” he says. “If you watch FMQs she’s surrounded by men in grey suits and she’s wearing a bright, vivid colour. She is framed beautifully. She’s a wee thing, but she looks commanding and powerful, vivid and well defined.”

Sturgeon herself has spoken about the difficulty for women in politics who have to tread the line between not appearing weak and therefore struggling to be taken seriously and not appearing too strong so as to be cast as a harridan. Sturgeon, it appears, has found a winning formula – wrapped in neat suits in bright, block colours (and those ankle-busting high heels) her approach is both authoritative and empathetic. It’s no mean feat. And what’s interesting is that where other politicians have been given similar “image management” and then look as though a focus group friendly version of them has been pasted hastily on top of the real one, like Spanx keeping the unsightly bulges of normality from view, with Sturgeon the opposite seems to have happened. It is as though through this carefully orchestrated process, the real Nicola Sturgeon has been revealed.

And it’s not just about clothing, or posture (apparently it was Sir Sean Connery who told her to stand up straight) or the way in which she has overcome her innate shyness. Sturgeon’s use of social media, that unfiltered medium which catches out all but the canniest, has been masterly. “She clearly does it herself, which is a help,” says Torrance, “and she’s good at it.” Whether it’s closing down stories that could cause trouble (that scurrilous rumour about indiscreet chat with the French ambassador) or challenging the more outspoken, at times outrageous, SNP support base, Sturgeon utilises Twitter with what appears to be effortless efficiently. “She can also be very funny,” says Torrance.

“She can engage in a light-hearted way with opponents and journalists. She’s brilliant at it and it makes her look like a normal human being.”

Perhaps the SNP’s success in the election is a vindication of the promise that those in her party – including Alex Salmond – detected when she was still in her teens: the work ethic, the modernising instincts, the unfailing discipline. But perhaps they also spotted the warmth, the personality, the ability to appear reasonable even when indulging in party political manoeuvring. It’s just that we didn’t know about it, or she couldn’t show it.

“She will concede that a criticism is reasonable even though she then goes on to say that it’s not,” says Torrance. “The point is she appears more pragmatic than Salmond ever did. She takes a more conciliatory approach – she doesn’t hector or shout.”

According to McColm, the defining moment of Sturgeon’s political development was her handling back in 2010 of the scandal that blew up about a letter she signed asking for clemency for a constituent who had committed benefit fraud. It was a moment, fraught with real political danger, when she came into her own.

“She was sick with worry about it,” says McColm. “Fundamentally she is an honest woman and she accepted that this was wrong. Also she had realised the impact it might have on her career. Salmond didn’t want her to apologise, he wanted her to tough it out. She defied him. She was genuinely contrite and it neutered 
all of the opposition, but it also for the first time made her seem like her own woman.”

Sturgeon stepped out from Salmond’s shadow. Since then, through the referendum campaign and the extraordinary general election campaign she has continued her progress to centre stage where now she is bathed in the brightest of political spotlights. Few politicians have ever looked quite so ready.