Joyce McMillan: Sturgeon must shape her own SNP

The First Minister-in-waiting has to forge alliances and juggle the demands of new members, writes Joyce McMillan

Nicola Sturgeon and the new Scottish Cabinet in 2011  but how many will remain in her team? Picture: Getty

It is the day after the announcement that Nicola Sturgeon has been elected, unopposed, as next leader of the SNP, and I am at my desk gazing at a picture of the Scottish Cabinet as it was in May 2011, immediately after the SNP’s unexpected overall victory in that year’s Scottish Parliament election.

There are nine people in the picture, and there at the centre, side by side, are Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister and deputy, rock-solid allies, and – given the huge surge in the SNP’s strength over the past decade – perhaps the most successful leading partnership in recent British politics.

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So it is more than interesting to try to imagine how that same picture might look in a few months’ time, after Ms Sturgeon formally steps into the role of First Minister at the SNP’s annual conference in November. The 2011 picture shows a party leadership balanced between an older generation who once knew the SNP as a movement on the fringes of Scottish politics – based mainly in Perthshire and the North-east, and lacking a Scottish Parliament in which to express itself – and those who have reached political maturity in the age of devolution, when the SNP has begun to make serious inroads into the old Labour heartlands of Central Scotland.

Despite his own left-wing credentials, Alex Salmond’s constituency in Gordon has always kept him closely bound to the party’s traditional support-base. Ms Sturgeon, by contrast, sits for a Glasgow seat, and is the living embodiment of the SNP’s emerging identity as Scotland’s new leading party of the social-democratic left. Now, the new leader has to decide whether to try to retain that balance, or to ditch the more heathery aspects of the party’s heritage and adopt a new image for new times.

There’s no doubt that the pressures to take the second course will be huge, not least from the 50,000-plus people who have joined the SNP in the past month, trebling its membership. There is a widespread assumption that these new members will be nationalist “fundamentalists”, determined to stage a second referendum as soon as possible; but my guess is that they will prove to be disillusioned former Labour supporters as much as firebrand nationalists, determined to push the SNP into picking up the socialist torch which the Labour Party has long since dropped.

Nicola Sturgeon will therefore find passionate support among her new membership for her determined views on the defence of public services. Yet in a UK political scene now largely bereft of serious centre-left politics, she will also struggle to avoid being typecast as a hard-line leftist and an old-fashioned tax-and-spender, and may therefore risk losing large parts of that “middle Scotland” which has been willing, in recent years, to vote SNP for a moderately competent and independent-minded Scottish government.

So if the First Minister-in-waiting seriously wants – and I think she does – to lead Scotland towards the kind of Nordic future dramatised in her favourite television series, Borgen, then I think she would be wise to proceed with great caution, and to seek to build strong new alliances at every step.

On the matter of the constitution, she will have to deploy all her political skill and conviction to remind the new SNP that, for her, independence is not a prize in itself, but a means to an end, and that she therefore will not view a rapid re-run of the referendum as a top priority.

On the contrary, she has to demonstrate both a willingness to work constructively with the present Smith Commission on enhanced devolution, and a serious determination to make those enhanced powers work, if agreed – even if that means deferring talk of another referendum for a full electoral cycle. Then on wider matters of policy, she and her Cabinet colleagues need to understand the seriousness of the battle of ideas on which they are embarking, and to recruit some powerful and unexpected allies both inside Scotland and beyond it. Across the west, the neoliberal “austerity” model is failing and either driving economies back into recession, or creating “recoveries” which benefit no-one but the wealthy.

If a home-rule Scotland is to have a serious chance of charting a different course, though, it will need staunch support not only from SNP and Scottish Green members, and from left-leaning elements of Scottish civil society, but from a strong strand of enlightened and forward-looking business opinion, from serious thinkers about land use and energy policy across Scotland, and from wider international networks working to create more sustainable economic and social models. Building those alliances will be Nicola Sturgeon’s most crucial task as leader; and it follows that she cannot really afford to sacrifice any part of the support her party currently enjoys.

On the contrary, she needs to build, to reassure, to reach out, to argue patiently and long; and she somehow needs to keep her new, fired-up supporters on board for that painstaking, long-term project.

Yet if all of the above seems like a tall order, there are also reasons for optimism among those who wish Nicola Sturgeon well. She is, in the first place, an extraordinarily calm and well-tempered leader, who fought an outstanding referendum campaign.

In the second place, she steps up to the role of First Minister at a time when, referendum victory notwithstanding, the governance of the UK is in disarray, thrown all of a heap by the arrival of Ukip, confused by the sudden allure of “English votes for English laws” and unable even to devise a series of general election television debates that accurately reflect the nation’s changing political landscape.

Under these circumstances, the Scottish Government may have little to do but to stay calm and continue to demonstrate a certain basic competence for more powers to begin to accrue to it, by design or default.

“Keep calm and carry on”? It’s an old British wartime slogan. But Nicola Sturgeon has always been unashamedly fond of the British post-war settlement, and if she can keep calm and defend the best features of that settlement here in Scotland – and lead her country gradually towards independence as she does so – then she will, I think, be well pleased with her next decade’s work.