‘We WILL be Labour’s backbone and guts.” The earthy language, the bold message and the gutsy delivery all point to one thing. Within three months of becoming SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon is already at the height of her powers. Like an adult version of Frozen (without the twin sister, long frocks or Disney treatment), the First Minister radiates political and personal confidence from her northern fastness.
She is so unlike previous leaders that Gordon Brown mistakenly described her as Mrs Sturgeon in a weekend speech. In fact, like myself and many other Scottish women, she opted not to change her surname after marriage. A small slip perhaps, but it shows that nothing about this unconventional new leader can be taken for granted. Surely the thoroughly modern Ms Sturgeon is now the most interesting politician in the UK.
The SNP is also on a roll, with the latest polls confirming it is still on course to win 40-50 seats and unlikely to see recent recruits switch back to Labour. But as the SNP leader reached out beyond the confines of the party’s Glasgow conference to the mass of English voters this weekend, she may also have been sowing the first seeds of long-term trouble for the SNP – unless she is very careful.
There is no doubt her proposals for modernising the UK are well chosen. Just as the SNP’s declared intention to block the renewal of Trident has thrown Labour into disarray (with 70 per cent of Labour MPs reportedly supporting the move), plans to abolish the House of Lords and raise the minimum wage by £2 an hour are likely to win favour with progressive voters everywhere – even if Polly Toynbee predicts a conservative backlash to any Labour-SNP pact in England.
But long-term challenges lie ahead if the SNP pursues a twin-track strategy for Scottish independence. Up till now, there has really been only one focus for the party’s talent and energy – Holyrood. But from 8 May, the SNP will have to maintain strength, strategy and presence in two political arenas located in two different political cultures. You don’t need to survey history for long to observe that the most consummate leaders have come royally unstuck once they poured talent, energy and attention into two battlefronts at the same time.
Thus, if the SNP leader’s overture to progressive English voters is successful, it may kickstart the only dynamic that can really hole the SNP below the water line – making Westminster a more important political arena for Scots than Holyrood.
Now this is not to suggest destructive personal power struggles will develop between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Nor do I think the First Minister’s authority will be fatally undermined by exclusion from the airwaves as London-based parties get free airtime courtesy of network TV. Sturgeon will appear in the “magnificent seven” debate of all party leaders and is likely to have a “Patrick Harvie” effect – talking candidly in a way other leaders cannot and encouraging millions of southern voters to revise their limited knowledge and clichéd views of Scottish politics.
There are clearly massive benefits to having a major presence at Westminster, whether the SNP is part of government or not. If it replaces the Lib Dems as Westminster’s third force behind Labour and the Conservatives, the party will be entitled to a much greater slice of government cash to fund Westminster operations, they’ll be called to speak in every Commons debate, get two questions at every Prime Minister’s Questions and representation on every single Commons committee, perhaps even chairing the Scottish affairs committee. That’s a lot of presence and profile. It’s also potentially a lot of distraction – perhaps enough to reawaken Scotland’s fading interest in the British dimension of our lives. That would be deeply ironic.
The birth of the Scottish Parliament instantly eclipsed Westminster in the hearts and minds of most Scots. To the chagrin of Scottish MPs, they soon found themselves less well-known, less broadcast, less important and less tasked with constituents’ problems than MSPs. The more Holyrood deviated from the British norm in its political priorities, system of voting and earlier experience of minority government, the more that distinctive Scottish path became the norm for Scottish voters – a norm from which distant Westminster seemed to deviate.
But that could soon be about to change.
Some 30 to 50 SNP MPs are unlikely to sit quietly in London. If they are part of a government pact with Labour – rated this weekend as only a 28 per cent probability – the new team will make headlines across the world and could eclipse Holyrood for the first time since 1999. Even if the “London SNP” team is consigned to opposition, it will fight for airtime at every turn – as it must – all the while developing a different narrative about progress for the cause of independence, the SNP and for the interests of Scotland.
This, of course, is only a problem of success. Thanks to the transformational impact of the independence referendum, politics is about to get more complicated, less binary and less contained in one legislature – and it is neither possible nor desirable to hold back the tide. Broadcasters, English voters and London-based political parties show few signs of being ready for this sea change. Scots, by contrast, have had to handle the complexity and interplay of two parliaments and political systems for 15 years.
But during that time, Scottish-based politics has always had primacy. Is that about to change? Is it possible the SNP could reform Westminster so thoroughly that some Yes voters won’t want to leave – a bit like folk who tidy and repaint their homes so well, they suddenly don’t want to move out? Might a London-centric SNP even commit the ultimate folly and stand candidates in England to capitalise on southern support?
These are unlikely scenarios – but perhaps only as unlikely as the prospect of a majority SNP Holyrood government five years ago.
One thing is certain though: Nicola Sturgeon’s task as First Minister and SNP leader is about to get even more demanding. She must woo England and plan a radical overhaul of Westminster without letting that effort usurp the Scotland Parliament as the political centre of our lives.
As John Buchan once said: “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”
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