Leader comment: Nicola Sturgeon can’t square circle as SNP leader and First Minister

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Party faithful told what they want to hear, but conflicting priorities are hard to resolve.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon seems to have devoted much of her time since replacing Alex Salmond in 2014 to trying to achieve the impossible objective of being all things to all people.

Nicola Sturgeon can't square circle as SNP leader and First Minister. Picture: PA Wire

Nicola Sturgeon can't square circle as SNP leader and First Minister. Picture: PA Wire

In a Scotland divided over the constitution, the First Minister has sought to reassure the pro-UK majority that she understands and respects their position while, at the same time, keeping her supporters happy with a series of speeches in which she promises independence is coming and soon.

The result of last year’s general election, in which the SNP lost 21 MPs, was accepted by senior figures within the party as proof that the independence question was costing the party the votes of those Scots who had been happy to see the nationalists in government at Holyrood but who did not wish to see Scotland break from the UK. Pro-Union Scots, once seduced by Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond and his reassurances that a vote for the SNP was not necessarily a vote for independence, had read the small print and had seen that it did mean the prospect of endless independence referendums.

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And just as the opposition to independence of a small majority seems unshakeable, so those who voted Yes in 2014 remain utterly committed to achieving their aim.

The roles of First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP require different focus on different – perhaps even conflicting – priorities and Sturgeon has struggled to find a balance that works for those on both sides of the constitutional debate.

Yesterday, in a speech to the SNP’s conference in Aberdeen, the First Minister sought to reassure Scots that her eye was firmly on the domestic political agenda.

As well as announcing a pay rise for NHS staff, Sturgeon promised new and refurbished nursery schools, plus increased funding for students who have been in care.

The recent publication of the SNP’s Growth Commission report – a document which is cautious in tone and which recognises that the early years of an independent Scotland would not be painless – has been seen as an indication that Sturgeon’s enthusiasm for a second referendum in the near future has waned.

This, however, is not what the SNP membership wishes to hear and so, yesterday, she told them that the case for independence was renewed and their mission was to win converts.

It was this message, we believe, that will have been heard loudest by those on both sides of the constitutional divide.

Nicola Sturgeon left the conference stage no nearer to squaring the circle on the competing priorities of those she serves and those she leads.

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