Tom Peterkin: Nicola Sturgeon has her work cut out

Nicola Sturgeon's challenge is 'to lead the party while winning the 'public over to another referendum. Picture: John Devlin
Nicola Sturgeon's challenge is 'to lead the party while winning the 'public over to another referendum. Picture: John Devlin
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WITH further devolution, the economy and possibly Jim Murphy to negotiate, the new SNP leader has her work cut out, says Tom Peterkin

What does Sturgeon do about another referendum?

WITHIN a few minutes of being crowned the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon launched her bid to put the question of Scottish independence to another referendum.

To the delight of activists in Perth, Sturgeon said gaining popular support for a second independence vote would be one of her priorities as leader.

For those who took earlier pledges that such polls were a once in a generation occurrence at face value, there was an indecent haste to her comments – which were tailored to appeal to the many SNP activists anxious for a re-run of 18 September as soon as possible.

Judging by the mood of the conference, SNP supporters appear not to believe they lost the referendum. There is a refusal to regard the No vote as any sort of set-back.

But looking beyond Perth Concert Hall, Sturgeon knows she will have to tread a fine line.

On the one hand she must satisfy her die-hard Nationalist supporters with their insatiable desire to break up the UK. On the other hand, as leader of Scotland’s ruling party, she wants to appeal to those who accept that the Scottish people have rejected independence and believe it is time to move on.

When looking at this issue, Sturgeon chose her words carefully. While emphasising that her longing for independence remains undiminished and maintaining that it will happen in her lifetime, she says she accepts the referendum result.

On the question of when a referendum should be repeated, Sturgeon sticks to the line that it is up to the people of Scotland to decide when it is next put to the electorate. In other words, another independence poll would take place if the SNP won a Scottish election after campaigning on a manifesto containing a commitment for a referendum.

By making that clear Sturgeon and Salmond have at least laid to rest some of the more far-fetched notions expressed by some believers in the SNP cause.

Despite the No side winning the referendum by a margin of some 400,000 votes, some had suggested that if the SNP emerged from the May general election with the most seats, that would suffice as a mandate for independence.

With next year’s Westminster election and the 2016 Holyrood elections looming, all eyes will be on the SNP manifesto to see how this issue is dealt with.

Having accepted that the mandate for a referendum must be through a Holyrood election, SNP insiders say next year’s Westminster manifesto is unlikely to contain an explicit referendum commitment.

Rather, the prospect of another independence vote will be couched in what are becoming familiar terms about it being “up to the people”.

The more interesting question is how a second referendum will be dealt with in the 2016 manifesto. Sturgeon told this newspaper last week that she would make that decision at the end of next year.

Excluding a referendum commitment would infuriate her growing grassroots movement. Including one would alienate potential supporters who believe that a government should govern rather than fight past battles. The dilemma is Sturgeon’s and it is a tricky one.

How does Sturgeon react to the Smith Commission?

WHEN John Swinney was appointed, with Sturgeon’s approval, to lead SNP negotiations for more powers it sent out a clear signal that the party was prepared to engage with Lord Smith of Kelvin’s commission.

It was an acknowledgement within the SNP hierarchy that after the referendum defeat the Smith Commission is the only game in town when it comes to constitutional change – at least in the immediate future.

It also marked a change in the SNP’s attitude towards bodies set up by pro-Union politicians to look at the constitution.

The SNP withdrew from the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which was to lead to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The party also refused to take part in the Calman Commission, the body set up by Labour, Lib Dems and the Tories to satisfy a mood for change.

If at the end of the Smith process, all political parties manage to come to an agreement on more powers, its plans for further devolution will be hugely credible.

Whether the SNP will actually manage to come to a deal with their Unionist opponents is another question entirely. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the pro-Union parties can reach agreement amongst themselves.

The SNP rhetoric has been that it will participate in order to “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire” to ensure that the vow of more powers engineered by Gordon Brown during the dying days of the referendum campaign and signed off by David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg is delivered.

Yet with the Smith talks under way, a gulf has opened up along the constitutional divide over what precisely that vow was.

Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems maintain with some justification that the vow was based on their blueprints for more devolution published before the referendum.

The SNP, however, have seized on remarks made by Brown during his dramatic intervention for the No campaign. Brown used the phrase “Home Rule” to describe the vow and suggested Scotland would become “as close to a federal state as you can be”.

Devo-max – a settlement that would see devolution of everything save defence and foreign affairs – is the SNP’s negotiating start point.

That differs from the positions outlined by their opponents, all of whom believe in the benefits of sharing some resources such as pensions across the UK.

Therefore a deal would require compromise. The signs are that Swinney may be prepared to do so. Under Alex Salmond the SNP embraced a gradualist approach to independence and one suspects there would have to be a fall-out of almost volcanic proportions for Swinney and Sturgeon to walk away from a process that can secure substantial new powers for Scotland.

How does Sturgeon deal with austerity?

THOSE after a reminder of how difficult it can be for Holyrood politicians to deal with the austerity agenda, need look no further than Scottish Labour.

One of the first things that Johann Lamont did when she became leader in 2012 was to make a speech recognising that times are hard and tough choices need to be made.

Calling for an end to the “something for nothing” culture, the then Labour leader warned that taxes would have to rise or services cut to maintain the SNP’s populist but expensive policies.

At the time some saw her pledge to set up an expert group to look at the issue as a bold move to deal with the harsh economic reality and the cost of paying for a rapidly ageing population.

Others saw it as a politically naive own goal, which would harm Labour by telling voters something they did not want to hear.

For the SNP it was a gift. The proposal was immediately labelled a “Cuts Commission” by the Nationalists, who made huge political capital out it.

The body and its findings were duly kicked into the long-grass by Labour.

Labour’s commission may have all but disappeared, but the problem has not. The SNP has been hugely successful at the Scottish election by pursuing policies based on universality. Free prescriptions, school meals, tuition fees, bus travel and the council tax freeze have all been vote winners.

But just how sustainable will be pursuit of these policies in the future?

Just last week a paper published by economic think-tank Fiscal Affairs Scotland, which looked at long-term Scottish budget projections, said there were huge challenges ahead.

With the UK government taking drastic measures to balance its budget, FAS forecast a real terms cut of almost 20 per cent in the Scottish budget over the next few years to 2018/19.

Warning that the biggest cuts are yet to come, the FAS said that continued protection of Scotland’s NHS budget could result in cuts to non-protected areas of 30 per cent over the same period.

The FAS added said new powers from the Smith Commission would have little influence on the outlook, though it did say that the Scottish Government could mitigate some of the cuts by using its new borrowing powers.

But the overall message was that spending priorities would have to be looked at or the unpopular measure of raising taxes would have to be taken.

For Sturgeon, this could cause a very real headache. The best way to deal with it would be to stimulate more vigorous growth – easier said than done.

Politically, another way of dealing with it would be to fall back on blaming Westminster for Scotland’s economic ills and arguing that money invested in Trident could and should be far better spent elsewhere.

How does Sturgeon deal with Alex Salmond?

AS the most successful leader in the SNP’s history, Alex Salmond will always hold a unique position in the party. So the question of whether Nicola Sturgeon can escape from his shadow is a real one.

A brooding Salmond looming over her on the Holyrood backbenches could be an unhelpful distraction to a new leader trying to make her mark. It’s something that Salmond himself recognises, hence his repeated refusal to rule out a return to Westminster. For someone who has spent his political life blaming Westminster governments for Scotland’s woes, he has quite a fondness for its parliament.

Returning as an MP would allow Salmond to retain his big beast status, while remaining at an arms length from Sturgeon.

Salmond has confirmed that he is considering standing at the general election in his traditional stomping ground of the North-east. His old seat of Banff and Buchan is unavailable due to the SNP’s sitting MP Eilidh Whiteford’s determination to stand again.

Standing in Gordon against the Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce is an option, though, and Salmond has hinted as much.

That scenario might suit Salmond and Sturgeon, but it might not be welcomed by the party’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson. And how would Salmond’s presence in the House of Commons be viewed by the party’s new deputy leader Stewart Hosie?

As a member of the Privy Council, Salmond would be called to speak in the Commons before Hosie and Robertson. To all extents and purposes, Salmond would be viewed as the boss – an impression he would be reluctant to dispel. With the possibility of the SNP dramatically increasing its Commons representation in May, the position of Westminster leader will carry much prestige.

Should the SNP succeed in its wish to be included in general election TV debates, there could be a fight over who does the debating. In his farewell address on Friday, Salmond said that it should be Sturgeon. But there is no doubt that Salmond’s love of the limelight and the UK stage means that he would relish such an encounter. Should Salmond put his hand up for this task there could be some SNP noses out-of-joint.

Even with Salmond down at Westminster, Sturgeon would be wise to be wary of him. When John Swinney was in charge of the SNP, Salmond’s high-profile as the “King over the Water” in the Commons undermined his authority.

Those close to Sturgeon play down the possibility of Salmond creating a problem for her, pointing out that they have been “joined at the hip” as a formidable team at the top of the SNP for years. Sturgeon is Salmond’s anointed successor and his loyalty to her has been unwavering so far.

However, even they acknowledge that managing Salmond will be impossible.

“Alex is Alex. He’s nothing if not his own man and he will do what he wants,” said one SNP source.

How does Sturgeon deal with Jim Murphy?

ALEX Salmond’s remarkable achievement in becoming the first person to lead a majority government in the Scottish Parliament was boosted by a Labour Party in freefall.

In 2007 he defeated a complacent Labour to form a minority government. In 2011 his landslide victory was at the expense of a party which by then was specialising in shambles. Salmond was truly blessed by his enemies.

With the recent departure of Johann Lamont, Labour’s problems seem more acute than ever.

But should, if as expected, Jim Murphy succeeds in replacing Lamont, Sturgeon could be confronting an opposite number far more formidable than those faced by Salmond.

Salmond saw off Jack (now Lord) McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray and Lamont.

Murphy, however, promises to be made of sterner stuff. Almost certainly, Murphy would preside over some sort of Scottish Labour revival – if only on the basis that it is highly unlikely that the party could sink any deeper.

A highly ambitious politician, Murphy is a Blairite whose determination to take on the SNP overrides all else. His drive to re-capture the Middle Scotland vote, will pose some interesting questions for Sturgeon.

Sturgeon comes from the left of the SNP. When deliberating how to cope with the Murphy threat one option would be to attempt to out-manoeuvre him by shifting the SNP to the left.

That strategy might meet with the approval of the thousands of new SNP members, many of whom are thought to come from the radical left.

Senior SNP insiders, however, play down thoughts of an ideological shift and suggest that Sturgeon’s approach against Murphy will be based on pragmatism.

The notion of a leftwards shift was also dealt a blow with the unexpected election of Stewart Hosie as deputy leader.

With thousands of new SNP members given the right to vote in the deputy leadership election, it had been thought that Angela Constance would be the beneficiary of their support.

The fact that Constance, who offered the most radical approach to independence, was defeated by a SNP establishment figure like Hosie was welcomed by more mainstream Nationalists.

The deputy leadership election was the first indicator of the views of the new members eligible to vote. That Hosie won suggests that the lurch to the left has yet to materialise.

According to those close to Sturgeon, talk of moving the party’s political stance is wide of the mark. The SNP has always been made up of right wingers and left wingers. And given that Sturgeon was right at the heart of Salmond’s government, there is likely to be continuity in her approach.

She is also said to accept that Murphy is capable of landing the odd political blow. She will deal with them when Murphy lands them – assuming Labour actually manages to elect the leader capable of inflicting the most damage on the SNP.