What a difference a year makes. On becoming First Minister 12 months ago, Nicola Sturgeon was popular, but not that popular; widely respected, but very much a Scottish rather than a UK politician.
Under her leadership, however, the SNP’s membership has more than doubled, while it won all but three of Scotland’s seats at Westminster in May. Indeed, it was the general election that transformed Sturgeon into one of the UK’s best-known politicians, making it a personal as well as political triumph.
Her appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs a few days ago revealed a politician at the peak of her powers, simultaneously the smartest person in the room but also the most “authentic” and straightforward; unlike Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon certainly does human.
She’s also learned the art of political humility, giving away just enough of herself to imply a certain vulnerability at which many contemporaries (and indeed her predecessor Alex Salmond) would balk. “In the early days of my career . . . I would don the persona of ‘Nicola the politician’,” Sturgeon told Kirsty Young, “that’s how I overcame the shyness.”
There’s no hint of shyness these days, rather Sturgeon exudes a cool authority that enables her to rise above the sort of slings and arrows that divert less confident individuals. Incidents both frivolous (leaked French memos) and more substantial (serious question marks over the SNP’s record in government) have generally slid off the First Minister’s Teflon-like coating.
Few doubt Sturgeon’s presentational gifts, but the substance of her first year in the job is more open to question. The curse of the progressive politician is high, often quixotic, expectations, and part of the trouble she now has as leader of her party and country has been the lofty rhetoric of the past decade: repeated promises of a more socially just Scotland – with or without independence.
Writing on the SNP’s website recently, Sturgeon said she was “proud” the Scottish government had recently built “strong foundations” allowing it to make a difference when it came to educational attainment, fair work, gender balance and childcare. A cynic might ask why this is only happening now (the SNP first won a devolved election in 2007), and also question the intellectual depth of an obviously sincere commitment to tackling inequality.
Beyond a continuing commitment to the potentially transformative (but also rather vague) qualities of independence, the First Minister does not appear to have given this much thought. Faced with a growing chorus of criticism over the attainment gap between rich and poor schoolchildren, for example, Sturgeon responded by plucking national testing out of nowhere, a policy solution one former SNP adviser judged as “simply not credible”. Redistribution of wealth, meanwhile, isn’t on the agenda, even with new powers over income tax.
To an extent, Sturgeon is trapped by the peculiar dynamic of modern Scottish politics. On accepting the Scottish Parliament’s nomination as First Minister she pledged that her administration would be “bold, imaginative and adventurous”, but the SNP has not become electorally successful by being any of those things. Rather it has appealed to Middle Scotland by at once pandering to its view of itself as radical and egalitarian while giving it lots of goodies – chiefly free university tuition, frozen council tax and greater universal (ie. free) provision in certain areas of healthcare. Keeping together the SNP’s broad coalition of electoral support depends upon cautious pragmatism rather than upsetting vested interests.
Sturgeon, therefore, often appears more comfortable with the campaigning aspects of being First Minister: opposition to Trident, austerity, Tory rule and foreign wars all come naturally. In that respect, as she put it to Young, she’s “just an Eighties girl at heart”, although that sits uncomfortably with political triangulation that would make (the remaining) Blairites proud.
As Sturgeon said in her recent conference speech, the SNP stands up “for the values, interests and aspirations of mainstream Scotland”. Voters “don’t just see left or right”, she added, “they see above all else a party that always seeks to do the right thing for Scotland.”
The “right thing”, of course, remains independence, an issue that Sturgeon has managed relatively skilfully since last year’s referendum defeat, cleverly convincing “the 45” that another plebiscite is on the cards (most likely in 2020/21) while also reassuring SNP-supporting Unionists (yes, they do exist) that her immediate priority is good governance rather than further constitutional upheaval.
Under attack from opponents, the SNP leader often reminds them how popular her party is, and that much is true. Popularity, however, isn’t everything. That, says one supporter, “always passes: policy and reform will carve her place in history”.
She certainly intends to stick around, telling one interviewer that she hoped to remain First Minister “for a considerable period of time to come”. At only 45, Sturgeon has time on her side, but it will be through deeds rather than words that she translates considerable goodwill into an enduring political legacy.