After Theresa May’s disastrous coughing fit, Nicola Sturgeon joked: “Spare a thought for those of us still to deliver our conference speech and now fretting about all the things that could go wrong.”
No doubt some of her adversaries hoped it would do. But Scotland’s First Minister felt so in control, she even goofed around with a box of Strepsils. It seemed she did not intend to miss the opportunity to remind voters they are still the party of government. In her speech to the SNP conference, she laid out plans for free childcare, hinted at tax rises and crucially beat Jeremy Corbyn to it with the announcement of a publicly-owned, not-for-profit energy company. She reminded the conference the party’s ratings remained high. But after a decade of SNP rule, is it enough to rejuvenate the party?
It helps Sturgeon is nimble and quick, at least when it comes to driving the debate. Her demand for a second independence referendum backfired after Theresa May called a snap election and SNP voters stayed at home. After digesting the fact the SNP had lost a third of MPs, she retreated on the referendum, announced a summer of thinking and returned with a programme for government that was focused on domestic, left-wing policies. Given that Scottish Labour spent three years trying to change the conversation after the 2014 referendum, the fact she was able to move so swiftly is something of a success in itself.
To paraphrase Stalin, the First Minister’s speech to conference outlined independence in one country. She warned against a post-Brexit power grab by Westminster – “we will not allow a Tory government to undermine devolution” – and pledged to “make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up”. The SNP is often criticised by Labour for not making the most of devolved powers, so the speech was studded with reminders of pioneering policies, like addressing period poverty (a campaign also led by Monica Lennon, a Labour MSP). After brazenly plundering, Sturgeon showed how much she’d learnt from the 2017 election by finishing with talk of “The Road of Hope”. For the many, not the few and all that.
Sturgeon is also betting on Brexit becoming more and more unpopular as the consequences sink in. Although she nodded to the EU’s apathy over Catalonia – a cause dear to Nat hearts – she maintained her Remain credentials by pledging to pay the costs of EU public sector workers under a new immigration regime. She also demanded a separate immigration policy for Scotland, declaring: “An immigration policy designed to appease Ukip must go.” (SNP politicians still adhere to the unfashionable view that immigrants are valuable people who pay taxes). With the idea of a second referendum shelved, Sturgeon’s critique of Brexit also has little risk for her, since there is equally little she can do about it.
The real test for the First Minister will not be the conference speech, but proving herself on the ground. While education may have been in need of reform, the SNP’s shake up has seen standards drop. The health service is under strain.
And then there’s taxes. Since Scotland won new tax raising powers in the Scotland Act 2016, opposition parties have held up tax as an example of the SNP’s unwillingness to wield what independence the country has. Sturgeon paved the way for a tax rise in her speech, saying: “What kind of country do we want to be? Too often, the debate on tax is framed as the economy versus public services. That’s wrong.”
Sturgeon finished her speech without any coughing fits. But more voters will use the health service and take their kids to school than admire her conference rhetoric. And it’s those people she now has to impress.