Simon Barrow

Nicola Sturgeon and the changing terrain of Scottish politics

By Simon Barrow
October 17, 2014

When the announcement came through that she would be elected unopposed as the next leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon was quick to warn that although women now lead three of the five largest political parties in Scotland (and let's not forget that the fine Maggie Chapman is also co-convenor of the Scottish Greens), "I don't think we should assume it's job done on gender balance."

She's right. Politics, and other areas of life, are too male dominated in Scotland. Indeed, inequalities of many kinds, not least economic ones, continue to scar Scottish society, and Ms Sturgeon has made it clear that addressing these lesions will be a major priority for her, along with securing more powers to make that possible.

“My job”, she declared in a statement about her ascendancy on 15 October 2014, “will to be to … deliver strong, competent government with job creation, fairness and the protection of high quality public services at its heart. If elected by Parliament to be the next First Minister, that will be my priority each and every day that I hold office.

"I will also work to ensure that the Scottish Parliament gets the extensive new powers that Scotland was promised before the referendum. I will always make the case for Scotland to be an independent country, but with the Westminster parties already backsliding on the delivery of new powers, my immediate job will be to hold them firmly to account - and I am today putting them on notice that I intend to do just that...

“The hope, excitement and sense of opportunity of the referendum campaign did not end on polling day. It is alive, well and growing. This is a great time for Scotland.”

I haven't been an active member of a political party for 23 years. My gravitational centre of commitment is with people movements more than parties. But I sincerely hope that those who have ‘joined up’ are as committed to transforming the political landscape in this country as the tens of thousands who became involved in grassroots civic action for change in the run-up to that historic vote.

For while Westminster pundits still talk of an 'anti-politics mood' in England, the figures for political re-engagement in Scotland are eye-watering, given that the usual Scottish electorate is around three million. The SNP has increased in size from 25,000 to 82,000. The Greens have gone up from 1,700 to 7,000. The Scottish Socialist Party (which still has some influence on the west coast and elsewhere) is now at 3,800. On top of that 1,000 attended the Women for Independence conference recently, and some 3,000 are expected at the Radical Independence Campaign post-referendum gathering in Glasgow on 22 November. Around 100,000 people are thought to have been engaged at grassroots level on the Yes side during the campaign. It is clear that, having tasted new political possibilities, they are not going away. Likewise, the case for extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds has been strengthened immeasurably, and communities that felt wholly disenfranchised before are not going to be put back readily into a box of political convenience.

Elsewhere, the Westminster-shaped parties - Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives – face huge challenges, despite the referendum vote for the No side in September. Labour remains in serious trouble in Scotland. It is still in denial over its defeat by the SNP in 2007 and 2011 (it was essentially outflanked from the left), it is reeling from the Yes majorities in its heartlands (Glasgow, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire), it has lost direction in terms of values and policies, and its leadership is widely regarded as embattled, embittered and lacklustre. The Lib Dems face further electoral decline in 2015 as a result of their collusion in a disliked UK coalition government. Neither were they able to deploy their inherent federalism to any distinctive effect during the independence poll. The Conservatives may yet revisit an earlier proposal that they 'rebrand' towards a Christian Democrat style centre-right party to detoxify their image and reclaim a natural constituency among the secure middle class.

Into this fascinating arena of possibilities and, frankly, imponderables, steps Nicola Sturgeon. I confess that, though not involved with her party, I have been impressed with Nicola since I moved to Scotland from England in 2010, and I hope she will breathe new spirit and energy into both her roles. So far, she has proved herself to be a competent, humane, astute, thoughtful and personable leader in the eyes of many. She combines heartfelt social justice convictions with a willingness and ability to reach out for consensus where it is needed. A significantly less tribal politician in presentation than her predecessor, she has both friends and admirers in other parties and struck up a particularly good working relationship with the Greens' Patrick Harvie during the referendum. Afterwards she tweeted to the effect that, though she obviously wanted people to join the SNP, "to those who have joined the Greens – well done." A small gesture, maybe. But nonetheless that's quite a daring thing for a deputy leader of another party to do.

Of course, you don’t get to where she has without understanding how to work and ride the system. But the referendum campaign showed Ms Sturgeon as someone who also genuinely wants change. The party she inherits still looks too centralised in the way it operates, but has progressed by leaps and bounds through a willingness to adapt and absorb. The 'blood and soil' nationalists are now a small minority within its ranks, and although the character of its incoming membership is not yet determinable (the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and others are among those doing research), the indicators are that it will want to keep the SNP to the left and inject it with the transformational desire that fuelled the Yes movement. Indeed, there may be a chance of challenging it in two particular areas where environmental and redistributionist critics would want to see something decisively new: on tax and energy policy. It is thought Ms Sturgeon might sympathise with a different approach on the former. Time will tell. The carbon dependency factor is one that Greens and others outside the Scottish Parliament are going to have to press very hard on.

As for Nicola Sturgeon’s own vision, that was set out straightforwardly and interestingly in a speech she delivered at Strathclyde University on 3 December 2012, near the beginning of the referendum campaign. In it, she refers to the distinction drawn by Professor Neil McCormick between ‘existentialist’ and the ‘utilitarian’ arguments for self-government. While acknowledging both, the incoming SNP leader says: “…For me the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. And I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence.”

That’s a pretty clear definition of the case for self-government (for ‘interdependent independence’, as Canon Kenyon Wright helpfully put it) as being different from nationalistic sentiment and identity, a distinction that was maintained strongly by the many who did not own a label of ‘nationalism’ within the Yes movement.

Sturgeon continued in the same vein: “My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.

“Firstly I believe that Scotland has a democratic right to choose our own government and determine her own future, a democratic right to put in place her own values and a democratic duty to make her own decisions. And secondly, I want Scotland to be a country that sees enterprise and fairness as two sides of the same coin.”

She then makes some interesting comments on her own location within the peculiar Labour-SNP centre-left political divide that has fractured Scotland in recent years, and which undoubtedly needs reconfiguring as part of a renewal of civic, participatory democracy.

“Down the years, many people have asked me why I ended up in the SNP and not the Labour Party. Why did a young girl, growing up in a working class family in the west of Scotland - a part of the country where in those days, they would joke that the Labour vote was weighed rather than counted; someone who was, just like Labour was in those days, anti-Trident and pro-social justice and went on to work as a social justice lawyer in Drumchapel - why does that person end up in the SNP instead of Labour?

“The reason is simple. I joined the SNP because it was obvious to me then – as it still is today – that you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery.”

Again, not a factionalist argument, whether you agree with it or not. Meanwhile, as Scottish political journalist James Maxwell observes, “In November, Nicola Sturgeon will take control of a party which has a [slim] majority in parliament, has just tripled its membership, and enjoys a double-digit lead in the polls. In addition, Sturgeon's own personal ratings are sky-high. Difficult to imagine a more advantageous starting point for a new leader.” That is true, though the weight of expectation it carries, the certainty of strong resistance from vested interests, and the backlash some will be keen to engineer should also be factored in.

A couple of days ago the Daily Mail branded as “unstatesmanlike” (sic) Nicola Sturgeon’s intention to begin her leadership by undertaking a tour of public meetings to engage not just new SNP members but others outside the party, too. That reaction encapsulates perfectly the view of politics as a top-down 'great and good' operation: one that we ought to be moving away from as fast as possible. I'm sure I won't agree with everything Nicola Sturgeon does as First Minister, I have my continuing disagreements with the SNP, and I am clear that the most durable change of a radical nature must come from the ground-up. But she's starting in absolutely the right place – with the public events of the kind that so enlivened the Scottish referendum, and made it the most hopeful and positive political experience of my life.

* More on the Scottish referendum and its aftermath here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/scottishindependence

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia. In 2013 he was involved in bipartisan church and civic consultations about Scotland’s future in the run up to the referendum. In 2014 he actively supported the Yes campaign in a personal capacity, while seeking to maintain constructive dialogue with those who think differently.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.