There’s been plenty written about Nicola Sturgeon’s appointment as Scotland’s Yes Minister this week. Most of it by blokes, funnily enough, but all the pieces – by Euan McColm, Iain McWhirter, Kevin McKenna and even (for the sake of balance) Alan Cochrane – are worth a read.
So what can I add, that I didn’t also already say in an earlier post?
At the risk of sounding like Alex Neil, there are three things worthy of note.
Firstly, this is the first time the SNP has appointed a woman to a big meaty economic post in government. Indeed, it is a political rarity to see a woman handling such a portfolio at all. For all his undoubted talents, the First Minister has always been a bit linear when it has come to matching portfolios with people, demarcating largely on gender grounds who goes where. Consequently, there has been a bit of a traditional focus on the capital and infrastructure brief, full of masculine imagery of “shovel-ready projects” and harking back to our heavy industry days, which actually ignore the reality of where Scotland’s economy must head if it is to recover and succeed in the future. The only real exception to this has been on the renewables industry – which the First Minister has taken ownership of and no doubt, will continue to do so – but even this has been promoted with a might and strength message. Now, with a woman in the role, the opportunity exists for a different approach to capital and infrastructure.
Women like me would argue – and I do – that real investment in providing childcare is an infrastructure requirement, as much as a bypass is. Putting communities at the heart of planning housing development and making space in particular, for women and children to contribute to that process, means much more people-friendly estates – such experiments have shown the benefits clearly with more green space, amenities and fewer cul de sacs and danger spots in lay-out.
By taking a holistic and horizontal approach to her portfolio, and using her gender, as well as her acute intelligence, knowledge and exceptional political skills, the Depute First Minister could make her mark by doing something utterly untraditional and remarkable with this portfolio, and making it work in a way least expected to address the significant economic inequalities which currently exist in Scotland. Some of that will indeed involve investment in shovel-ready projects of an obvious bricks and mortar nature, but it also requires a freshd surely require a different approach and way of thinking about how to get the biggest bangs for our bucks. A starting point might be to order a briefing on Finland’s knowledge economy and strategy.
But of course, this is not the real reason why she has been gifted (or rather, rewarded with) this opportunity. The economics of independence are a key battleground in the drive to win a yes vote and the limitations imposed by Westminister generally and more acutely, through the Tories and Lib Dems’ austerity measures on our ability to invest in our economic success will feature heavily. This portfolio allows her to seamlessly lead the campaign on this front.
So too does the migration of welfare from health to capital and infrastructure. Whatever the reasons the Tories have for dismantling the welfare state as we know it, they have presented the SNP and the Scottish Government with a gifthorse in demonstrating that only by doing things for ourselves in the future, can we hope to create a fairer society. We can no longer rely on Westminster governments to apply Scottish values to social policy. And by effectively devolving small areas of responsibility for welfare, we now have an opportunity to show that we can do things differently from previously unified policy areas and the sky won’t fall in.
This is an important front in the battle for yes votes – as Gordon Brown’s recent speeches testify – and given the potential impact of reform and austerity measures, it enables the Depute First Minister to develop a convincing narrative. The reasons no longer to stay in the Union will become as important for some, as the reasons to leave. It’s a subtle difference in the shaping of the argument but a vital one, and in her new brief, our Yes Minister has the tools with which to build it.
The final point to add at this juncture, is that all of this is somewhat predicated on how far Nicola Sturgeon is prepared to occupy her place in the sun. The Depute First Minister has spent all of her adult life in the political world and is now at the height of her political skills and talents. She exudes competence and confidence; she has a sure populist touch and an ability to look all round an issue before deciding on the way forward; she has an instinct for the right thing to do at any given time; and she still holds true to her left of centre principles and beliefs. Most importantly, of all, she has learned to feel comfortable in her own political skin. She knows she deserves to be where she is at this vital time in Scotland’s political history.
Crucial to all of this has been her willingness to apply herself to learning her craft through years of apprenticeship close to Alex Salmond. Having spotted her precocious talent early on, he has – as he did with many others – bestowed considerable patronage and there is no doubt, over the decades, that she has shown herself more than worthy of it. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship which – and this has always puzzled me – few have bothered to explore. Giving her responsibility for constitutional affairs shows clearly how much he trusts her judgement and skills to deliver a yes vote – and conversely, is a rare demonstration of the First Minister acknowledging the limits of his own appeal and powers.
Their yin and yang at the forefront of this campaign will create a more rounded appeal to voters and in particular, the 20% or so who have to be persuaded to win the referendum. Yes, she has grown in stature throughout her years in government, but she has until now, still been the junior partner in this political relationship. And having been his number two for so long, the question is, does she want to become number one in her own right? At some point in the next two years, there will come a moment when – if she wants the top jobs in the SNP and in Scottish politics, a decision which, as Euan McColm observes, is not necessarily a given, even with the door propped open for her – she must decide, ultimately, if she is Eck’s woman or her own – and Scotland’s – woman.
To do so, she would have to stretch the ties of personal and political loyalty and balance – finely – the interests of the campaign she has been chosen to lead with her own. She might even have to subtly redefine her and Alex Salmond’s roles, so that she no longer appears as an equal partner but the dominant one. And she might have to give up more of herself personally than she has hitherto been willing to do. For the Depute First Minister is an extremely private person, yet is someone who exudes warmth, humour, integrity and loyalty to her family and in her friendships and many of them have been frustrated that this real Nicola rarely comes across in the political arena, aided and abetted by how the media have caricatured her.
However it plays out personally for her career, there is no doubt that Nicola Sturgeon now occupies the central role in this referendum campaign, not only for the Scottish Government but also for the SNP. The role she has of marrying policy, strategy and tactics is a huge one. Is she good enough? I think she is.