When Nicola Sturgeon walked out onto the SNP Conference stage, I cried. When she paid tribute to Kay Ulrich, whose was the first SNP parliamentary contest she ever campaigned in I cried. When she paid warm and fulsome tribute to Alex Salmond, I cried. When he nearly cried at the sustained applause from delegates, I cried. When Nicola finished her speech just barely holding back her emotion, I cried. A lot of tears – happy tears – were shed watching Nicola Sturgeon give her first speech to conference as the SNP’s leader.
That in itself is an achievement worth noting and celebrating. Nicola Sturgeon is the first woman to be party leader in its 80 year history. On Wednesday, she will become Scotland’s first female First Minister and only the second woman anywhere on these islands to hold the highest office. She will be the only woman elected currently to the highest office in one of the Parliaments/Assemblies in the UK. If ever there was a wow moment in Scottish and indeed, UK politics, then this is it.
In her first speech as leader, Nicola set out her personal mission, in political and policy terms. There are small details which still need work. A podium which suits her height, so we see more than just her head and shoulders; an autocue so she gets to engage more with the audience at home in telly-land (though she will use more eye contact naturally as she becomes more confident); and a subtle shift in party messaging. Stronger for Scotland is too masculine for this, the female age in the SNP and dare I say it, very Salmond. But all this will develop, just as she flourishes in her new role.
While Nicola devoted a significant segment of her speech to praising Salmond, she also made sure to draw a line: “under Alex’s leadership we have achieved so much, but I’m here to tell you that our best days are still to come”. And with that the era of Eck was consigned to history.
From there on, Nicola Sturgeon set out her vision and mission and key to the delivery was the way in which she took charge. This was not a speech in which she showed the way ahead, but told it. There was a strong message to UK broadcasters about excluding the SNP from televised UK election debates. She set out the stark reality of what Westminster’s business as usual agenda means for Scotland. She warned Labour of an apocalyptic future – “linking arms with the Tories will cost Labour dear – this year, next year and for many, many years to come”. And she made sure conference delegates knew what she expected of them: “for all that we have achieved to date, we must do better. As hard as we have worked, we must redouble our efforts”.
There’s no doubt who’s the boss now.
This speech had so much content and covered a continent in terms of political strategy. She set out how the SNP will fight the Westminster election next year and what the tactics of an enlarged group of SNP MPs might be. “My pledge to Scotland today is simple – the SNP will never, ever, put the Tories into government. But I ask you to think about this. Think about how much more we could win for Scotland from a Westminster Labour government if they had to depend on SNP votes. Key to the electoral strategy is an appeal to Scotland to “lend us – Scotland’s Party – your support. Vote SNP and the message we will carry to Westminster on your behalf is this. Scotland’s interests will not be sidelined. Not now, not ever.”
Most of the content of her speech was devoted to what she will do as First Minister in the remaining year and a half of this parliamentary session, and beyond the 2016 elections, with her key ambition to win a third term of government for the SNP. Her proposals were rich in policy content and also marked a shifting of the guard, with a focus on social justice. Indeed, she has taken ownership of the social justice agenda in Scotland, showing she intends to boss it and leave no room for Labour to occupy this territory.
Much of what she offered will appeal – instinctively, rather than by design I think – to women. That’s what happens when you have a woman at the top. Suddenly, the priorities and the pitch change. Just like that.
We were given a clear insight into Nicola Sturgeon’s political philosophy in one succinct statement: “tackling poverty and inequality – and improving opportunity for all – will be my personal mission as your First Minister. But we all know that in 2014 government can’t do it alone. If we are to make a difference, we must all come together – government, communities, trade unions, businesses, the third sector – and we must make it a sustained national endeavour. Working together, that is the approach that I intend to build.”
Nicola established that she will be a First Minister with a serious purpose, an approach which unifies and an instinct to work with partners. And she made tackling poverty her personal goal.
Building for the future featured heavily as a theme. In what the party has to do to win the “prize” of independence and of “prosperity, equality and opportunity”. In what the SNP in government has to do to win independence: “everything I have experienced since 2007, and everything I witnessed during the referendum campaign, persuades me that good government and progress to an independent Scotland go hand in hand”. And in what that SNP government has to do for children to have “the best start in life and a bridge to a better future”.
In each and every way, it is clear that Nicola Sturgeon has thought about what she wants to achieve as SNP leader. And has thought through how she not just survives for the long term, but thrives. Her political goals are clear, built on a strong party base and traditional totems like broadcasting bias. But she also took ownership of that heritage and in just 50 minutes, shaped it to set fair for a future fashioned by her and a new SNP team.
Be very clear. Make no mistake. Know this. Nicola Sturgeon is on a mission, which as her whole life has been, is both personal and political.
And she has over 85,000 willing allies within the party, and many more thousands of friends and potential partners outwith it, to help her achieve it.