Shut up? Not until they put up

You can imagine the shock for a valley girl – comprehensively educated, well travelled, reasonably cultured but essentially the product of a rural upbringing – arriving at St Andrew’s University. In my first 1st year French tutorial, I recall vividly how one doyenne from Dollar Academy made me feel. Tossing her waist length hair, crossing and uncrossing her legs, throwing her arms open to emphasise her point, pronouncing confidently on the meaning of the text, the importance of the characters, spending much of the hour talking in French. I shrank visibly and barely said a word.

By the third week, I’d worked out she hadn’t read the novel, her pronunciation was dodgy and she was basically talking shite.

But what she and all the others of her ilk did – and they were aplenty in St Andrews – was exude power.  They lived, talked, socialised and worked (occasionally a few deigned to do so) with a sense of entitlement, with the kind of confidence only money and status can buy.

The reaction by some to the Smith Commission report has rekindled these memories – or more particularly, the attempts to shut us up in its aftermath, have

The outcome of the Smith Commission was inevitable right from its construct. The Unionist parties started from various points on a low bar, while the SNP and Greens were already at ceiling height. That the parties round the table were brought to the middle is testament not just to Robert Smith’s acumen in chairing the process but also in the willingness of the parties and the individuals around that table to reach agreement. The SNP entered those talks knowing it would not get what it wanted which was near as damnit independence and knew that the outcome would be far from what it wanted to achieve. The point of staying the course was to make the case for as much devo as could be agreed, to pull and in some cases, drag the others up the scale.

Its case was aided and supported by large sections of Scottish civic society. Trade unions, anti-poverty campaign groups, disability campaigners, voluntary organisations working with a wide range of community interests.  All those whose work brings them into contact with the impacts of poverty and inequality were quite clear that Scotland needed most or even all revenue-raising and welfare powers. They were listened to much less than the ones who advocated large chunks of it all staying the same.  In short, can’t beat can.

Partly this is to do with where power and resources currently lie. When you are a government department, an official of some years’ experience, with data and information available to you to produce as evidence, it is easy to construct an argument. When you are a campaign group run on people’s donations and grants, with limited access to the resources of power, it is harder to make your case.

Moreover, those who argued for fewer powers to transfer to Scotland have a vested interest in things staying as they are. All that upheaval, all that change, all those known unknowns, as well as the unknown ones, the surprises that would spring, the unintended consequences – you can almost feel some officials and some of those who do very nicely out of the current set-up – shuddering at the thought of it all.

And it is always – as we saw during the referendum campaign – much harder to make a convincing case for change when effectively what is being asked for is a leap into the unknown. You can only surmise and at best, model the results. Moreover, while advocates of much more devo were arguing for powers for a purpose, sometimes the purpose differed.  And even when people were clear what their purpose was – to tackle poverty, reduce inequality – what they were effectively arguing for was potential: the political will to use those powers for an as yet unclear purpose is not a given.

And underneath it all is the ability to make the case for can’t with confidence, the sort of confidence power brings and so, the can’t brigade won the day. What has been delivered – or at least promoted, as we’re far from delivery yet – is more than those who voted yes might have believed would result, but less than it could have, and less than a majority of people in Scotland aspire to.  A small matter of democratic accountability which appears to have been brushed aside.

So now it’s time for you all to shut up. You’ll have had your tea.

John Swinney was thoroughly gracious in his remarks about the report. The SNP welcomes the powers but we’re disappointed that civic Scotland wasn’t listened to and that the powers they propose do not meet our aspirations.  Moaner, whinger, was the retort.

It didn’t take long for them to round on Nicola Sturgeon.  When will she ever stop?  (we are a right wing commentator away from “nagging” or “nippy” being introduced into the lexicon about our new First Minister.)

According to Gordon Brown, our de facto opposition leader even though he didn’t have the inclination to actually get himself elected to the role, it’s time to stop arguing for more powers and to work with what we’ve got.  Eat your cereal, Scotland.

Yet, there is some point to what he says. We must focus some energy on working out what to do with the powers we’ve got, how to use them to their greatest effect. We’ve got the political equivalent of a chicken carcass, can we deliver 2 meals and a pot of stock out of its meagre offerings?

The Scottish Government has shown to good effect what can be done: stamp duty is now land transaction tax and aims to extract more revenue from those who can afford it most.  But it also abdicated any attempt to reform council tax benefit when it was devolved, opting even to keep the administration of it the same, when having 32 local authorities run the same system slightly differently 32 times to apply the benefit is clearly not the most cost-efficient way of doing things.

But as always, this is about power and control. Having succeeded in repelling attempts to effect a complete transfer of power and achieved further success at guarding against real powers shifting from their current locus, now is the time to close down the conversation. This is the establishment doing what it always does best and holding on to what it thinks is rightly its own. Include in that, establishment politicians, establishment business and their well-heeled representative bodies and establishment government departments and officials (however well intentioned they were when they entered the civil service).

So now the establishment thinks it has got away with it again. Except it hasn’t.

Already, others are finding their voice. The devolution of air passenger duty has resulted in calls from North East and West England MPs for measures to support their airports. And there are some also calling for attention to turn now to these regions’ – and others’ – needs for greater control over resources and revenues. The failure to devolve corporation tax to Scotland is far from a done deal when power over the same tax is headed to Northern Ireland. The establishment’s edifice is crumbling and Scotland’s constitutional debate has not just resulted in a political awakening here, but it has encouraged others to be bolder, to ask for more.  As it always had the potential to do and so, it should be.

At all levels of consciousness, this debate is about power, where it lies, who wields it, how it is used and for whose benefit.  And it’s why those who currently have it threw everything they had into the No campaign to make sure they held on to it.  They sense though that their victory could be hollow: Scotland has not retreated to lick its wounds and forget any notion it might have had about taking greater control and responsibility for itself.  We’re still up for it. So now we’re being telt.

But just as I found in those French tutorials many years ago, once you’ve got the measure of them, once you’ve worked out they are all empty confidence, with very little substance behind them, there is no need to cede the ground to them.

Scotland has started to find the establishment out. We’re beginning to understand what this is all about.  Power and control. They have it, we want it.  We have found our political voice.

And they can tell us all they like to shut up but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not until they put up.

k

If I were First Minister…

Oh I know how ridiculous the concept is.  We can agree on that. There are after all, hundreds of reasons why Nicola is and I’m not. I can list more than you can.  But when you’re finished chuckling at the very idea, indulge me.

Because if it was me, I’d kinda have done all that she is doing but I’d be planning more of it. And sometimes a little unwarranted, unsought advice is a good thing.

As the first female First Minister, what to wear and how to look is going to be a thing, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise. So yes, embrace it. Turn it into part of your story, of who you are, what matters to you and how you are going to be. Absolutely champion Scottish designers for clothes and jewellery. Make a point of visiting local shops and crafts when out and about round Scotland. Just don’t do handbags, for obvious reasons.

In fact, become Scotland’s champion in all the things that do matter to you. Turn the role into what you want it to be, think it should be in 21st Century Scotland. Promoting design and local produce could become something you do – pick two of the areas you intend to visit in Scotland in a year, and get Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise telt. They should do an expo of all things local for when the Cabinet comes to town. Even better, if some visits could be timed to coincide with local book festivals and you could get to open it or chair something or share your own favourite books or similar. Championing local enterprise, talent and activity while getting to indulge in one of your own passions. You’re allowed to actually enjoy being First Minister, no matter how often the civil servants tell you otherwise.

I’d want to be an accessible First Minister too.  Ra people’s First Minister, that’s what I’d be looking to do. There are things of state that need to be done but get yourself a Depute with whom you can share the stuff that is more duty than pleasure. The Queen has all these Lord Lieutenants littered all over the country. And Deputies. I’d be seeing if some of them couldn’t be more usefully deployed on Scotland duty.

And think about where you do want to spend time and who and how you want to engage with folk. Presenting cups and trophies at sporting fixtures?  Find a Sports Minister who can and will. But pitch up with a wee New Year’s message from the stage of proceedings in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Go to book festivals in the summer. Make a list of what you like doing and tell them that’s what you’d like to be doing, as close to ra people as possible.

Otherwise, keep doing your own tweets. Once a month, walk from Bute House up to St Andrew’s House. Make time to stop and say hello to folk. Once a month too, jump on a bus to do the journey. Get the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh once a month. The security will tell you why you really shouldn’t do it. Tough, it’s their job to figure out how you can do it safely. But also you are entitled to a bit of luxury and some trappings that go with the office. No one (except Paul Hutcheon) expects you to stay in Travel Lodges while you are abroad.  If you are working 18 hour days, you are allowed to have someone drive you home and back again in the morning. And folk to look after you. Running a country is a big job – sell that before the carping starts about what you spend money on or how you do it or spend your time.  Publish your engagements as soon as possible after the fact. Publicise as many as you can beforehand and who is involved and why.

Apparently, you’re not keen on moving into Bute House permanently. Home is after all home. So turn it into ra People’s Palace:  make it accessible and available too. Offer up its facilities on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day for one of the many charities working with homeless people. Do more receptions from it for things you like and want to champion and be open about it.  Get the SpADs to identify a theme day for each month of the year – Mother’s Day (March);  World Aids Day (December); and so on, and turn Bute House into the centre of commemoration, throwing open the doors. And four times a year, fill it with children – an Easter egg hunt;  a Christmas party.  Make sure everyone knows this wee Georgian hoose belongs to them and is shared with the nation.

As for the SpADs, well this is where you have to live the narrative you’re weaving, not just wear it.  If SNP policy now supports 40% of women appointments to boards, then you know what you gotta do. There is a perceived wisdom that no one who wants a life should apply. I’d change that. I’d create a job share part time role for two folk with family or caring responsibilities: their life experience would be well worth it.  And in keeping with the new, even bigger tent approach of the SNP, I’d think about offering a SpAD role to someone outside the SNP.  A Green even. Not that the roles ever were for party folk, it’s just how they’ve been allowed to develop.

The same applies to the Cabinet.  It’s a tough one. You don’t want to tip everyone out for a whole host of reasons but you need to effect enough change to make it your own. To signal even more emphatically that the Salmond Generation has had its time. Apart from yourself of course. But time for you to bring on a new generation of leaders in the SNP by giving them rungs of responsibility. Encourage one or two of the old guard who’ve been warming Cabinet seats since 2007 to jump before pushed.

And of course, 40% women.  I’d also be cultivating a support network of women out there who can be relied upon to have your back when the unnamed sources start their sniping and carping.  As they will.  Because you’re a woman.  And they think that makes you weaker. And fair game. In a way, they’d never dream of doing if it was still Alex Salmond.

You are, after all, entering what has been almost exclusively a man’s world and game.  If it were me, I’d be making the role into what I want it to be, not what I’m told it has to be.

Own it.  Rock it.  Become a 21st Century leader for a 21st Century country.

Just don’t wear those killer heels everyday, you’ll ruin your feet.

Nicola Sturgeon: on a personal mission

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.