They think it’s all over.. SNP leadership contest

So, Nicola Sturgeon is a shoo-in for next SNP leader.  Which means Scotland will have its first female First Minister.  Hurrah.

Various potential others have ruled themselves out.  Michael Russell, Roseanna Cunningham, John Swinney, Alex Neil and Humza Yousaf have all declared themselves not interested.  Some of them have also nailed colours to the mast by joining #TeamSturgeon.  So who’s missing?  Well, the not insignificant Kenny MacAskill for one.  Fiona Hyslop is another conspicuous by her silence.  Two big front-bench beasts who may just have taken the weekend off, rather than the weekend to take soundings.

Whatever, a meaningful contest to replace Alex Salmond now seems unlikely.  But Nicola should still be required to submit her nomination and set out her stall.  Hopefully, it will not just mark steady as she goes but also give an indication of where she aims to take the party in the future.  This bit is important, given the recent influx of new members to the party.  She will need to offer enough for all these new and eager Yes supporters to make it worth their while, but also ensure the old guard are taken with her.  No easy task actually.

There’s a lot of chatter about a post #the45 alliance of sorts, there’s also chatter about various bits of the movement setting themselves up as parties and a lot of chatter just generally on where next.  The SNP leader has a key role to play in harnessing all that energy and enthusiasm and ensuring that what emerges is a coherent offering all working broadly in the same direction. There’s an appetite for an alliance approach to the 2015 UK election, with the various, diverse elements of the Yes movement not standing against each other and thereby dissipating and fracturing the vote.  The SNP will have to give consideration to how it responds and how it engages.  To assume that the SNP gets to put forward candidates in all seats or in those seats it chooses would be full of risk – there is a need to keep the spirit of the swarm approach evident in the referendum campaign going.  Or else the SNP could be viewed as a block rather than a conduit to change.

And what change exactly?  Devo more?  Leading from the front for devo max?  Or biding time until the opportunity arises to push for full independence again?  Conceivably, all approaches could be part of the strategy but the point is that a strategy is needed that satisfies all appetites.  And that requires careful and inclusive consideration.  It cannot be for the SNP to determine on its own.

Nicola Sturgeon may be about to become SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister but she is also inheriting a role – a leadership one – in managing, co-ordinating and driving forward the ambitions of a much wider coalition.  That’s a good deal more tricky.

But what of her deputy?  Well, most are agreed that this is where it gets more interesting.  There are several potential contenders and several options for the party.  Someone from the Holyrood group, an MP or even an MEP?  And if either of these last two, a constitutional difficulty to overcome.  The Depute Leader of the SNP has until now become Depute First Minister – there’s no rule on this, for DFM is a position voted on by the Scottish Parliament and it would be for the SNP Holyrood group to put forward their nomination.  So we could, in theory, have a separate deputy at party level and Ministerial level.  But what would be the point really?

Except that it creates a leadership hub.  Stewart Hosie or Angus Robertson could become deputy party leader, allowing Nicola Sturgeon to have a deputy in government and parliament of her choosing (if she’s smart she’ll take a keen interest in the party role too to make sure she gets someone she can work with and who complements her strengths and skills with their own).

So, John Swinney could become a DFM without portfolio, a wingman good at the detail and who could take charge of reform more widely, providing a much needed core approach to what has hitherto been for Ministers to determine how reform is approach and addressed.  Or a young yin could be blooded – Humza for example.  Or here’s a novel thought – the role could be offered to the Scottish Greens, as tangible evidence of a new approach to politics and the movement for independence/more powers.

But there are also other strategic and tactical considerations to be made on this, to balance two, not necessarily conflicting but also not clearly compatible demands either.  First, Nicola Sturgeon will want to put together the team to lead the SNP to a third victory in the Scottish elections in 2016.  Second, it is important to keep eyes on the prize of independence – or at least, devo max.  Who is best placed to work with her on these objectives?

I suggested Shona Robison would make a fine deputy leader and First Minister.  The two MSPs have known each other since they were teenagers and worked well and closely as a Ministerial team too. Shona was somewhat sidelined in the last Cabinet reshuffle but was able to devote her energies more fully to ensuring the Glasgow Commonwealth Games were a success.  They were.  Well done her.

She therefore has a proven Ministerial track record, but she also has a proven track record electorally.  She was elected on the list for North East Scotland in 1999 and then for the constituency of Dundee East in 2003.  She has turned a marginal SNP-Labour seat into an SNP stronghold.  Her success in Dundee East allowed the party to build and take Dundee West.  It paved the way for her husband, Stewart Hosie to become MP too.  A strong SNP council group eventually became the dominant force and has formed the administration with an overall majority since 2012.

And vitally, her city transformed its SNP support into Yes votes – unlike many other SNP strongholds.

In truth, there are many key figures behind the Dundee success story but Shona knows what it takes to build – and to do so methodically and patiently – to deliver success.

Moreover, she is East coast, Nicola is West coast.  The only demographic issue is that both are city MSPs.  Yet, that might be what is required – for long enough, the SNP has been dominated by rural, North East interests (which did not translate into support for independence) and for too long, did not seem to know what was needed to make the break through in the central belt or in working class, traditionally Labour areas.  A Nicola-Shona leadership would answer that and also allow for a different direction to be pursued by the party.

But if not Shona then who?  Her husband Stewart Hosie has been touted and he would satisfy some, if not all of the above.

Keith Brown, MSP for Ochil and Minister for Transport and Veterans is another name being mentioned increasingly frequently in despatches.  A safe pair of hands, unflappable and well liked.  Crucially too, he straddles the fundie-gradualist (for which read, Neil-Salmond) wings of the party.  He’s also a detail man and reliable and resilient.  He was every SNP councillor’s go-to man on points of procedure and always – always – returned calls. His constituency is a rural/urban mix, of the Labour working class variety.  He’s done a good job with his Ministerial portfolio and did I say he is liked by all?  He’s not a divisive character but a unifying one.

The fact that he’s currently courting SNP folk as Facebook friends suggests he’s interested.  Good on him if he is.

First Minister’s resignation is a measure of the man

It’s been a long 36 hours with only 4 hours sleep.  And six hours in the 48 hours before that.

Forgive me then for being a little tired and emotional.  But I didn’t expect the tears that have been held back, to start to flow, listening to the First Minister’s own emotional but pitch-perfect resignation speech and press conference.

And for me to feel so sad and not just a little disappointed.

Everyone is exhausted on the Yes side. We gave it our all – as we would. And I’m not sure the immediate aftermath is the right point for all this to be unfolding.  A period of reflection over the weekend, enabling response rather than reaction would have been my preferred option.

But if anything proved just how different the First Minister is in reality from the gross caricature of him which has been painted by political and media opponents, and allowed to lodge in the minds of voters, it has been this action.  (Though not without his mischievous side still coming to the fore – he couldn’t help sticking two fingers up to the Unionist cheerleading papers by excluding from this press conference. Good for him.) He is taking full responsibility for the failure to win this campaign and doing the decent and honourable thing. There are few politicians these days willing to fall on their swords when they lead from the front and fail to deliver. Membership of the SNP not only requires supporting independence but a commitment to put the interests of the Scottish people and Scotland first.  On the latter, the First Minister is doing what he thinks is in his country’s interests. There is much more to this man in terms of his measure than has often been portrayed.

And yet, he has not failed, not completely. Independence for Scotland was voted for by a significant minority of the Scottish population.  Many more were nearly persuaded – the yes buts who decided instead to opt for the promises made by the Unionists on more powers. As the First Minister himself warned in the media conference several times, there are many No voters who will be angry if they now find they have been sold a pup. His leadership of the SNP has been key to enabling Scotland to arrive here, where we currently stand in terms of the power and control wrestled from Westminster’s grasp.

So in some ways, the First Minister’s resignation is entirely understandable and honourable.  He feels he has done what he can in terms of that journey and can do no more.

It also makes sense in terms of where we are in the Scottish parliamentary calendar and also, internally for the SNP.

Standing down now allows his successor eighteen months in which to make the role their own, to lead the Scottish Government and prepare a platform for 2016.  The SNP’s annual conference has been pushed back as a result of the referendum to November.  His resignation now allows for a leadership contest to be held meeting the internal constitutional niceties, but not so long that it involves a blood-letting in the party.  Crucially, it allows Nicola Sturgeon to put herself forward as the contender to replace him without attracting much more than a potential stalking horse – there has to be a venting at some point – rather than a more serious challenge.  It allows the changeover of leadership to be managed, dignified and some might say, stage managed.

But I am still disappointed.

Yes, Alex Salmond has led his party now for 20 years in total – he clearly has a thing about bundles of ten – and yes, he will be 60 in a few months’ time.  But I think he still had something to give and indeed, I rather think Scotland needs him and his tactical nous in these early days of a not quite better nation, but at least a somewhat improved model.

Firstly, there are eighteen months to go until the next Scottish Parliamentary elections.  Time then, for a re-energised First Minister to lead a radical programme of action within the powers the Scottish Parliament holds to show that the SNP is more than a one trick pony.  This administration has indeed been dominated by the constitutional debate, to the extent that real scrutiny of legislation, proper challenge of change-making and indeed, the introduction of big new ideas absent from the Programme for Government has been lacking.  Eighteen months of activity would set the SNP fair for fighting the next Scottish elections to win.  Again.

Secondly, Scotland needs him.  His resignation remarks identified the indecent haste in which the Vow is unravelling – which did so much to persuade the undecideds to stick rather than twist.  And it is happening.  Boris Johnson has said today that he’s not bound by the Vow.  The Prime Minister has inserted the issue – rightly – of wider devolution across these isles into the process:  some are arguing this makes conditional new powers for Scotland on answering the long-standing West Lothian question.  Ed Miliband has resiled from his part in the deal on the flimsy basis that this now changes things.

Already this process of new powers for Scotland is a tangled mess and it remains to be seen if anything meaningful will be delivered before the General Election.  We were promised by Gordon Brown a paper, today, setting out what those powers would be.  Time is ticking, Gordon.  And Scotland is waiting and watching.

So the First Minister is right that a careful watch on this process is required.  And who better to do it than him?  No one understands the tactics of such processes better.  No one knows how to push their buttons more effectively.  No one knows how they tick like he does.  Scotland needs him at his wily best, to hold them to account, to keep them in line, to ensure Scotland gets what we were promised.

Finally, for all that he has been demonised and raised as a doorstep issue during this campaign, no one is more surefooted at gauging the mood, needs and wants of the Scottish people.  Under Alex Salmond, the SNP has moved to be much more in tune with the mood of the Scottish people.  He has carefully intertwined leading and following, moving forward in the constitutional journey at a pace Scotland is comfortable with.  He, more than anyone else, in the party has brought us to this stage, whereby 45% of the Scottish electorate voted for independence.  We need him as our proxy in this new powers’ process.

Or rather needed him.  Because now he has gone.  Or at least is going.

And for all that I am saddened at his decision, it is to be respected for what it is.  An honest, emotional and well-meant reaction to the events of yesterday.  It is a measure of the man who history will show as having been a rather fine First Minister for Scotland and absolutely key to us as a country and a people taking more control of the decisions and powers which affect our lives.  His position in Scottish political history is assured.  And he is right.  The dream does live on.  And it will live on, without him. He has achieved much and clearly thinks he has no more to give.

I just wish he’d taken the weekend to rest up, reflect and then respond.

The shift is on

At various points in the referendum campaign, I’ve felt the sands begin to shift. At the turn of the year, as folk looked ahead in a spirit of optimism and renewal, some clearly made their minds up and the polls registered an upturn in favour of Yes. But most still seemed to be waiting. Some were obviously waiting for Labour to announce its grand plan for new powers; the damp squib that was on offer marked the end of the dalliance for the disappointed, who decided it was time to go for bust. The polls inched forwards again.

Then in June, more women began to make up their minds and were opting for Yes. I thought we were in touching distance of the tipping point, it was oh so close.  But I hadn’t reckoned on the menfolk stopping short and even, hot tailing it back over the undecided boundary. July arrived and movement was becalmed.  Everyone was stuck where they were – for over 65s, they were stuck right where they had begun, firmly, implacably, instinctively No.

So there was nothing else for it but to roll up the sleeves and get on with it. The only bright spot was the visit to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games. All those Yes Windaes blousily proclaiming affiliation, suggested a stirring across the city. Yet, there was nothing like it in Edinburgh.

And over the summer, even as the forgotten parts of Scotland awakened to opportunity and in their droves, began coming out for Yes, and registering to vote often for the first time, and Labour supporting areas began to settle their will, still it all seemed like too big a challenge.  Some in the aspirational areas got it and wanted it but those who had strived to get where they are, seemed determined to hold on to what they had, ignoring the doubt gnawing away inside of them that what little they had was always within the gift of the more powerful to sweep away. No firm foundations see?

But what didn’t make sense – still doesn’t – is the chasm still being recorded by some polls. This was going to be a skoosh for the No lot, if you looked at what some pollsters were saying.  Others showed the gap closing, but slowly. Subsidence really, with the odd crack and fissure beginning to show: 20 and 30 somethings still eachy peachy or narrowly Yes; under 25s shifting across (but what do they matter anyway, so few of them vote, some might arrogantly assume); women beginning to nail their colours to the mast, more of them – still – to Yes. Seismic activity then but nothing worth shouting about.

And then No ramped it up.  Every day, an onslaught. Darling at his managerial best in the first debate; 200 Brit celebrities declaring their love for Scotland and pleading with us not to go; Gordon Brown, entering the fray for the first time since the last time; this one, that one and the other one slamming the idea that Scotland “can” never mind “should” be independent; analysis here, there and everywhere, but always that of the Naysayers proclaimed more loudly; and always, the finger of doom pointing down at us, whirling myriad details in our heads until they birled.  On the doorsteps, the fear mongering on the minutiae was parroted back.  People were absorbing it all and it appeared to be working. No’s splat approach to multiple targets seemed to be resulting in a lot of it sticking.

In one day alone last week, we were treated to 120 business leaders telling us why we shouldn’t vote Yes, Archie McPherson telling us to vote No, and a campaign broadcast showing the Woman who Made her Mind Up to make it a No.  In one, single day.

That broadcast spoke volumes. The reason it was so narrowly targeting the demographic of the busy, working mum who hadn’t had time to sit down and think about how to vote and therefore, was still making her mind up?  Because the No camp reckoned this was the only one left to target: all other boxes had been ticked, this was the only place left to hoover up to cement the victory.

But how the No campaign behaved last week spoke volumes to its weaknesses and flaws. Darling was monstered in the TV debate by the First Minister. I have watched and rewatched the closing remarks. Alex Salmond is majestic, passionate, emotional and visionary, winding it all up to a crescendo. Alistair Darling is broken, stumbling over his words, mumbling down into his papers, barely making eye contact with the autocue. He had nothing to offer.

And with his shambolic performance, the cracks in the foundations became much more visible. They had already assumed a victory, they had already filmed the advert, they reckoned it was in the bag. Would they have put that risible broadcast out if they had even for a moment doubted that Darling would do it?  Of course not. But it was the only film they had, and they had to go with it. Dotting the is and crossing the ts was all that was needed, keeping the announcements coming, reducing the final weeks of the campaign to white noise.

It’s a shame the Scottish people appear not to be listening anymore nor following the script. Because last Monday, with that debate, everything changed. Suddenly, the Scottish people are not liking being telt the ending of this long running series. Telt by everyone what to do and how to vote, the people appear to be lifting their eyes from the detail of dread being fed them on a daily basis and looking at the big picture.

And crucially, looking not at the past, nor even at the present, but thinking about the future. As the person in the debate audience asked, if we are better together, why are we not better together now?  A million heads nodded in agreement, thinking of the electric bill recently received, the 1% pay rise that’s paid for nothing, the bedroom tax eating into their incomes, their graduate son unable to get a proper job, the nursery costs going up again, the pension rise resulting in more council tax and rent to pay, the prospect of Christmas and how to pay for it all beginning to loom. Doesn’t feel much like better together really – not when you stop to think about it, rather than just read what they tell you.

The start of a new academic year also focuses minds. Proud parents, grandparents, godparents, aunties and uncles seeing off wee ones for the very first time, wondering where all the years go when looking at the gangly teenagers try to strut their stuff into secondary, realising just how empty that nest is going to be after they’ve packed up all that their fledglings own and delivered it to a city far away. What about them, what will their future hold?  “I can dress myself”.

Whatever is behind it, whatever is motivating it, there is a shift, a change in people’s attitudes and it would appear, their voting intentions. Those undecideds aren’t breaking the way the polls have foretold; women are making their mind up but not as the No lot hoped; instinctive Nos who have clung to their default position for nearly two years now have changed their minds.

You can smell it, taste it, sense it.  But most of all, you can see it.

When I first moved to Edinburgh 15 years ago, I was astonished that only a handful of window posters went up at election time. For three elections, nothing. Then in 2007, Edinburgh decided it was time to flash the colour of its knickers, the ones it may or may not have been wearing under its fur coat all this time. An SNP poster here, an SNP poster there. Something was happening:  by polling day, there were houses loud and proud, proclaiming that the folk here were up for bold and different and change.

If you live in Edinburgh, take a walk through your neighbourhood today and count the posters and Yes stickers.

The waiting is over.  Scotland is making its mind up. The shift appears to be on. “It’s the only chance we’ll get to change things”.