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.

 

Where next?

So we are back to doing what we did remarkably well during the #indyref campaign – Yes folk sitting in meetings with other Yes folk agreeing with each other.

But this round of meetings is necessary. There are lots of enthusiastic newbies – folk who just a few short months ago, wouldn’t have dreamed of sitting in a draughty hall talking politics.  Now they are queuing to get in:  all are most welcome. As are those who’ve been involved before – for decades, years or just days.

We need to vent a little behind closed doors – it can’t all be positive and onwards and upwards, without first letting off a little steam.  People are masking a lot of pain and there needs to be a collective howling at the moon.

As long as it lasts for five minutes only.  And most definitely isn’t played out on social media or in endless protests about how the vote was rigged or how the meeja did us down.  Or how we was robbed.  Or how folk were duped.

This much we all know already: playing it all out on a loop over and over won’t get us anywhere.  I get the feeling from some that they are surprised at what the British establishment threw at us to thwart our ambitions, that Shock and Awe in the last week was unexpected by some.  Still, now you know: welcome to the world of the SNP for all of its existence.

Yet, in the last ten years in particular, the party worked out how to deal with it, to work with it (needs must) and how to get round it to reach the hearts and minds of Scottish voters.  The party learned to leave aside the politics of grievance and engage with the aspirations of Scottish people.  There’s a wee lesson in that for all the Yessers, about what works and what doesn’t in this game.

It would have been helpful for Yes Scotland to have hung around even for a couple of weeks beyond the vote to facilitate the greetin’ part of these meetings.  But apparently all the staff were let go the day after the vote, the Chief Executive is apparently in or en route to his holiday home in Florida and the organisation is toast.  Not even a cheery email newsletter goodbye or well done or thanks to the many thousands of volunteers who helped to pay the wages at Hope Street, as well as actually fought the campaign out there .  Ah well.  Still, at least we ended the campaign with more Facebook likes than David Cameron.

So, fifteen minutes of howling and gnashing and wailing is required.  But then, it’s onwards. Time not to get mad, but even.

Everyone agrees that we need to keep the movement alive.  Some are already way ahead of the curve – a new board for Common Weal; a funding venture for new media activity over at Bella Caledonia; a merger between Newsnet and Derek Bateman; a Women for Independence event which was over-subscribed not once, but three times (we’ve settled for 1000); plans for a RIC conference in November that over 7000 have said they want to go to.

And all those folk joining the SNP, Scottish Greens and the SSP.  Funnily enough, some of the self-same meeja who did the cause of independence down are sceptical about the membership claims.

Let me re-assure them.  Having volunteered for an hour in SNP HQ processing online applications, I’m not actually sure that the official tally is keeping up.  When I left after my hour, there were nearly 38,000 applications to be processed.  We hadn’t made much more than a very small dint in the total. And that’s only the online ones.  The phones were going constantly and the postie had delivered plenty by snail mail.

It is a quite astonishing and almost inexplicable phenomenon.  Of the few applications I processed, there is no real pattern in membership: there are men, women, young, old, rural, urban.  But a lot from the West of Scotland, a lot of trade union members and a fair few with university degrees and from the professions too.  Labour should be very afraid.

And then there’s a new SNP leadership to be determined, hopefully after a contest of ideas.  And a new Programme for Government – please make it radical and bold, something we can all get our teeth into.

And new powers coming in 2015 to get acquainted with.  There’s also the new, more powers’ process which is owned currently by the politicians but which many of us – especially on the Yes side – think should incorporate some kind of citizens’ element.  How to achieve their contribution is something that needs worked out.

This public consultation element is actually key.  Most polls over the years have suggested that a majority of Scots want control over everything but defence and foreign affairs to be devolved – devo max – or at least, a devo much more than most of the parties have offered to date.  Labour will try to drag the offer down to its level, from the starting point of the Conservatives’ Strathclyde Commission proposals. Ensuring the Scottish public – brimful of enthusiasm for the politics of ideas and still having #indyref related conversations on trains, in pubs and in workplaces – gets a say and gets what it wants requires resources and resourcefulness.

And what to do about all those communities and people who not only registered to vote for the very first time, but actually voted in unprecedented numbers?  Who voted for their one chance in a lifetime, who believed in hope, who got that this was absolutely about transferring power and control?  Do we just shrug our shoulders and say sorry, it’s all going to stay the same?  Do we let them slip back into disengagement and disenfranchisement?

Then there’s the need to build a bridge, rather than a trench (as Andrew Wilson so deftly put it) between the 45% and the 55%.  We can probably ignore the top 25% of the No grouping.  They’re the diehard Unionists and the Scottish part of the establishment and the uber rich in the country who really don’t get that we need a fairer society all round. And of course implacable pensioners (though not all are).

But that leaves 30% to coax across – some are already Yes buts who on the day became reluctant Nos. Others rationalised their decision to hold on to what they have by not being persuaded that Scotland could be a successful, independent country; that Scotland just isn’t ready yet to go it alone; that there are too many risks, uncertainties, unanswered questions about our economic potential.

So we need to work out how to remove these fears, but there is also something in leaving them alone to find their way home. Six billion of cuts to the Scottish block grant, interest rate rises, ongoing pay freezes, more austerity cuts from Westminster (whoever runs the show), the likelihood of Labour not winning the UK election next year and the distinct possibility of UKIP in coalition with the Tories – all this is bound to take its toll on the left-leaning middle classes of Scotland who voted for the comfort of a continued feather-bed courtesy of the current settlement.

Where next is the cry from the Yes movement?  Well, immediately it’s off to Holyrood today to lend our family’s support for a good-natured celebration of all that we have achieved in the last few years and to make our contribution to the food bank collection.

After that?  Who knows.  All or at least some of the above.  The swarm continues; some are jockeying for Queen Bee position (and I don’t mean Nicola Sturgeon) and a hierarchy is definitely forming, or being deliberately formed (check out the new look board of Common Weal…); though some worker bees stubbornly refuse to conform and seem content organising themselves. The fact that the first Where Next meeting in Edinburgh was organised by someone who just wants to keep it going, rather than any group or branch or body, speaks volumes.

This round of Yes meetings might be necessary but once the greetin’ is over and we’ve all had a go at determining where next and what next, can we just form a plan and get on with getting there?  And vow to stop spending time sitting in rooms – real and virtual – agreeing with each other.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s my birthday – is it too much to ask for a little peace to enjoy it?

On Friday morning, I decided to give myself four birthday presents.

First, to retire from active politics – again.  More on that in a minute.

Second, to give up being a media commentator.  Third, to give up smoking.  And fourth, to retire the blog.

The last pledge lasted about 20 minutes and half way through David Cameron’s speech on the #indyref result.  When he got to the part about it being time to answer the West Lothian question as well as provide more powers for Scotland, clearly I had made a rash decision.  Politics is going to be far too interesting in the next while to do without my wittering on it all.  So the blog stays.  No cheering at the back there.

The giving up smoking starts tomorrow.  If Alex Massie can manage it on those electronic cigarette things, so can I.  Whether I can manage it without putting on all the weight that three months of campaigning has just removed, we’ll see.  Still, I’ll live until I’m 95 and become one of those irascible, instinctive conservative voters who sets their face against any change.  It will probably take that long for me to make that transition.

On the second, well frankly, my experience at the hands of the media around the #indyref means this one is set in stone.  For the entire duration of the campaign, women have had to shout and demand some representation (we gave up on equal as clearly a concept too far for most) as commentators on political issues.  We were all booked to the hilt to do stuff over the last week of the campaign and especially, around the results programmes.  With only a handful of exceptions, we were all bumped in favour of more luminary commentators.  Mostly politicians, mostly men.  Without any consideration for the efforts any of us had made in order to try and contribute – childcare, lack of sleep, travelling miles at our own expense.  Me?  I’m done with it all.  We don’t get the media we deserve, we get the media they are prepared to provide for us.  And the mainstream media by and large is intrinsically and institutionally sexist.  I will return to this theme in later blogs.

So you can all remove me from your contacts lists.  I will not be available for any media work but I have during this campaign, worked to create and support a greater, wider pool of articulate women commentators who speak from a pro-independence perspective. Just because they are not “names” does not mean their views are not worth hearing.  I hope you continue to approach them and I will do my best to continue to grow the group and support it wider still.  Because enabling women to join the ranks of political commentators is clearly not on any of your agendas.

The first is more complicated.  I may or may not retire. But can I make a plea to everyone tweeting, facebooking, joining and organising in the aftermath of defeat for Yes?  Please calm down.  There is time.  We do not need to do this – all of it – in the first post-defeat weekend.  In fact, decisions and moves made now are likely to be reached in the euphoria of sleeplessness and grief.  And that is never a good basis for strategising.

Some of us have been in this game a very long time.  Some of us have been on this journey for much of our lifetimes.  Some of us are trying to get a semblance of normalcy back in our lives.  We need time to lick our wounds, to slob in our pyjamas, to clear the clutter and detritus from the last campaign before embarking on the next stage.  I am not nearly as bereft as I thought I would be:  I share the sense that this isn’t finished yet, not by a long chalk.

But I am also mindful of listening to what the Scottish people said on Thursday.  More powers is what they want, not full independence.  Not yet anyway. I’m with the First Minister here – we cannot trust Westminster to deliver this on its own and I do think that if we want to arrive at a destination called devo-max then we need to work with the grain not against it. But how to do that without selling out the 45% who voted yes and without having to climb into bed with the establishment – Scottish and UK – who want to put all this democracy and appetite for ideas away in a box in the political loft and get back to business as usual?  That is the thorny issue which we must work out how to address – to keep the 45% on board while reaching out to the soft, reluctant Nos that represent at least 20% of the 55% who voted so.

And thorny issues take time to get our heads around. We do not need to set our course for the next year and beyond this week. Good decisions require space, time and proper consideration.

We do need to be having chats and reflections and sharing commiserations and indeed, celebrations at all that we have achieved.  But bouncing into the next phase – and trying to bounce others into it – won’t work.  As John Swinney himself just said on the Sunday Politics show, there is a need even for the SNP to have a discussion and debate about the “tactics” for where we find ourselves and the way ahead.  And if the party that has been doing this for decades thinks it needs such an approach, then we should all take a lead from that.

But things are moving fast, even in the SNP.  Yet, the party does need to have a fairly honest and frank appraisal about its future direction.  I’ll blog on that in due course.

It would appear that there will be no leadership contest and that Nicola Sturgeon – who has not yet declared her hand but is doing the canny thing of allowing all potential rivals to count themselves out this weekend – will be elected unopposed.  That would be a fine testament to how she has grown and prepared for the role in this last year in particular.  But the party does still need to create space for a venting and to hear how Nicola intends to take the party forward.  Shutting down the opportunity for a greetin’ meeting at conference in November wouldn’t be wise nor even respectful.  A lot of SNP folk put their all into this campaign – they deserve to be heard on what worked and what could have been done differently.  Constructive criticism is nothing to be afraid of.

But it seems that the real contest will be for deputy leader.  Names are being bandied about.  So, here’s my choice.  Shona Robison, MSP for Dundee East and Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport, who also has the equalities brief.

Tomorrow’s blog will explain why.

That’s not a cop out.  It’s my birthday today and I have a house and a garden like a coup.  I’d like to spend some of the day in the sunshine, righting some of that.  And trying to get back a little normalcy in my life.  Before my nerves are shredded by giving up smoking tomorrow.

And just in case anyone is listening, I’d advise a little normalcy for us all.  Step away from the social media.  Stop promulgating conspiracy theories.  Stop planning the next stage of our nation’s political evoluation/revolution.  Go for a walk.  Watch a movie.  Sleep. Read. Drink and be merry.  But leave the politics alone for a day.  It will do us all good.