Nae man can tether time nor tide

Yesterday I met a redoutable 87 year old woman who was the primary carer of her 90 year old husband of 63 years. We chatted about the weather and her garden before getting down to business. Which party does she normally identify with?  That would be Labour. She and her husband had voted Labour all their days, and voted No in the referendum, despite the exhortations of her Yes-daft “laddie” (he’s in his fifties). And who would she be voting for in the UK election in May? That would be the SNP. Or not exactly the SNP but “thon wee lassie”. She meant Nicola Sturgeon.

She had never been a fan of “him” she said but this lassie was of different mettle and there was a lot to like. She’s shaking things up a bit and with her in charge, the SNP will shake up a whole lot more, down there and here. We need things all shook up, she reckoned. And I like how she’s putting women first, she said.

Anyone wondering what difference Nicola Sturgeon has made in the early days of her leadership of her party and of Scotland, that’s it there in a nutshell. For every person opting positively to choose the SNP over Labour in this Westminster election, there is a minority – a significant minority, I’d hazard – who have been attracted to the SNP and what it stands for because of its leader and what she stands for. They like what they’ve heard so far and it shows in the polls too.

Most still show a continued gender gap among those who intend to vote SNP in May (such as in this Survation poll for Unison Scotland), but some show that gap having narrowed considerably (the most recent YouGov Scottish poll).

The First Minister has made no secret of her desire to deliver equality for women in Scotland. Her argument – that if you are good enough and work hard enough, being a woman should be no barrier to achieving success at work and in life – is the most explicit commitment made by any party leader in post-devolution Scotland to creating a fairer, better society for women. Implicit in her approach is the need to remove any barriers and plenty still exist.

Not least within her own party. Which explains the resolutions on the agenda for debate at the party’s Spring conference next weekend to create formal mechanisms to ensure a higher number of women candidates standing for the SNP and more of them elected.

I should declare an interest here – I’ve been a longtime proponent within the SNP of positive discrimination measures. The last time the party debated it (in 1998 I think), I was on the pro side of zipping male and female candidates on the regional list selections. That debate for me was characterised by the number of bright, young women speaking against the idea, adamant that they would get there under their own steam, thanks very much. Only one of them ever did.

So bravo for the new party leadership (and I include in this the NEC) for bringing the issue back for further, long overdue debate. This time, I hope the measures win the day.

Last time round, such is the contrary nature of the SNP membership, it more or less zipped anyway with a significant number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament. But without the issue being kept in focus, the numbers slipped. And have never been anything like balanced, let alone equal, for Westminster and local election selections.

As ever, there will be opposition. The same old, tired old arguments will be trotted out. It should be the best candidate who gets selected – which assumes that is usually a man – and there will no doubt be a coterie of women who shore that up by insisting on the right to do it for themselves, not wanting – ever – to feel they were chosen just because they are a woman.  It won’t be until they are rejected as a candidate precisely because they are a woman that they will get it.

The party can rightly point to the progress made in recent times. There are more women than ever before selected for Westminster seats and that’s testament not just to the formidable talent in the ranks of approved candidates but also to the willingness of local party organisations to select the best person to represent them in their constituencies in this contest.  But women still make up under 40% of the total candidates standing for Westminster and it will only be if we get into landslide territory on May 7th that signiificant numbers of them will be elected.

More women have joined the SNP creating a much more balanced membership; it has a 50-50 Cabinet; it has committed to changing the face of public boards and is encouraging private sector and charitable ones to do the same. All of this has come about – partly – because it has a female leader, because of what the party now stands for under her leadership and the policies it espouses.

A breakthrough was signalled at last party conference, when despite fierce opposition, a resolution was passed on gender balance in public life. I sat at home watching it all unfold and cried buckets at the conclusion, for it represented such a milestone.

Next Saturday, the SNP has the chance to show that it’s not just its leader who has mettle. That this is a party in tune with the mood abroad, prepared to lead on changing the nature of society by beginning with reforming its own structures. Before voting on this vital resolution and all the amendments, delegates should pause and consider where Scotland stands, what their party – and especially, their leader – stand for and where she and they want to lead their country to.

The SNP is at a juncture – is it thirled to it (and Scotland’s) past, stuck in the present or focussed on the future and creating a different party (and country) for the next generation to inherit? After all, a better, fairer society for all means exactly that, in all structures and circumstances.

To coin a phrase, moments like this in party histories are like “poppies spread”. They can choose to “seize the flower” before “its bloom is shed”.  And in doing so, delegates might want to remember that “nae man can tether time nor tide”.

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.


The First Minister’s conference speech suggests the cause is not lost

So, I didn’t make it to any conferences this autumn.  Long story, let’s not bother.  Claiming to be a blogger when your recent output suggests otherwise played a part though.

And nor did I actually hear the First Minister’s speech.  Heresy for some I know, but a family outing to Stair Park to see the mighty Stranraer play was too good an opportunity to pass up.  Especially for the unexpected pleasure of seeing an enormous Yes hoarding on top of the wee turnstile block and the opportunity to inaugurate a Stranraer fans for yes group.

I read the speech in full this morning and as everyone has already opined, it’s a great speech.  In fact, reading it with the First Minister’s voice in my head, I actually welled up at the latter passages:  maybe a good job I wasn’t actually in the hall, I’d have been blubbing.

There can be no doubt that Alex Salmond has rediscovered his mojo.  At the start of the summer, after a bruising few months, he seemed like a man on the ropes, bruised and battered by all the defensive sparring and who appeared to have thrown his towel in, ceding control of it all to his more than able Deputy.

But a summer away from the fray and he emerged in early September, several stones lighter and purring in that way only he can do.  As a friend who found his style intensely annoying once said, he acts as though he has something up his sleeve and I just wish he’d get on and reveal it.

He is back in this mode.  He looks good.  He sounds good.  And he’s up for it.  Cue relief all round for those of us in both the SNP and Yes camps.

There is absolutely no doubt that the SNP is now circling Yes’s wagons.  Since its launch, they have allowed it to get on with creating the campaign to win the referendum.  Of course, the SNP wanted some of its people in strategic positions and there has indeed been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing behind the scenes but publicly, there has been a hands off approach.  There was a willlingness to allow this movement to blossom and grow and work in tandem, parallel to the Scottish Government.

I recall in the late 1990s, Alex Salmond realising that to win independence, a wider movement, beyond the SNP, was needed.  He tried to get one off the ground then but the timing wasn’t right.  But that episode paved the way for the current movement, for supporters of an independent Scotland from all parties and none.  And had Yes Scotland not made such a bourach of things then they might have been allowed to carry on, as they are, all the way to the finish.

It was my dad who crystallised it for me at the Indy Rally.  A wise old owl who’s been around the block and who has spent the last 25 years of his life working for the SNP and the cause, but also for the good of his community.  And that’s meant working across party confines to create, support and when needed, oppose rainbow alliances in council administrations in Dumfries and Galloway.  He knows what it takes to build coalitions which work.  And for both him and my mum, the abiding pleasure of that day was being there and knowing hardly anyone: lovely to renew old acquaintances but much more powerful that there were thousands of people neither of them had ever seen or met before.  It wasn’t an SNP gathering but an independence one, truly.

Yet, his view of all the speechifying was illuminating and contained two nuggets.  First, that there were far too many “shouty socialists“.  By this he meant, people with a narrow and repetitive far-left view of how Scotland should be, which frankly was largely unrepresentative of the wider population. It might have pleased his daughter but “this isn’t what resonates with people out there, this isn’t what folk in Scotland believe in or vote for.”

Second, he wondered where all the SNP speakers were.  For over an hour, it was an SNP free platform.  Some of the speeches were great – he loved Elaine C Smith and Dennis Canavan – but wondered why if the Chair of Yes Scotland was up there, why too was the Chief Executive.  Good question actually.  But what puzzled him most was that out of a platform of 12 speakers, only 3 were identifiably SNP and two of those were Scotland’s highest elected politicians.  Why was the SNP ceding this territory – their territory – to everyone else?  A quarter of the speakers, yet a majority Government and years, nay decades of foot slog and ridicule and belief to get here, and suddenly it’s like the SNP didn’t matter, had no locus here.  It made me, someone who had embraced the wider, broader movement pause.  And he was right (of course).

I don’t think he was alone in these thoughts.  And from manoeuvres in recent weeks, it would seem the SNP leadership, the inner war room, agrees.  This subtle shift might all have been part of a grand plan but actually I think the party was sincere in its initial intention to facilitate the building of a wider movement and allowing its momentum to lead the campaign.

But it isn’t working.  And over the summer, it seems like the First Minister has gone away and thought about what needs to change.

Yesterday’s speech marks a critical juncture.  Clues had already been laid:  I might agree with Alex Bell’s view that the White Paper should lay out the seismic shifts required in Scottish society to create the nation we want to be, but political reality suggests otherwise. Such an approach would send voters scurrying from undecided to no.  And such a fundamental difference of opinion on this seminal document meant he had to go.

Others “close to the leadership” have been laying a breadcrumb trail:  Andrew Wilson’s recent columns are instructive here.  Yes, we should aspire to be the change we want to see in the world but let’s not set out in detail this side of the referendum what that might mean, except where it’s about encouraging people to buy into the vision.  Thus, the commitment to a minimum wage in independent Scotland which keeps pace with the cost of living.

Moreover, Kenny MacAskill spoke for many SNP activists at last year’s SNP conference in the NATO debate: some of us are tired of marching and would just like to get there with enough time to enjoy the view.  Ultimately, what matters more: winning the campaign and losing the vote or just plain winning?  The SNP has too much experience of the former not to use those scars to work out how to persuade the Scottish people to vote yes. If that means winning on terms that the Scottish people are comfortable with, then so be it.  As Andrew Wilson’s Donaldson Lecture suggests, the referendum is not D-Day but Day One.

At the heart of it all is trust.  While the polls might show little movement towards a yes vote, they also indicate which party the Scottish people trusts.  The approval ratings for both the SNP and the First Minister are remarkable, given that they come after six years in power.  People believe that the SNP delivers what it promises.  Why do you think Johann Lamont has made it her mission to chip away at the First Minister’s character and why Better Together have tried to undermine people’s confidence in the premise of independence? Thus, if we are to win a yes vote, then the SNP needs to move to the forefront of the referendum campaign, to show itself as leading this debate, so that people can trust the terms of the debate.

The First Minister being back at the top of his game is crucial in this regard.  Those who think it’s nearly all over should think again.

This cause is not lost, not lost at all.

For everyone discomfited by this shift, they would do well to remember this. Having learned the hard way, the SNP now knows how to win elections. Whether this translates, or can translate, into victory for a referendum campaign remains to be seen. But with barely a budge in the polls in eighteen months, Yes needs a different tack.

On the evidence of the last few weeks and yesterday’s speech, the First Minister does indeed appear to have worked out what that tack is. He clearly does have something up his sleeve and I’m not the only member of my family to be comforted by this.