Overrated: Nicola Sturgeon

Does the ruthless new leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party deserve to be calling the shots in Westminster too?

Constitutional Affairs Defence Overrated UK Politics
Nicola Sturgeon: (illustration by Michael Daley)

It was inevitable to everyone, except perhaps the man himself, that Alex Salmond would have to stand down if he lost the independence referendum. Equally, it was just as inevitable that Nicola Sturgeon would succeed him as SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland.

In the dark watches of his defeat in the wee sma’ hours of September 19, it didn’t at first look as if Mr Salmond would go quietly given his defiant demeanour at his party’s wake in an Edinburgh hall. A few hours later, however, he was gone and Ms Sturgeon was in. She may have been in charge, at least nominally, of the Yes campaign but nobody complained if she let Salmond take the blame for defeat.

We shall probably never know if my hunch is correct that he was given the slightest of nudges but if so it would have been entirely in keeping with the character of this hugely ambitious lady. After all, she had long ago eclipsed all the other rivals for the top job and even fired two of them from her first Scottish cabinet—Mike Russell at education and Kenny MacAskill at justice; and another former party leader, John Swinney, was content to accept the post as her deputy. The former hero of the party’s Left, Alex Neill, who succeeded her in the health portfolio, was demoted as the new leader began to pack her cabinet with—often female—friends and allies.

This streak of ruthlessness is the one thing that London politicians will find most remarkable in their forthcoming dealings with this 44-year-old ex-solicitor and daughter of an electrician. For most of her political career Sturgeon has been in charge of the SNP’s, and latterly the Scottish Government’s, health policy. Her officials complained that she gave short shrift to staff who brought niggles to her ministerial desk. It is probably for this reason that major problems have arisen in Scotland’s health service, where in spite of spending being roughly 20 per cent more per capita than the rest of the UK, A&E waiting times are worse than those in England.

Those who dismiss her by referring to her by her old “Wee Nippy” nickname—a reference to her acerbic style—do her a disservice. Although she can be engaging company in a social setting, she is a formidable political operator who springs from the same ferociously competitive Glasgow University debating society as the likes of John Smith, Donald Dewar and Charles Kennedy and has made an immediate mark on the complexion of domestic Scottish politics, by swinging it significantly to the Left.

This is undoubtedly what Westminster can expect from her if her enlarged army of SNP members take their seats in the Commons ready to do, at the very least, a “confidence and supply” deal to put Labour into government even if the Conservatives win most seats. The First Minister of Scotland will then help to impose what she calls “progressive” policies on the rest of the United Kingdom. Much of these would revolve around ending all austerity measures, imposing higher taxes on the middle classes and stopping cuts in the welfare budget. She has already succeeded in pushing Scottish Labour ever leftwards as it seeks to recapture its traditional heartlands from the Nats and she is supremely confident of doing the same in England.

There is little doubt that her main line of attack is the Trident nuclear deterrent. She joined the SNP by way of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and she will insist that any deal with Labour would be conditional on a commitment to remove the UK’s Trident submarine fleet from the Clyde. In fact, committed unilateralist that she is, she’ll push for Britain’s deterrent to be abandoned altogether, against the majority wishes of the English.

A similar line will be taken on the EU, with the nationalists backing Labour’s opposition to an in-out referendum and, further, demanding a separate vote in Scotland—as well as Wales and Northern Ireland—if England ever gets the chance and opts to leave.

Mr Miliband may have ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP but he has not discounted some form of issue-by-issue arrangement, thereby increasing suspicion that he will be prepared to do a deal with the nationalists on all of these issues in spite of appeals to do so not just by Sir John Major but also by senior members of his own party. And whilst the risk they pose to the future good governance of Britain may be as great as that we saw from Parnell’s Irishmen more than a century ago, there is one thing that clouds Nicola Sturgeon’s horizons.

It is this: if the SNP tsunami does materialise at Westminster it will be Alex Salmond riding to glory on that tidal wave. He stands every chance of being elected for the Gordon constituency and will be easily his party’s highest-profile MP. Already the darling of the London media, he loves being demonised in Tory propaganda. Will Nicola Sturgeon enjoy having her leadership usurped by Wee Eck, the man she replaced? I very much doubt it.

This sharp Glaswegian lawyer says she wants to change Britain. She doesn’t—she wants to break it up. Despite this oft-declared intent, the entire London political establishment is in thrall to Ms Sturgeon, just as it was in 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie reached Derby at the head of his Jacobite army.

Yet, like them, they’ve won nothing yet.