Glasgow, Scotland – When the Scottish National Party meets for its annual conference next month, members will have plenty to celebrate. Defeat in September’s referendum on independence from the UK was narrower than many commentators had expected, and 60,000 have joined the nationalists since then.
But the highlight of the conference weekend will be the coronation of the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon.
Political leadership contests are normally grueling affairs. Backstabbing and double-crossing are common as candidates vie for power. Not so in Scotland last week.
Sturgeon, a slight-framed 44-year-old Glasgow lawyer with a penchant for Scandinavian television dramas, was confirmed last Wednesday as Alex Salmond‘s successor without a contest. She will formally take over the reins of the Scottish National Party (SNP) next month, in the process becoming the first female leader of Scotland’s devolved parliament in Edinburgh.
For Sturgeon, the mantle of first minister is the culmination of a life dedicated to Scottish nationalist politics. Born in 1970 outside Irvine, a new town on the coast south of Glasgow, Sturgeon became a member of the SNP at the age of just 16.
|She decided when she was 16 that Labour didn’t offer a strong enough challenge to Thatcher, and it was only with independence that Scotland could be rescued from Thatcherism.|
It was another mould-breaking female politician that inspired Sturgeon to join the Scottish nationalists. Margaret Thatcher – the then UK Conservative prime minister – was a hated figure in industrial Scotland, held responsible for massive job losses.
“Lots of people around me were looking at a life or an immediate future of unemployment, and I think that certainly gave me a strong sense of social justice and, at that stage, a strong feeling that it was wrong for Scotland to be governed by a Tory government that we hadn’t elected,” Sturgeon later said of her formative years in Irvine.
Scottish commentator James Maxwell said at a young age Sturgeon felt compelled into politics in order to counter Thatcher.
“She decided when she was 16 that Labour didn’t offer a strong enough challenge to Thatcher, and it was only with independence that Scotland could be rescued from Thatcherism,” said Maxwell.
Sturgeon didn’t wait long to cut her political teeth. In the 1992, UK general election she stood as as the SNP’s candidate in the solidly Labour Glasgow Shettleston constituency. Although she failed to win the seat – and was defeated again in 1997 – the Glasgow University law graduate was elected to the Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh in 1999. She was just 29.
In parliament, Sturgeon won plaudits as the SNP’s spokeswoman on justice, and later on education and health. In 2004, aged 34, Sturgeon announced she would stand as a candidate for the party leadership following the resignation of John Swinney. She later withdrew from the contest, however, standing instead on as deputy leader on a joint ticket with the pugnacious Alex Salmond.
Both were subsequently elected, transforming the shape of Scottish nationalist politics.
Rise to power
In 2007, with Salmond at the helm and Sturgeon by his side, the SNP won its highest ever share of the vote in devolved elections, and enough seats to form a government for the first time. In 2011, the party went one better, scoring an unexpected landslide that gave the nationalists both full control of the Scottish parliament, and the long-cherished dream of a referendum on independence.
Although the nationalists lost last month’s referendum on independence, a “yes” vote of almost 45 percent was a significant improvement on previous levels of support for leaving the United Kingdom. Sturgeon was widely seen as having enjoyed a successful campaign and when, the day after the defeat, Salmond announced his surprise resignation, all eyes turned to his capable deputy.
Sturgeon – who has called for maximum devolution to the Scottish parliament in the wake of last month’s defeat – is the “poster girl for civic nationalism”, said her unofficial biographer, journalist David Torrance. She believes in independence because it will make Scotland a fairer, more equitable place, he said.
“The thing that brought her to [the SNP] was predominantly policy, not tartan and saltires,” said Torrance.
Sturgeon certainly takes her politics seriously. “I prepare very carefully for everything I do in politics: maybe it’s a bit of that working-class ethos, you’ve got to work hard,” she said in an interview earlier this year.
Increasingly, the SNP has usurped Labour as the party of working class Scotland. Many expect this trend to continue under Sturgeon’s leadership. “She speaks an authentic language of social justice and old Labour, while accepting all the modern techniques of a centrist, post-ideological party,” said Torrance.
But there are signs of a leftward shift in SNP policy. Last week, the party’s finance secretary, John Swinney, announced a radical overhaul of property taxes that will predominantly hit the most well off in Scottish society. The party has also reiterated its support for the recognition of Palestine.
One of Sturgeon’s early decisions will be how to engage the 60,000 new members that have joined the SNP since last month’s referendum. Scotland’s first minister elect has already announced plans to embark on a series of rallies across the country next month.
“I am looking forward to meeting as many of our new recruits as possible and sharing with them my vision for the future,” Sturgeon said.
“The SNP cannot advance the argument that a vote for them is a vote for independence, that would be a significant step backwards,” he said. “It would be electoral suicide to go back to the old position that if the SNP got a majority of seats in Westminster, or at Holyrood, it could declare independence.”But the new followers could cause a headache for the nationalists, with many demanding another referendum on independence sooner rather than later. Sturgeon has refused to rule out another referendum, but must be wary of pandering to a vociferous minority, said Maxwell.
Position of strength
Sturgeon inherits the party leadership in a position of real strength. SNP is widely predicted to win a historic third consecutive Holyrood election in 2016, and the party is on course to do well in next year’s Westminster vote. Sturgeon herself is the most trusted politician in Scotland.
Away from the spotlight, the new SNP leader seems wedded to politics. Her mother, Joan, is a serving SNP councillor in North Ayrshire. Her partner for the past decade is the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell.
Now having reached the summit of Scottish politics, Sturgeon is unlikely to climb down anytime soon.
“This is someone with massive ambition. She won’t want to only serve one full term as first minister,” said Maxwell. “She will want to ensure that she is in power for a long time. She will be thinking long term.”
This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.