Trouble ahead for Nicola Sturgeon

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 30 November 2015 in Editor's note

Nicola Sturgeon's handling of party affairs sees the first rumblings of discontent in the SNP 

It may seems churlish to mention, in a month when Nicola Sturgeon celebrates a year into the job of First Minister by being voted the most popular person in Scotland, is named Politician of the Year for the fourth time, and when her party is riding so high in the polls, but I sense some trouble ahead.

And it’s not just that a second SNP MP has been suspended from the party amid serious concerns about the potential of financial criminality, or that a former special adviser – who was instrumental in the formulation of the party’s case for independence – says it’s all now bollocks [I paraphrase], or that her old boss, and now foreign affairs spokesperson at Westminster, Alex Salmond, appears more concerned with unveiling his own portrait than being in parliament for what could prove a vitally important prime ministerial statement on Syria.

It’s more to do with a growing sense of disquiet about how Sturgeon handles these affairs and the hint of the first low rumblings of discontent.


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Conventional wisdom has it that as First Minister, Salmond was a more divisive figure, evoking a Marmite response, while Sturgeon, as leader, is the more collegiate and chummy, taking all into the big tent. But is that perception also the reality?

When the Michelle Thomson story broke there was an uncharacteristic frostiness about Sturgeon. She appeared to become withdrawn and was unwilling to acknowledge any issue for, or flaw in the party about what it may have known and when. And that stance was buttressed by the ever growing legion of unquestioning supporters whose stock in trade is to be verbose in its dismissal of any criticism of the SNP as a unionist conspiracy – but in less than literate terms. 

But now it seems that at the same time as the SNP was refusing to answer any questions about the party’s role in approving Thomson’s seemingly fast-track to becoming an elected member of the House of Commons, so too was another case of potential wrongdoing about to hit the proverbial. And it begs the question, is there more?

Amid some of the party’s veteran politicians there is disbelief that this has come to pass. They ask who is she listening to, talk of the lack of shared information, of Sturgeon as a sole operator, and of a distinct lack of robust questioning of what is going on. And where previously party loyalty and a quiet confidence about what was actually going on and why would have ensured allegiance, I now detect whiffs of rebellion.

Sturgeon can, of course, dismiss any criticism of her modus operandi with a nod to the polls – but it doesn’t always wash. In the old days when Salmond led the party at Holyrood, his occasional gaffes and outbursts were easily quelled by a group of trusty lieutenants who would sidle up to journalists and comfortably and convincingly make the case that there was nothing to see. And Sturgeon knows how it works because she was one of his most skilled operators. But who now is making that same case for her?

The suspension of MP Natalie McGarry from the SNP is damaging for the party not because of what may come from any police investigation, but because of the machinations that preceded that suspension.

Women for Independence was, and is, a good cause. It has spawned a whole plethora of new female candidates for both Westminster and Holyrood but, more than that, it has inspired and reinvigorated a whole swathe of women – young and old – into engaging with a political system that many had either tired of or had never been part of. It gave many women a voice they had either forgotten they had or they’d never used.

So, whatever the truth in what has or hasn’t happened to the coffers of WFI, the SNP, which is led by a woman whose fundamental driver, she says, is to see more women in politics, cannot abdicate its responsibility to help. I know that WFI is going through a bruising experience, many of its members feel bewildered and lost, and where they have looked for support from SNP HQ, it has not been forthcoming. And that has hurt.

But perhaps none of this matters. Sturgeon benefits from the weakest political opposition there has ever been at Holyrood coupled with massive popular support that can see her do no wrong. And she looks set to be on course for yet another win. So the puzzle now is why she doesn’t use that unprecedented power to really make a case for change?

Labour was the political establishment in Scotland for generations and did little to alter the nation’s course. And now with its fortunes and the SNP’s reversed, Sturgeon – like her Labour counterparts before her – talks a radical game while continuing to ingrain some of our more deep-seated inequalities. And so we slip into a decline and stymie the possibilities for more radical change while the SNP continues to point to ever increasing popularity polls. 

It used to be said of Scotland that you could stick Labour’s red rosette on a donkey and it would win. That could now be true of yellow and the SNP. But is that really the political legacy that Sturgeon wants to be hers?

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