What must Nicola Sturgeon be thinking?

By: Daniel King, Student Voices writer



What is the First Minister of Scotland thinking of right now? It is a question that absolutely nobody but a few die-hard political journalists and geeks will be pondering over (and probably for good reasons). Yet, it is actually a very interesting proposition. As Nicola Sturgeon wakes every morning on the campaign trail for this Scottish Parliament election, she may well be considering how many unknowing babies she can take selfies with that day. She may well be running through her ambitious programme for government following the inevitable victory of the SNP on the 5th of May. Or she may be realising that, despite the 50% support for the Nationalists in the recent YouGov opinion poll, this will be the most damaging election for her party since the disastrous “penny for Scotland” campaign in the 1999 election.

So what are my reasons for this pretty damning predicament? Firstly, we need only look at the SNP’s record in Government over the last nine years. Yes, the nationalists will always congratulate themselves on freezing the council tax, abolishing prescription charges and scrapping tuition fees. But their overall record has been shoddy and Sturgeon will recognise this. 152000 college places slashed. NHS waiting time targets being continuously missed. The disastrous creation of a centralised police force which has resulted in numerous tragedies. Opposition parties have focused their campaigns on attacking the SNP’s record and, for the first time, Sturgeon has been left looking vulnerable. She understands, better than most politicians, that voters aren’t stupid and they will soon turn against a party that incessantly fails to deliver on key promises. The SNP will ride through this election on the backs of voters who still place independence as a significant priority but this honeymoon period cannot last forever. Sturgeon and her party will be bruised by this campaign and many SNP figures will understand that, from now on, they are in decline.

Secondly, there is the issue of the SNP’s own membership and support base. In the weeks following the Independence Referendum, Nicola Sturgeon must have been utterly delighted that her party’s membership expanded to over 100,000 people, making the nationalists the third largest party by members in the United Kingdom. However, it is now beginning to become somewhat of a headache for Sturgeon as she realises that her party members are not just going to stand in line and agree with everything that she announces. Indeed, a recent study highlighted that the majority of SNP members are substantially further to the left on the political spectrum than Nicola Sturgeon. Many are disappointed that she is now opposed to raising the top rate of tax and has failed to rule out a ban on fracking. In their eyes she has gone from being Nicola the left-wing revolutionary during last year’s general election to Nicola the pragmatic, centrist politician. And Sturgeon understands that their votes can no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, a recent TNS poll highlighted an 8% decrease in support for the SNP on the regional list while it looks like Patrick Harvie’s Scottish Greens will win ten seats at Holyrood as left-wing nationalists lend them their second vote. It is increasingly likely that this election will unravel deep philosophical divisions within the SNP and Sturgeon understands that any division on the nationalist side would set back a second referendum for generations.

Thirdly, the First Minister is clearly rattled by Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives in a way that would have been unimaginable during the referendum campaign. It isn’t that the Conservatives have any chance of defeating Sturgeon at this election; rather, it is that the Conservatives are heading for a gain in Holyrood seats for the first time since devolution. Indeed, the recent TNS poll indicated that Ruth Davidson will be leading a delegation of twenty-four MSPS after the 5th of May, potentially throwing Scottish Labour into third place. This would defeat one of the central arguments presented by the “Yes” campaign before the referendum; that Scotland is a nation vociferously opposed to conservatism. It would result in Sturgeon having to recognise that the Scottish Conservatives are becoming an increasingly powerful voice in Scottish politics again; something that would wreck any future campaign for independence.

Lastly, there is at that small issue of a second referendum which SNP members are still clinging to with defiant lust. Recently, at the SNP conference in Glasgow, Sturgeon announced that an SNP Government would begin a new drive for independence in the summer of 2016. This is all just words. Sturgeon has absolutely no plans for holding a second referendum and would be terrified at the prospect of being forced into one as she knows fine well that the Union would withstand another vote. And if the nationalists failed in their dream for a second time within a few years, Nicola understands that would be the idea of independence off the political table forever. This has put her in a dangerous position of not pushing for another referendum but at the same time, she must not be seen to aggravate her party’s members. Thus, she clings to vague and meaningless promises which mean everything to her nationalist members but nothing to the wider electorate who are increasingly bored of constitutional politics.

So, as Nicola Sturgeon goes to bed every night she must be thinking how unpredictable Scottish politics continues to be. But she might also be wondering how long her party can continue to be at the centre of that exciting political scene.
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