In her first major speech on independence, Nicola Sturgeon ought to worry Labour by attacking their recent political history and claims to be the natural champions for Scotland’s centre-left voters
It is some three months now since Nicola Sturgeon gave up pursuing minimum pricing and gay marriage – both potential firsts within British politics – to focus on delivering a far greater political prize, independence.
In her first major speech on independence on Monday, Scotland’s deputy first minister has set out her case for independence, again marking out political territory which is a direct, open challenge to Scottish Labour – the Scottish National party’s most significant opponent in this contest.
One key passage in that speech, at Strathclyde University, is this:
the UK’s ability to re-invent itself is spent. The Westminster parties are at best sceptical and at worst hostile to further substantial reform in Scotland’s interests. The post-war economic decline has continued and now the very institutions which once made us distinct, the welfare state and – in England – the NHS, are under attack from the Westminster system of government.
What do we get from leaving our powers in the control of others? A high risk economy and an eroding social fabric.
Swiftly cutting dead talk of greater devolution, she brought a very specific focus, disavowing romantic nationalism based on identity – the kind which she said the nationalist historian Neil MacCormick would call “existentialist” – to pursue the pragmatic case for independence.
She is, she says, MacCormick’s utilitarian nationalist – the kind which believes independence is a mechanism for delivering specific social and economic outcomes: social justice, redistribution of wealth (Sturgeon makes that a stated goal) and greater equality.
It’s a personal vision for Sturgeon; she made that clear. This is her manifesto. After all, she’s the “social justice lawyer” from a working class Glaswegian family who failed to fit the mould and join the Labour party.
I joined the SNP because it was obvious to me then – as it still is today – that you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery.
In doing so, she’s continuing the repositioning of the debate by placing the case for independence firmly in centre-left territory. She also appeared to be suggesting that identity-based nationalism is unnecessary, even anachronistic – that will be a significant message for non-nationalist centrist and left wingers who could be tilting towards independence.
Even if “most” modern SNP members are both existentialist and utilitarian nationalists, she states that sentiment only gets you so far:
For my part, and I believe for my generation, I have never doubted that Scotland is a nation. And while I might not go on about a thousand years of history and that sort of thing I take it for granted as a simple fact that Scotland is a nation with an inalienable right to self-determination.
But for me the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. And I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence.
My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.
Worryingly for Scottish Labour, she’s stamped that vision with the precision and economy she was noted for when she was Scottish health secretary. Sturgeon is in charge of the strategic planning for much of the Scottish government’s roll-out of its prospectus for independence.
She is now raising the barre on this debate.
Still, it very much remains to be seen how easily she can sell their “indy lite” version of independence – keeping sterling, the Bank of England, Nato and many other UK institutions of government – to both marrow and bone nationalists and sceptical neutrals.
She claimed, a little glibly it could be said, that a series of official papers would over coming months prove that “we will be the most prepared nation in the world gaining new powers, so that the transition is smooth.” Her opponents have set the UK civil service, their own tacticians and strategists to the same task, to prove the nationalists wrong.
And her central themes are familiar from many of first minister Alex Salmond’s speeches. Yet there was none of the bombast, or broad-brushed rhetoric which her boss – while one of British politics most enthralling speech-makers – can be guilty of at his most tub-thumbing. Sturgeon has a coolness and calmness that Salmond often lacks, an interesting counterbalance to his crowd-pleasing style.
It became clear at the SNP’s annual conference in Perth that there is some quite deliberate repositioning going on about the SNP itself and about independence: it is a battle for the centre-left of Scottish politics.
Sturgeon has identified what will, to a great degree, define which side wins or loses by attacking the “best of both worlds” proposition advanced by her pro-UK opponents. She says this about Labour:
Labour’s argument is that Scotland should bear the storms of UK membership when the Tories are in office because, in the event of a Labour government, things will improve more than they ever could with independence.
To me, that argument is deeply flawed.
First, I simply do not believe that Scotland should have to put up with long periods of UK government led by a party we did not vote for. It is – surely – democratically indefensible that although the Tories have never won a majority of votes or seats in Scotland in my entire lifetime – or even come anywhere close – they have nevertheless governed Scotland for more than half of my lifetime.
Second, it is clear from its record that for Labour to be elected across the UK, it must become something different to what Scotland wants.
Social justice becomes a policy to be bartered against other interests – wars, nuclear weapons and welfare cuts.
In the end the Blair government elected in 1997 was not an alternative to Conservatism. It was business as usual.
Given too that Sturgeon is a Glaswegian politician, this positioning has a longer-term benefit; if, as the current polls suggest, the SNP and Yes Scotland fail to win the 2014 referendum, the SNP has to survive as a viable and potent political force.
Winning the referendum would make this moot, but defeat would make it essential that her party continues to make Scottish Labour the party of opposition. Building a compelling case to be the most capable, proven party for Scottish centre-left urban voters is central to that.
It is relevant too that Sturgeon is a woman. Recent polling confirms that women are less supportive of independence and nationalism; polls confirm Salmond still sets many women voters’ teeth on edge. And his opponents are capable, combative women, in Johann Lamont for Labour and Ruth Davidson for the Tories. It is crucial for the SNP it has substantial female voices, but that is secondary.
Assuming a defeat in 2014 isn’t devastating (and even its critics believe the SNP will at the very least close the current two to one gap against independence shown in recent polling), the SNP will want to win again in the 2016 Holyrood elections as the best champions for Scotland within the UK.
There is a clear political risk for the SNP in fighting solely on centre-left territory. Are they narrow-casting their message too much? There are many unaligned and centre-right voters who, with the right message, could bend towards independence. It is a risk too for the Yes Scotland campaign: its chief executive Blair Jenkins is parroting similar lines to the SNP leadership.
Remember that Salmond won his Holyrood majority in 2011 by appealing to a remarkably diverse set of fans; even Tony Blair would have struggled to win backing from the socialist leader Tommy Sheridan and simultaneously the arch-capitalist investment banker Martin Gilbert, of Aberdeen Asset management.
The longer-term strategy for Sturgeon becomes even clearer when you consider that the pro-UK parties will, as far as nationalists are concerned, have to be held to their promise to devolve even more power to Holyrood. And the SNP may – depending on the scale of their defeat and Salmond’s willingness to carry on – have to do so with a new leader. Sturgeon now has two years to establish her credentials.