Sturgeon must be fleet of foot to negotiate political battlefield

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Derek Bateman considers the positive reaction to Scotland’s new First Minister

It is doubtful if Gordon Strachan would have been lauded with such fervour if he’d won the World Cup. Indeed, it is probably Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win that provides the last national outpouring of such undiluted affection.

In an age of citizen cynicism and a measurable disengagement from Westminster and institutional politics generally – to be confirmed today in a UKIP-dominated by-election – the un-selfconscious public love for both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon is something of a phenomenon, especially in dour, unemotional Scotland.

It is also perturbing. Respect, admiration and affection are what we expect to express in bereavement, as we bury our resentments and disappointments with the fallen. There is a natural tendency to forgiveness at the end. Yet it’s been clear for some time that Salmond has no appetite for departing the scene, and will play a similar if diminished role in national life for years to come, quite possibly to the chagrin of the new leader’s personal team at Holyrood.

The golf course can wait – he is swapping offices and changing studios, and not retiring.Sturgeon’s acclaim is of a sort reserved for the saviour of an ailing project when loud and intense applause expresses the relief of the souls saved. Yet there is nothing remotely surprising or revolutionary about her elevation and, despite the referendum failure, a Joan of Arc is hardly needed in the current SNP.

So what we are witnessing is uncritical, unconditional adulation reflecting the mood of a newly-engaged public projecting their hopes and aspirations on to what are, after all, only normal politicians with limited scope to accommodate them.

(I share much of the respect for both individuals, who are outstanding and successful Scots but a lot of my admiration is for their long-term commitment to what has been at times a lonely and still unfulfilled cause, when both could have taken gilded career paths eased with serious wealth and without the intrusive public eye prying into their affairs. Joining Labour for a career and advancement was always the easy option as their standard of representative today proves).

There are traps ahead for the new leader and her apprenticeship should have prepared her, but actually being Number One is different from walking alongside. All parties and government are teams whose individual contributions combine to make the whole work (or not).

Salmond made the team work, partly through presence, partly through drive and partly through fear, or at least a reverence. Showing immediate command of the tools of authority will aid Sturgeon’s progress and that means Cabinet changes that are decisive and surprising. Some old faces will re-emerge with rueful smiles on the backbenches. Could she find a place for a non-SNP minister? Will Patrick Harvie get the call?

The new First Minister has little or no effective opposition to confront her as neither Neil Findlay nor Sarah Boyack has shown the acumen of the sharp operator needed to unsettle Sturgeon and her experienced support. Jim Murphy simply won’t be there – until he floats in by parachute, by when she should be well established in the role.

Defending against Murphy requires a simple plan of reminding people of what he actually voted for in Westminster and how that contrasts with the will of Scotland.

So far, Findlay’s agenda consists of stealing SNP policies – hardly a challenge from the Left.

Sturgeon’s real issues will be internal and mostly with the organic Yes alliance whose radical aspirations she may struggle to meet while keeping faith with middle Scotland which has backed her party. What to do about fracking? A campaign of vilifying the industry has taken root before most of the public has caught up with the argument. This makes the debate trickier to navigate and so far the SNP has played an anti-Westminster game of attacking the approach and demanding devolution of powers.

But as today’s announcement by Ineos shows, the industry is accelerating plans for development and is making serious investments in Scotland, while offering six per cent of revenues to local communities. Is it responsible government to stand against a business earning for Scots, employing Scots, investing in Scotland, keeping open and extending Grangemouth and creating a new energy business? Scotland needs economic activity as public budgets are cut. Is the environmental case against it made and, if it is, how does Sturgeon move?

There are in this one area the seeds of discontent and Patrick Harvie is already expressing what is a widespread view across Yes that fracking be subject to a moratorium. The SNP is pragmatic about TTIP, another issue that has been demonised by Yes for understandable reasons, but the final proposals are still awaited and could provide market opportunities for Scottish business, a point not lost on Salmond…but Sturgeon?

So some of the cheering could turn to boos as the months of a Sturgeon leadership roll on but she does have another game-changer to add to her political honeymoon – a British General Election which will consume most of her – and Yes’ – energy for the next six months. And when that is over, the game could have changed again, turbo charging the nationalist government with a powerful lever in a divided Commons.