Saturday, 15 November 2014

Changing of the guard

Yesterday, the first day of the SNP's annual party conference in Perth, saw the reins of party leader formally handed over from Alex Salmond to Nicola Sturgeon, in what was easily the most seamless transition of power I've ever witnessed. I'm certainly struggling to think of any other political leader in recent history elected on 100% of her party's vote... though it certainly helped that no-one was foolhardy enough to stand against her.

Sturgeon and Salmond share similar backgrounds. Born in a council house (in Prestwick rather than Linlothgow), she attended a state school and benefited from a free university education (she studied Law at Glasgow University, while Salmond studied Economics at St. Andrews') and joined the SNP at the age of 16 (she was already a member of the CND). She has always been an incredibly shrewd and capable political operator, and opponents underestimate her at their own peril. For instance, in a now-notorious STV debate, she famously reduced Scottish secretary and supposed "bruiser" Alistair Carmichael (seriously, Google his name and "bruiser" and see how many hits turn up) to a blithering wreck who asked moderator Rona Dougall to intervene on his behalf. (Her weary response -- "Answer the question, Alistair" -- was the icing on the cake.) The unionist parties may like to smugly characterise her election as a "coronation" and point out that she has spent the last seven years being groomed to step into Salmond's shoes, but there's little sense of political nepotism in her appointment -- she really is, by a country mile, the best person for the job.

Sturgeon's ascendancy also leads us to the unprecedented situation of all three major parties being led by women. (I'm including Labour even though, strictly speaking, Westminster MP Anas Sarwar is currently standing in as branch officer following Johann Lamont's applecart-spilling resignation. In any event, Labour's interim Holyrood spokesperson is also a female of the species, Jackie Baillie. And as for the dear old Lib Dems... well, does anyone outside of their own rapidly contracting party even remember who their leader in Scotland is?) I'm not so naive as to suggest that a party being led by a woman is automatically preferable to its being led by a man (just look at Margaret Thatcher, or her spiritual successors, the current leader of the Scottish Tories and the outgoing leader of Scottish Labour), but anything that breaks the political stranglehold of the old boys' club has got to be a step in the right direction. More pertinent, I feel, is that Sturgeon, like Salmond before her, wasn't born into a life of privilege and has got to where she is today through a lot of hard work rather than because she went to the right university and rubbed shoulders with the right people.

Yesterday also saw the party's depute leader elected, with Stewart Hosie coming first with 59% of the vote, from a pool of three candidates. The only Westminster MP to stand for the position, Hosie was my first choice (the election used the single transferrable vote system, allowing you to rank candidates in order of preference), primarily because he's a very smooth, capable operator who comes across extremely well whenever he's interviewed. He strikes me as a hard man to rattle, which is good because he'll no doubt be spending a lot more time in the glare of the media spotlight from now on. There is another advantage, though: it gives the SNP a more prominent profile in Westminster -- something that will no doubt be required if the party is to be successful in its stated goal of winning a majority of Scottish seats in the 2015 election. It also allows Sturgeon the opportunity to choose her own Deputy First Minister for the Holyrood parliament -- effectively two for the price of one.

I'm incredibly sad to see Alex Salmond go, and a part of me still wishes he could have been talked out of falling on his sword. He's been such a staple of Scottish political life for so long that the thought of someone else standing at the dispatch box is genuinely difficult to get my head around. There's also the principle of the matter: Salmond has behaved with integrity throughout his political life, and it seems mighty unfair that someone of his character is stepping down while the assorted pirates and cutthroats of the LibLabCon "Better Together" alliance are (for now, anyway) congratulating themselves and each other on a smear campaign well done and/or being measured for their ermine robes. (Little known fact: he donates a third of his salary to charity every year. The fact that he has never publicised this says a lot about the sort of person he is.) That said, it's becoming increasingly clear that, despite standing down as party leader and First Minister, he has no intention of disappearing into the shadows. And it strikes me that a renegade Salmond, unshackled from the responsibilities of First Minister, could well prove to be far more of a thorn in the side of the British state than he ever was in office.

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