IT was June, 2004.
Nicola Sturgeon was preparing to set out her stall for the SNP leadership election following the resignation of John Swinney after that month's disastrous European election results. Everyone expected her to win.
That was until the shock news came in that Alex Salmond had decided to return from his self-imposed exile in Westminster to stand again as party leader, despite having said that "if nominated I'll decline; if drafted I'll defer; and if elected I'll resign". It was a mark of Sturgeon's humility, and her political nous, that without hesitation she stepped aside to allow the return of the Big Man – to the dismay of feminists who thought she should do nothing of the kind. But Sturgeon knows the value of that most important quality in politics: the ability to bide your time.
Now, after five years as Health Secretary and Deputy First Minister, she is taking on responsibility for the constitution and the referendum following last week's Cabinet reshuffle. Sturgeon is now the minister for National Destiny; her place in history assured as the woman who won – or perhaps lost – the battle for Scotland. She also takes over the infrastructure and growth brief, making her the minister for "Plan McB". Her task is to deliver independence and turn the economy round. So, not much pressure then.
It is a tribute to Sturgeon that no-one is saying she has taken on mission impossible, even though the opinion polls suggest precisely that. The Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont's main criticism of the appointment seemed to be that Sturgeon was too good to waste on the constitution and should be sticking with the National Health Service. Sturgeon is certainly no-one's token woman, having worked her way to the top of the greasy poll through a legendary capacity for political focus and hard work.
She has been around politics longer than she looks. Sturgeon made her name as an SNP youth organiser after joining the party in 1986, and was acting as a solicitor for Drumchapel Law Centre in 1992 when she first stood as a candidate for Westminster in Glasgow Shettleston. A fierce debater, the "Nippy Sweetie", as some call her, is well used to fighting the Nationalist cause within enemy lines in Labour west-central Scotland. After entering Holyrood on the Glasgow list in 1999, she rapidly became a leading force in opposition and took the health brief after the SNP's historic Holyrood victory in 2007. She survived that graveyard of political ambitions unscathed and enhanced her prestige by abolishing prescription charges, seeing off bird flu and Legionnaires' Disease, and successfully promoting minimum alcohol pricing.
By putting his best ministerial asset in charge of the referendum, Alex Salmond is telling us two things: that he takes this referendum seriously and that modern Nationalism has changed. Sturgeon will be the face of the independence campaign in 2014 during the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. Instead of kilted hairies waving rubber claymores in the celebration of Robert the Bruce's defeat of the English, it will be this diminutive woman who, in her smart suits and pearls, looks more like the head teacher of an Ayrshire comprehensive than William Wallace.
Sturgeon personifies the new SNP: competent, technocratic, left-wing, female, middle-class. Alex Salmond would like Scots to compare and contrast with David Cameron's Westminster Cabinet, which is increasingly male, pale, upper-class and, well, Tory, following last week's reshuffle. Nicola Sturgeon likes to compare herself to the founder of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, and it is hoped that she will give non-Nationalists a reason to vote for independence, if only to halt Tory rule north of the Border. She represents the difference between what Westminster politics is like today and what the SNP say Scottish politics could be like after independence.
All very well. But what about the referendum? With opinion polls consistently suggesting that only one-third of Scots actually favour independence, can she deliver? How will she persuade the 40% of Scots who want more powers for Holyrood but don't want to leave the United Kingdom that they should vote yes to independence? The task looks daunting. She will be working in parallel with the Yes Scotland campaign, led by the former BBC news supremo, Blair Jenkins. And even with the help of her trusted special adviser, Noel Dolan, and with Alex Salmond's former communications director Kevin Pringle also working on independence strategy, she faces an uphill struggle.
Sturgeon's competence is not in doubt, but it has to be said that abstract debate on constitutional reform, and the finer points of post-independence financial policy, are not her natural ground. She is more comfortable speaking passionately on social issues such as health inequality or same-sex marriage than debating the Clarity Acts, the West Lothian Question or the rights of regions to secede. She is a sleeves-rolled-up politician rather than an armchair constitutionalist, and has shown little interest in the metaphysics of devolution max, independence lite, federalism or confederalism. Independence, in her universe, is a simple matter of giving Holyrood the "normal" powers of an independent country. End of.
Except that it won't be. There are many complex issues to do with the mechanics of separation and the future of an independent Scotland that she will have to address whether she likes it or not. Yes, Scotland could, in theory, become like Norway or Denmark, a prosperous small nation in Europe. But how do you get there without constitutional upheaval, a lot of expensive reorganisation, and institutional duplication? What about the currency, the relationship to Europe, the future of the BBC, the Army, the NHS, pensions? What about the emotional ties that bind, the future of cross-border UK companies, corporation tax; what about splitting oil revenues? Scotland already has a parliament, so what is to be gained from withdrawing from Westminster? The Chancellor, George Osborne, last week challenged her to explain how an independent Scotland could pursue its own economic policy when interest rates and currency issues continue to be decided by the Bank of England. The crisis in the eurozone, said the Chancellor, shows that a currency union is not possible without a political union. So will Scotland end up like Greece? Nicola Sturgeon has tended to avoid answering questions like this on the grounds that they are part of a "scaremongering" agenda that talks Scotland down. Of course, she says, Scotland can keep the pound, remain in Europe as a succession state, and have representation on the monetary policy committee of the Bank of England. Well, maybe. But she has not sounded comfortable on these issues.
Her immediate challenge is to ensure that a binding referendum happens at all, for right now there is no guarantee that it will. David Cameron has said he will only agree to a so-called Section 30 order, giving the plebiscite constitutional legitimacy, if Alex Salmond drops his call for there to be a second, "devolution max" question on the ballot paper.
Now, as it happens, Nicola Sturgeon is widely believed to have favoured a single question referendum all along. Like many in the SNP she believed that having a second question would only ensure that independence loses. Scots are gradualists and, according to countless opinion polls, would prefer a parliament with greater powers but within the broad United Kingdom.
Anyway, there is no settled will in Scotland on what the second question would actually say. Would it be full-scale federalism with a separation of powers? Would it be full fiscal freedom within the UK? Would it be devolution plus, as suggested by the think tank Reform Scotland, with Holyrood gaining most taxation powers, including oil revenues, but leaving VAT and national insurance with Westminster? To a straight-down-the-line nationalist like Sturgeon, these all seem like unnecessary complications. After her "productive" meeting with the junior Scottish Office minister, David Mundell, last week, there was widespread speculation that a deal is effectively done. There will be a single question. It will be along the lines of the one proposed by the SNP, namely, "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country" – though the Electoral Commission will have a say on the precise wording. In exchange, the UK Government will permit a Section 30 order which gives Holyrood the power to hold a binding constitutional referendum in October 2014. And 16 and 17-year-olds will also probably get the vote. This will be presented as a reasoned compromise in which everyone can claim victory. Alex Salmond gets his binding referendum while David Cameron can say that he forced Salmond to ask a straight question with no "second-best" options on the ballot paper.
Assuming the deal is struck within the next couple of weeks, when Salmond meets Cameron, it will be game on. The Yes Scotland campaign chief, Blair Jenkins, is absolutely confident that Scotland will say yes; that many of the 40% who support more powers will, like the influential Jim McColl of Clyde Blowers, finally opt for independence.
By denying a second question, Cameron risks being accused of disenfranchising the majority of Scots who support neither independence nor the status quo. Nicola Sturgeon will spend the next two years calming Scottish fears about independence, insisting that the United Kingdom will continue, albeit in a different form, and that Scots will still be able to call themselves British while seizing control of their own destiny.
Thus far, she has had a pretty easy ride, since the No campaign, called Better Together, is nowhere to be seen. It has so far failed to capitalise on the renewed sense of "Britishness" that was supposed to have emerged from the Olympic Games. It is not entirely clear how the No campaign will even function since it is a coalition of very diverse Unionist parties – Tory, Liberal Democrat, Labour – who all have differing views about the constitution. Labour, in particular, will be leery of appearing on platforms with the Tories, who remain political pariahs in Scotland.
The SNP believe that the Better Together campaign will disintegrate as the recession deepens and the Conservative-led Coalition in Westminster pushes through draconian welfare reforms and spending cuts. Well, maybe. Equally, an economic depression might make Scots less willing to take the radical step of leaving the security of the UK. Independence might seem a needless distraction when people are losing their livelihoods.
This contest is genuinely open, and no-one can predict the outcome. All we know for certain is that, with Nicola Sturgeon in command, the battle for Scotland's future really has begun.
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