: Nicola Sturgeon
Born: 19 July 1970, Irvine, Ayrshire
Education: Greenwood Academy, Dreghorn; LLB and Diploma in Legal Practice, University of Glasgow
Early career: Solicitor at Bell & Craig and later Drumchapel Law Centre.
Political career: MSP for Glasgow (1999-2007), Glasgow Govan (2007-2011) and Glasgow Southside (2011-present); Shadow Minister for Children and Education (1999-2000); Shadow Minister for Health and Community Care (2000-03); Shadow Minister for Justice (2003-04); SNP Deputy Leader (2004-14); Leader, SNP Group at Holyrood (2004-07); Deputy First Minister (2007-14); Cabinet Secretary for Health (2007-12); Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment & Cities (2012-14); SNP Leader (incoming, November 2014- ); First Minister of Scotland (incoming, November 2014- )
Spouse: Peter Murrell, Chief Executive of the SNP
In Perth next month, Nicola Sturgeon will become the thirteenth person to lead the Scottish National Party and the fifth First Minister of Scotland. She will be the first woman to hold either job. With no other challengers having entered the race to succeed Alex Salmond, her accession to the top job will follow a coronation rather than a contest.
Even had a challenger emerged, he or she would have stood little chance of claiming the prize, such was Sturgeon’s pre-eminence throughout the referendum campaign, where she was often more visible than her outgoing boss.
So what do we know about Nicola Sturgeon and how has she become the unrivalled candidate to succeed the most successful leader in the history of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond?
Nicola Sturgeon has already been occupying a leadership role within the SNP for ten years. When Alex Salmond unexpectedly announced that he would seek the leadership of the party for a second time in 2004, Sturgeon withdrew from the leadership race herself to back him.
She was elected as his deputy, though the relationship has at times seemed more like that of co-leaders. From 2004 to 2007 Sturgeon led the SNP group at Holyrood as Salmond was not a sitting MSP at the time. This elevated her public profile and enabled her to hone her debating skills in weekly jousts at First Minister’s Questions. There is no doubt that this period bolstered Sturgeon’s credentials as Salmond’s eventual successor.
She would subsequently combine duties as Deputy First Minister and Health Secretary following the election of a minority Scottish Government in May 2007. Her reputation was further burnished in these roles, not least through her level-headed handling of an outbreak of swine flu in Scotland in 2009.
In May 2011 the SNP won an unprecedented majority in the Scottish Parliament, paving the way for the independence referendum. In September 2012 she moved to the less demanding Infrastructure, Investment and Cities portfolio, enabling her to devote more time to her leading role in the Yes campaign.
Fifteen years younger than her boss, Sturgeon often seemed like the chief executive to Alex Salmond’s chairman of the board. Particularly during the long referendum campaign, Sturgeon did much of the heavy lifting and took on opponents including Michael Moore, Johann Lamont and Alistair Carmichael in a series of head to head TV debates. She undertook a gruelling schedule of campaign appearances and shared the stage with the First Minister at some of the Yes campaign’s most high profile set-piece events – most notably the launch of the White Paper on independence in November 2013.
“I believe as strongly today as I did last week that independence is the best future for Scotland. And I am more convinced than ever that we will became an independent country. But that will happen only when the people of Scotland choose that course in the polling booth.”
– SNP leadership speech, 24 September 2014
Sturgeon has long described Alex Salmond as a “mentor” and indeed the two have much in common. Both are from the “gradualist” wing of the SNP, prepared to see independence as a journey of incremental steps rather than end which must be achieved in one fell swoop. Both are to the left of the political spectrum – Sturgeon even more so than Salmond. And both have spent their entire political careers in the SNP, Sturgeon having joined the party at the age of just 16.
The key question now is whether Sturgeon will continue along the path of her mentor or seek to take the SNP and the country in a different direction.
Alex Salmond, though always positioning himself as a politician of the left, was never shy in embracing a highly business-friendly agenda. His commitment to a reduced rate of corporation tax in an independent Scotland was the most totemic example of this ‘all Scotland’ strategy, seeking to promote social justice on the back of the prosperity generated by attracting business investment to Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon may stick to this approach; however her principle alternative is to harness the energy generated during the referendum campaign amongst working class and left-leaning sections of Scottish society and coalesce these groups around the SNP. This approach would aim to solidify the gains made by the SNP in central-belt Labour heartlands in and around Glasgow, though may entail some softening of the Nationalists’ pro-business rhetoric, including dropping their commitment to a corporation tax cut and more openly discussing the possibility of higher taxes for the wealthiest.
This strategy would mark a significant shift in what the SNP sees as its natural heartland, away from rural areas such as Perthshire and Aberdeenshire which voted No and towards the more urban, formerly industrial areas, at least some of which voted Yes.
“My guiding ethos is a social democratic one and that will be the ethos of any government I lead. I believe that a strong, sustainable economy with a vibrant business community, and a fair society with strong public services are two sides of the same coin. We cannot succeed and flourish as a society without advancing both.”
– SNP leadership speech, 24 September 2014
Sturgeon’s other most significant decision will be how to position her party on the prospects for a second independence referendum. Her predecessor has always held to the line that a No vote would settle the independence question “for a generation”, typically defined as a period of around 15-20 years.
Early indications from the incoming SNP leader suggest that she may view this matter differently, suggesting that “circumstances” – such as the outcome of any in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – could prompt a revisiting of the independence debate rather sooner. She must decide whether to include a commitment to a second referendum in the SNP manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections. If she does, the ‘Neverendum’ will be firmly back on the table.
Sturgeon will inherit the leadership of her party at a most curious time in its history. Despite losing the referendum it had waited for throughout its entire existence, the SNP has seen its membership treble in the wake of defeat. She takes over a party that ought to be facing an existential crisis and yet seems more energised than at any time in recent memory.
“”If certain things happen, if the UK Government reneges on the commitments made about more powers, if a European referendum takes, or threatens to take, Scotland out of the European Union, you may well have circumstances in which the people of Scotland will be demanding the right to choose a different future for Scotland.”
– Press conference, 24 September 2014
The challenge for the new First Minister will be to ensure that sense of momentum survives the departure from the front line of the dominant figure of the independence movement of the last 25 years, Alex Salmond.
Sturgeon has made clear that she wants to be a First Minister for all of Scotland, reaching out to the 55% majority who rejected independence. In that spirit, the SNP is co-operating with the Smith Commission on further devolution for Holyrood, the first time the Nationalists have participated in such a body.
She will lead a strengthened Parliament and a strengthened party. She may become Scotland’s most powerful First Minister.