Nicola Sturgeon is quite a leader. Few heads of government can boast a first year as exhilarating as hers. With one eye on her successes, and with the other on re-election in a few months’ time, Sturgeon closed her party’s conference this year by asking voters to judge her on her record.
Over the past eight years, the SNP government has done a lot in Scotland, not all of it for the better. They promised to unify the Scottish police force. They did, but over the past few years Police Scotland has been tarnished by a number of alarming blunders – some of them at the cost of lives. The SNP also promised to improve Scotland’s health service. Yet, apart from a few new ‘super-hospitals’ in major urban areas, the party has delivered nothing but missed targets and chronic staff shortages. Then there is education. Although the SNP’s flagship policy of free tuition is hard to challenge in principle, in practice it has reduced the number of university places available for the very poorest in society – making life more difficult for the people the policy was intended to assist.
Thus, despite Sturgeon's bold sentiments at conference, it seems clear that the euphoric popularity the SNP currently enjoys (the party is currently 30 points clear of Labour in the opinion polls) cannot be explained by its record in government. Instead, the SNP's dominance can only br explained by the ability of its cool and charismatic leader to take advantage of a unique political climate.
In her first year as leader, Nicola Sturgeon has helped the SNP to comprehensively usurp Labour as the dominant, centre-left force in Scottish politics; a private ambition of the SNP for a very long time. Sturgeon’s use of the Tories at election time was devastatingly effective, just as David Cameron used the spectre of ‘The Most Dangerous Woman in Britain’ (as the Daily Mail christened her) in order to undermine Labour. More recently, the SNP leader has attacked Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of being unable to provide effective opposition to the Tories. Some had idly speculated that Sturgeon would find an ally in Corbyn, or vice versa, since they ostensibly share a contempt for austerity politics. But Sturgeon is smarter than that. Staunchly opposing all of the Westminster parties provides the SNP with strength and unity.
So what is the objective for Sturgeon’s party? Their game plan for the next election seems to be business as usual: build on the successes of the last eight years and fight for further devolution. As for independence, Sturgeon has urged her supporters to bide their time, and now seems to be relying on opinion polls to judge when is best to renew the push for separation. It is odd that the SNP is silencing talk of the issue that in many ways defines them, especially when a fair number in the party believe that if a referendum was held tomorrow, their side would win. However, as a shrewd politician, Sturgeon knows that this is mere speculation, and that a second victory for No would simultaneously risk ending her own career and the fight for an independent Scotland.
This act of political plate spinning is not easy to maintain, yet Sturgeon carries it off with an ease which infuriates her opponents. Labour – and indeed the Conservatives – hope for the day when they will hear SNP’s porcelain shatter. By any ordinary standards this should have happened already, but then Nicola Sturgeon is no ordinary politician and, as she has shown, Scotland is no ordinary country.