When Alex Salmond resigned as first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) the day after the referendum, it initially seemed impulsive and unnecessary. The Yes campaign may have been defeated, but with Salmond at the helm it had achieved a much closer result than many had expected. Yet 12 months since Nicola Sturgeon was sworn in as his successor last November 20, Salmond’s decision looks like a master stroke.
You might expect support for the SNP to have fallen dramatically after the No vote. If independence is the SNP’s reason to exist, and most voters rejected it, why would people continue to support the party? Yet membership rose from 25,000 to 110,000 in the following six months. Not only was independence still clearly on the agenda, people were perhaps joining Sturgeon’s SNP for more than just this single issue.
More dramatic still was the party’s performance in the UK general election, aided by the distorting effect of Westminster’s electoral system. Polling 50% of the vote translated into 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats (95% of them) – 50 seats more than the party had before. “The people of Scotland have spoken,” said Sturgeon at a photocall to introduce the new Westminster intake at Edinburgh’s Forth Rail Bridge. The result gave the SNP a presence in Westminster that was symbolically and sometimes also substantially important – the UK government’s defeat over liberalising Sunday trading laws was a good example.
It looks like we will see more of the same in the Scottish parliament elections next year – STV/Ipsos MORI is currently predicting 72/129 seats or 50% of the vote, for example. Meanwhile support for Scottish independence also remains consistently high, albeit not high enough to predict a Yes vote in a second referendum (the party has indicated it would want to see 60% support before it pushed for a rerun).
Perhaps most importantly, Nicola Sturgeon’s personal popularity remains incredibly high – even if it has fallen back somewhat over the autumn. Trust in Sturgeon in general, and her governing record, remains strong for a leader in office. She has often been the most popular major party leader in the UK, and was most recently voted the most popular Scot overall. This popularity has even boosted international interest, leading to requests to appear in The Daily Show and Vogue.
The Nicola agenda
So what has changed in Scottish politics under Sturgeon to match these achievements? One noticeable thing is that the SNP’s membership and popularity now seems less skewed towards men. Women are now almost as likely as men to vote for the party. The SNP’s new Westminster cohort contained only 19 women, but Sturgeon made the Scottish government’s cabinet a 50-50 gender split. There is also an emphasis on all-women shortlists for the Scottish parliament elections (in the past, only Scottish Labour were this committed).
Yet in policy terms, it is harder to see such tangible progress, and I’m not sure that everyone cares. It is a curious situation, but the SNP seems to no longer rely on an image of governing competence to maintain its high support. While this sense of competence was one of the strongest explanations for the SNP’s first big victory in 2011, we are now in an era where some potentially game-changing events and alleged policy failures are being largely ignored as we persistently focus on constitutional change – both Scotland in the UK and in relation to the EU – and the UK Conservative government’s austerity agenda.
If we were not so distracted, we might focus on the fact that the SNP’s overall governance strategy seems to favour economic growth over social democracy in a way that is more similar to UK government policy than you might think. While the SNP plays up its opposition to UK austerity and its desire to reduce inequality in Scotland, it also tends to use its tax powers to reduce the burden on business. It maintains universal services even though this potentially exacerbates inequalities in areas such as health and education.
Under Sturgeon, the SNP has often seemed invulnerable to criticisms about its faltering record on the NHS, even though she oversaw health between 2007 and 2012. Equally little attention has been paid to the party’s role in the rocky emergence of the unified Scottish police force, or its failure to reduce the attainment gap in education.
The popularity of the SNP and Sturgeon while we fixate on the constitution and pay little attention to policy is quite worrying. More people than ever seem to be engaged in Scottish politics following the referendum. Yet it translates into very little attention to the problems that elected politicians are there to solve. For all Sturgeon and the SNP’s popularity, it is harder for her to point to clear policy successes where she can say, “I did that”. I like to think that Sturgeon would trade most of her popularity for a clearer sense that the SNP has become a successful party in government rather than merely a successful electoral machine.