Just over a year ago I published a short, unauthorised biography of Nicola Sturgeon. As is usually the case, it got a mixed reception: London-based reviewers thought it fascinating, while independence-inclined critics north of the border generally panned it. Still, it sold well (or as well as a political biography can these days), demonstrating that reviewers (much like columnists) don’t wield influence like they once did.
My publisher’s timing was also good, for it appeared last March at the height of Sturgeon-mania during the 2015 general election. But it also dated very quickly, and while a short reprint last summer managed to squeeze in a few paragraphs about the SNP’s remarkable performance in that election, it’s now badly in need of a more comprehensive revision, something I’m currently working on. The final copy deadline isn’t until after 23 June in case the EU referendum throws up an unexpected result; the first minister’s response to a Brexit vote, not least the prospect of another independence referendum, would obviously warrant a mention.
The key triumvirate for a biography is people, places and papers. Regarding the first – people – I’ve spent the last couple of weeks speaking to as many people as possible who deal with Nicola Sturgeon, either politically or journalistically. Not only does this allow me to draw on the insights of lots of smart people, but it helps shape my own views on the subject. In terms of the second – places – I try to observe the first minister at as many public events as possible, be it at Holyrood or on the campaign trail (and even though the election is over, the SNP is always campaigning), to get a feel for her public persona. However, the third – papers – is trickier. Given Ms Sturgeon is a serving political leader there are few documents other than official publications to draw on, and while FoI requests have thrown up a few nuggets over the past year, either I or another biographer will have to wait a decade or more before that changes.
Last Wednesday morning I was at the Scottish Parliament to watch MSPs select their 'nominee’ as first minister, a post-election vote that highlights a key difference between the devolved Holyrood legislature and what some nationalists jokingly refer to as the 'Imperial Parliament’ at Westminster. While the victor in any UK election soon finds themselves en route to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands with the head of state, their Scottish equivalent has to face the additional hurdle of a vote in parliament.
It was, of course, a formality, although the six Scottish Greens’ decision to abstain rather than endorse Ms Sturgeon attracted criticism both online and, more curiously, from the former Scottish Socialist MSP Carolyn Leckie in The National. This, they charged, was 'tribal’ behaviour from another pro-independence party. Ken Macintosh, the new presiding officer, then announced his intention to communicate parliament’s choice to Her Majesty, and the re-elected first minister made a short and, it has to be said, rather uninspiring speech. Basically it comprised the SNP’s greatest rhetorical hits: hackneyed stuff about Scotland having changed forever, the largest party not having a monopoly of wisdom, her determination to make lives better, and so on.
Even the choreography, which included the first minister’s extended family in the balcony and photographs in the garden lobby afterwards, was identical to that in late 2014 when Ms Sturgeon first succeeded Alex Salmond. It was just a bit, well, underwhelming, almost as if the SNP and its leader was running out of steam, perhaps finding it harder and harder to maintain the political momentum that’s served them so well electorally for the past decade.
I saw my subject again on Monday afternoon, this time outside the 'Imperial Parliament' in London, where she joined the Green MP Caroline Lucas and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood underneath a statue of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The symbolism was obvious: three articulate female politicians who owed rather a lot to those who’d championed votes for women a century ago. Their joint political message, however, was more up to date: a collective plea for Britons to vote Remain in the forthcoming EU referendum.
The first minister was, as ever, a class act. Although she and the others arrived a little late (Sturgeon’s schedule was packed, including a meeting with the new London mayor Sadiq Khan) Ms Sturgeon then moved from camera to camera repeating her pro-Remain message for the evening news bulletins. She even found time for a amiable chat with the Nicola Sturgeon of her day, Baroness (Shirley) Williams. The Plaid leader and Caroline Lucas, meanwhile, were virtually ignored by the media scrum.
Both this event and Ms Sturgeon’s election the previous Tuesday had been overshadowed by tabloid coverage of her deputy’s private life. The first minister was due to meet her Westminster MPs later that afternoon, so naturally the media scrum also wanted 'words’ on Stewart Hosie and his recent announcement that he’d be relinquishing his role at the SNP’s autumn conference. She also dealt with this slickly, emphasising that it was primarily a personal matter for those involved. It can’t have been the beginning to the SNP’s third term – not to mention Ms Sturgeon’s first with a mandate of her own – that she was hoping for.
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