Joyce McMillan: Sturgeon keeping herself on track

Schmoozing with the Queen while trumpeting social-democracy is a balancing act, writes Joyce McMillan
Girls' day out: First Minister and Queen in amicable greeting, perhaps to the puzzlement of the duke. Picture: Neil HannaGirls' day out: First Minister and Queen in amicable greeting, perhaps to the puzzlement of the duke. Picture: Neil Hanna
Girls' day out: First Minister and Queen in amicable greeting, perhaps to the puzzlement of the duke. Picture: Neil Hanna

ON MY screen, snapped at Waverley Station on Wednesday, sits a wonderful Edinburgh Evening News picture of one of those inimitable, unrepeatable moments in British public life. The Queen – in a deep turquoise blue – has just arrived at the station for her inaugural journey on the reopened Borders Railway; she is smiling broadly, and being greeted by the First Minister, smartly suited in a rather festive shade of orange. Nicola Sturgeon’s head is bent in a respectful half-bow, as she shakes the Queen’s hand, and presumably congratulates her, on the day when she is about to become the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

And as ever, a step or so behind the Queen stands the Duke of Edinburgh, now 94 years old, and apparently still in full possession of his wits. Writ large across his face, though, is a look of frank puzzlement. When on earth, he seems to be thinking, did Scottish Nationalists start to look like that? Where are the hairy knees, and the heather coming out of the ears? And why on earth do she and the Queen seem to be getting on so well? Don’t they hate us? Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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And on that last score, at least, the duke’s puzzlement is likely to be shared by at least some SNP members; not least many of the party’s new members, who joined after the radical anti-establishment baptism of fire that was last year’s “Yes” campaign, and who – with the zeal of converts from other radical movements down the years – just want Scotland free of that corrupt old British state and its trappings, as soon as possible.

None of this, though, is likely to cause the First Minister much anxiety, as she scans the pictures of herself and the Queen chatting amicably on the train down to Tweedbank.

For Wednesday’s events – to which Buckingham Palace must have agreed, in every detail – mark yet another example of the SNP’s silky-smooth political positioning, in which they appear simultaneously as a party of near-revolutionary change – threatening to break up the British state, and utterly rejecting the austerity narrative of the present British government – and a safe-pair-of-hands party of government, the new Scottish establishment, eager to retain the Queen as Scotland’s head of state, whether the country becomes independent or not.

Nicola Sturgeon may have risked – and did take – some flak from online hypernationalists who think it matters that she was seen on Wednesday singing God Save The Queen. Fundamentally, though, the calculation of the SNP leadership is that for every dyed-in-the-wool nationalist or republican who turns away in disgust from this kind of establishment schmoozing, there will be several ordinary voters who find it sensible and reassuring; particularly from a party whose core policy of independence might otherwise seem likely not only to rock the boat, but to capsize it completely.

Yet despite the soaring political success of the SNP’s strategy over the last decade, the scenes played out on Wednesday do invite questions about just how long this impressive balancing-act can be maintained. The SNP now certainly faces a huge problem of party management and internal democracy, as the massive new membership which has signed up during the last year seeks to have its say. The party is already embroiled in a serious internal row about the tight control the leadership is exercising over debates at this autumn’s party conference, ruling out discussion of the second independence referendum which has become a kind of holy grail for some elements in the party; and it’s not difficult to imagine SNP policy on the monarchy becoming a subject of similar controversy.

Then there is the wider question of unpredictable change in public attitudes. So far as the monarchy is concerned, it might take only one major scandal lapping at the doors of the Palace to cause a seismic shift in public opinion. And in the same vein, there is the shifting ground of wider UK politics, which may be about to take a completely unexpected turn. For a dozen years now, after all, the SNP has benefited greatly from a situation where it has only had to take small and relatively uncontroversial steps towards traditional social-democratic positions – for example on the NHS, or university fees – in order to outflank all three major UK parties on the left, and, over time, capture the huge Scottish centre-left vote that had traditionally belonged to the Labour Party.

If Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader this weekend, though, that policy will have to be sharpened up considerably; essentially, the SNP will have to develop the knack of occupying the comfortable ground of the social-democratic centre-left, while stepping up its arguments against the kind of further left-ward move that a Corbyn-led Labour Party, and many of the SNP’s own members, might well like to see. Given the general caution and small-c conservatism of most Scottish voters, the chances are that once again, the SNP will only gain at the ballot box from appearing as the moderate choice, somewhere between the new-old left of Jeremy Corbyn, and the extreme austerity policies of the present Conservative government.

Yet public opinion is never immutable. Anyone who knows Scotland well can see clearly how opinion here could move further to the left, under the influence of a changed political debate south of the Border, or could harden to the right, as the nation’s middle income earners are faced with the tough realities of Scotland’s limited new tax powers. The Queen, who is a constitutional monarch and a pragmatist, recognises a profound shift of political allegiance when she sees it, and seeks to accommodate it; hence, presumably, her decision to spend Wednesday visiting the Borders with the First Minister.

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Nicola Sturgeon, though, is a political leader, bound not only to recognise public opinion, but to lead and shape it. And if she wants, as I believe she does, to lead Scotland towards an effective 21st century social democracy, then the chances are that from this weekend, she will have to be developing, re-focussing and sharpening that vision every day; making new arguments for it, and clarifying how her party intends to achieve it, even as the political ground constantly shifts beneath her, in increasingly turbulent times.