Alex Massie

The Age of Nicola: Sturgeon maps out the road to independence

The Age of Nicola: Sturgeon maps out the road to independence
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The problem with Nicola Sturgeon is that she is, by the standards of contemporary politics, unusually straightforward. There is little artifice and even less deceit about Scotland's First Minister. What you see is what you get; what she says is what she mostly means. That is, even when she's sidling past the truth it's clear what she really means.

And so, there it was, out in the open at last: a clear confirmation that Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour party are Nicola Sturgeon's useful idiots. Sure, there may not be any need for another referendum on independence before 2020 - not least because, as matters stand, that referendum might, like last year's plebiscite, be lost - but there will be another referendum at some point. And it will be won.

Not least because Corbyn will help concentrate Scottish minds. If he makes it to 2020 he will lead the Labour party to a disaster of Stalingrad proportions. And that will usher in another decade of Conservative rule, a prospect so appalling it is wonderfully useful for the nationalist cause. You could be forgiven for thinking the First Minister rather fancies the idea of Prime Minister Osborne.

That will be the material change in circumstance required to trigger a second referendum. The ghastly prospect of seemingly permanent Tory rule in London will persuade Scots that independence is no longer a risky proposition but, rather, utterly essential. There will be no alternative; the danger will lie with the status quo, not an unknown future.

That was, once everything else was stripped away, the single most important part of the First Minister's speech to her adoring conference in Aberdeen this afternoon.  Labour are broken and the Tories are self-evidently ghastly. So Scotland has no option, no choice, no alternative to the SNP. The party is the Scottish people; the Scottish people are the party.

That doesn't mean the party, or its leader, are perfect, Ms Sturgeon said (a notion it is impossible to imagine her predecessor admitting) but the First Minister appreciates that an admission of fallibility both impresses voters and acts as a shield against criticism. She has already and often made great use of this tactic: I'm not suggesting we are perfect, nor that there is not more work to be done or that progress must not be made. But we are trying our best and I'd simply ask you to remember that and give us a chance. In that way, you see, criticism can be easily deflected. Judge us on our record but, more than that, grade us on our intentions.

And, anyway, though she did not say so today, there is always another answer that can be deployed to squash criticism: Look at the pollsThe polls tell you that you are wrong and we are right. 

Sometimes, the deceptions - or, to be kinder, the half-truths - verge on being cute. As when, for instance, Ms Sturgeon insisted "We don't claim Scotland is better than any other country". This was delivered with an impressively straight face even though everyone knows the sentence should be completed with but we are, and can be, better than you know who. Some things, however, don't need to be said.

Again, however, Sturgeon demonstrated that she has mastered the knack of being in office and opposition simultaneously. It is an enviable position, allowing her to pivot from achievement to complaint and back again whenever it is deemed tactically useful to do so. Heads she wins; tails you lose.

And yet, despite it all and despite your disagreements, Sturgeon demonstrated again today why she has become such a formidable politician: she commands respect even from those with little time for her ultimate ambitions.

Her speech at this conference broke little new ground, nor was it especially revelatory. But it didn't have to be. It was, instead, a confirmation of the extent to which the SNP occupy the commanding heights of Scottish politics and a reminder that, at least in the short to medium term, there is no party capable of storming that palisade and dislodging the nationalists.

The First Minister's speech can be boiled down to something wonderfully simple: Trust us. And, at present, the people are minded to do so. Trust is the most precious commodity in politics. And why would the people not trust the nationalists when the party is led by a politician of such sudden stature and assurance? Of the many amazing things that have happened this past year, this remains one of the most remarkable. We knew Nicola Sturgeon would be good but few of us, not even her keenest admirers, quite understood or foresaw how good she would be. It may even have surprised her.

The Age of Nicola will last some time yet.