Margaret Thatcher was called many things during her lifetime, from the nation’s saviour to a she-devil; but an aberration? A quarter of a century since she exited Downing Street, the likelihood of Labour or the Liberal Democrats electing a woman as leader, let alone the Conservatives, has never seemed less likely; and to be honest, it’s hard to think of a moment in the past twenty-five years when it seemed likely at all.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Nicola Sturgeon has made such an impact in the five short months since she was elected SNP leader is the simple fact that a woman leading a political party with actual political clout is such a rare sight. At the height of the moon-landings at the turn of the 1970s, most experts prophesised shuttle services to bases and colonies on the lunar surface would be an inevitability within a decade or two, yet it never happened; when the Iron Lady had made history by ascending to the pinnacle of politics in 1979, many probably thought this could well be the future, that she would blaze a trail for female politicians to follow. But it too never happened.
With the best will in the world, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett are not destined to be much more than a footnote in British politics, both leading minor parties whose current profile far outweighs their potential at the ballot box. Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, inherited the leadership of a party that was the largest in Scotland, one that had seized control of a traditional Labour stronghold in a bloodless coup that was perhaps the most telling example of just how dissatisfied a sizeable section of the electorate had become with the three main parties. Yet when Sturgeon replaced Alex Salmond as SNP leader, the party had just lost the greatest gamble of its life, a heavy body blow that could have seen it embark on a slow downward slide after the ultimate culmination of its decades-long raison d’être had ended in failure; yet, not only has she managed to re-energise the deflated spirits of the Yes campaigners, but she has increased the party’s support in the face of a weak and unconvincing Labour opposition.
There is a parallel General Election taking place north of the border. Down here, it’s Labour Vs the Tories; up there, it’s Labour Vs the SNP – and the outcome up there looks like it could be far more clear-cut than it could be down here. Scotland has always been Labour’s secret weapon, its strength-in-depth that has served it well and come to its rescue when the Tories have eaten into the party’s English fortresses. The prospect of Labour in Scotland facing the kind of annihilation the Conservatives experienced on a nationwide level in 1997 could cost the party dear on May 7, and Nicola Sturgeon knows this only too well.
Although I was (and remain) opposed to Scottish Independence, I cannot help but admire Sturgeon’s growing oratorical talents. During the televised leaders’ debates she capitalised on the fact that she was largely unfamiliar to the English electorate in much the same way as Nick Clegg did in 2010. But there’s a difference. Clegg approached the original leaders’ debates with nothing to lose and felt free to make promises he sensibly surmised he’d never have to keep; even when Clegg was caught unawares by his overnight impact, he became hopeful the sensational (if short-lived) surge in his popularity would be reflected in an increase of Lib Dem seats. Sturgeon, on the other hand, knows she is secure in Scotland and doesn’t have to concern herself with winning English seats or contemplating a phone call from David Cameron that would condemn her party to electoral oblivion. Therefore, her position is far stronger than Nick Clegg’s was five years ago.
With Labour dithering in the centre, having one foot leaning left and the other right, the SNP have stealthily claimed the ground of the old left, one that the Scottish electorate (unlike the English electorate) have remained largely faithful to. Nicola Sturgeon knows the majority of Scots wouldn’t object to the SNP propping up a Labour Government in England, whereas a vast swathe of the English will probably never forgive Nick Clegg for jumping into bed with David Cameron – nor, it has to be said, will many ever forgive Cameron for lifting up his duvet and gesturing for the Lib Dem leader to warm his feet.
For all Ed Miliband’s dismissal of an official Labour/SNP coalition and his unrealisable dreams of a Labour majority, Nicola Sturgeon is all-too-aware that Miliband will need SNP support at Westminster if he is to grab the keys to No.10. He’d no doubt settle for an ‘understanding’ along similar lines to the Lib-Lab pact that helped keep Jim Callaghan’s premiership afloat for a couple of years in the late 70s; but I can’t see Sturgeon settling for that. She knows her hand is too strong to play the compliant appendage to a Prime Minister leading a minority government; she’ll want more than that, and Miliband’s fear is that even if he heads a party whose MPs far outnumber those of the SNP at the Commons, he’ll still be unable to govern without taking the concerns of the Scots into consideration. His hands will be tied throughout his term of office, even more than Cameron’s have been during his own stint as a coalition PM.
Were she not so relentlessly driven by her determination for Scottish Independence, it’s possible Nicola Sturgeon could well be Labour leader herself; I think if she were, the result of the General Election would be easier to predict than it currently is and could well be more decisive. Whenever she takes to the podium, she comes across as being in possession of all the qualities that embody a strong leader, something that could hardly be said of Miliband; ditto Cameron, regardless of his absorption of the statesmanlike demeanour most Prime Ministers slip into like an especially comfy pair of old slippers.
I’m sure many in England who have suddenly taken notice of Nicola Sturgeon in the past few weeks, and feel overwhelmingly uninspired by Miliband, Cameron and Clegg, would actually quite like to vote for her; they may not agree with all of her policies, but then many who voted for Margaret Thatcher didn’t necessarily agree with all of hers; they took to her as a leader rather than as a Tory. Indeed, it would be interesting to see what might happen were the SNP allowed to field candidates at English constituencies; I’m not actually sure if there is any constitutional rule in place that forbids this. The name would probably work against them south of Berwick, however.
Neither Harriet Harman nor Theresa May, the two most senior female politicians belonging to the Labour and Tory camps respectively, strike me as having leadership potential. The minute Harman opens her mouth, she comes across as a colonial governor’s wife talking down to the natives, and May has the whiny vocal mannerisms of Mavis from ‘Coronation Street’. This probably means the Labour and Conservative parties will continue to be headed by men for the foreseeable future. If they’re good enough, it shouldn’t matter. But the fact that Nicola Sturgeon is a woman I think is another plus factor in her increasingly impressive armoury.
She would no doubt hate to be compared to Thatcher on an ideological level; but if someone told her she was the only politician in the country who possessed the same qualities that Mrs T had with regards to inspiring confidence in her as a leader of men, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t object.