“I’ve got a girl crush,” says my friend, a middle-aged woman originally from London.
“I’m voting for thon wee lassie,” nods my 80-year-old neighbour, a lifelong Labour supporter. Even the proudly Tory couple next to me at the cabinet meeting in Dumfries said they’d come to hear Nicola, because, “she talks a lot of sense”.
This is the Sturgeon effect, and it’s pushing the SNP’s post-referendum momentum further than anyone could have imagined. Potentially, deep into Westminster’s corridors of power.
When Alex Salmond stepped down last year, love him or loathe him, this ebullient leader seemed irreplaceable. Yet in a few short months, the woman who stood behind him for many years has moved the SNP to a position where it’s entirely feasible that Scotland’s voice could hold the balance of power in May’s general election. For a country that’s consistently seen its Westminster votes fall into an abyss of indifference, this is one mighty achievement.
Commentators can’t get their heads round the notion, or the marry-up cause and effect. Is this huge upsurge down to Sturgeon, or is thrawn wee Scotland still in post-indy hangover mode?
Scotland is certainly in flux, a place where the status quo and sacred cows continue to be overturned. During last year’s referendum, people of all ages and backgrounds became empowered, as the debate about our constitutional future played out in town halls and community centres nationwide. The atmosphere was redolent with possibilities, as landscapes began to shift. Along with a daily diet of fresh ideas for how you might run your country, fresh ways of engaging with these ideas took root. Since the referendum, they’ve not just rooted, they’ve flourished.
SNP membership currently stands at 102,000, while the Scottish Greens have quadrupled. Grass-roots organisations like Common Weal and Women for Independence are burgeoning, many groups established post-referendum. It’s fair to say Scotland is alive, electric with possibilities and debate, where discussing the economic fallout from oil prices with the electrician wiring your kitchen is entirely commonplace.
She tweets, holds online Q&As, and her cabinet, which is 50/50 male and female, has public meetings across Scotland
So yes, the alchemy was there already. But there’s no doubt Sturgeon is the catalyst for phase two, as described movingly by Robin McAlpine: “Wipe your eyes. On your feet. Let’s get started.”
Started? Sturgeon has not stopped. Along with SNP membership, her own personal approval ratings are sky high: a YouGov poll in last week’s Sun had her at net approval of +7, compared to Cameron, Miliband and Clegg all on minus ratings. And this is across the UK. Among respondents in England alone, Sturgeon’s the only party leader with positive approval. So what is it about Nicola that people rate?
I watched her speak in Glasgow’s Hydro, before a crowd of 12,000 supporters. As she stepped onstage, she looked genuinely delighted – and a tiny bit overawed. Sturgeon seems to be that curious mix of shy and confident we can all relate to, where she hesitates just a fraction before stepping forward, in case you want to shake her hand. There’s no swagger, no bombast. She’s wee, but with a Ready Brek glow about her. She is articulate, intelligent and seems to have that rarest of qualities in a politician: honesty.
No matter how the election pans out, Sturgeon has been clear from the outset: there will be no deal with the Tories. Politically naive some might say. Showing her hand too early? But do we want politicians who are gamblers? Or ones that are forthright and principled?
In Sturgeon, Scotland has a female First Minister who articulates what many of us think, but few politicians actually say. She advocates an end to the House of Lords, an increase in the minimum wage, votes for 16- and 17-year-olds. Her watchword is “consensus”, she encourages opposition parties to come forward with proposals, and is possibly the most accessible politician in these islands. She tweets, holds online Q&As, and her cabinet, which is 50/50 male and female, has public meetings across Scotland. Gender balance is demonstrably important to her and, against some degree of resistance, Sturgeon has just pushed through the option of balanced and all-women shortlists for future SNP candidate selection. Crucially, she advocates an end to austerity, asserting: ‘If you’ve got a fairer society you’ve got a stronger economy. The two should go hand in hand’. Instead of further welfare cuts, she proposes a modest 0.5% increase in spending and a flat-out no to Trident renewal.
Easy to say these things when you’re not in power. Yes, but Sturgeon is in power. The SNP has been the party of government in Scotland for eight years now. They've been tried and tested in both minority and majority government, year on year they balance the books, and, by and large, they’ve come good on the things they’ve promised. If you go by current polls and future voting intentions customer satisfaction in Scotland remains high. Why? Because Sturgeon delivers.
I want a politician to who will speak to me, listen to me and give me something to believe in.
I think Sturgeon does all three. I’m a Nicolyte now – and I like it.
This piece was first published April 1, 2015. Rise by Karen Campbell is published by Bloomsbury, Hardback £16.99, EBook £14.99