There was never any doubt who would replace Alex Salmond when he chose to leap away before critics properly speculated what he might do next, probably heading south. The coronation of the new SNP leader looks for now like part of a grand plan in the march towards independence, at least as far as they are concerned. Nicola Sturgeon has the advantage being a different generation and gender from her predecessor, a nice juxtaposition. Her disadvantage is that as an orator she is not in the same league as Salmond. But who is? Structure, humanity, timing, gravitas and humour were all there but the Eck Factor was not.
This was a good effort throughout, at times very good, and the place was rocking from the off. But the love was already in the room. This was the bride, first up after the rubber chicken dinner, saying “My husband and I…”. The audience repeatedly gave it up for their old hero and eulogised the new. And Salmond gave Sturgeon the gift of a low-key performance on Friday, clearing the decks for Saturday afternoon. Conditions will not always be so favourable.
Structurally it started with the personal and human- there was a first person “personal” agenda throughout- nicely relegating the Salmond stuff until after a nod to Kay Ulrich, which allowed the cheers and tears to flow from the off. Overall the purpose was to rally the many troops, reaffirm an independence vision and set out an unapologetic centre-left agenda (if there was any doubt about that take just one word: Trident). The entire keynote was deliberately peppered with the personal and human and progressive throughout: this is my agenda, she is saying. The “bridge to a better future” was a commitment to more pre school education and nicely compared to the “on time and under budget” forth crossing. If there is a quibble it is the absence of a business agenda, save the sop on small business rates.
On timing most impressive was Sturgeon’s grasp of how to deal with the eulogy to Salmond. She showed patience and stayed relaxed when the audience took her on a wave that she just had to ride: impressive. This continued through the pugilistic narrative around the renewed strength of the Party, national mood and coming TV Leadership debates where she delivered loud and clear, looked and waited for the response. It is not as easy as it looks and the best do it intuitively: some of this keynote appeared intuitive, some not.
Watch Sturgeon concentrating on her timing at times, which is no bad thing. Watch her start very slowly and deliberately but with lots of volume (tip to all: volume is important) and then, especially at the section getting tore right intae Scottish Labour, speeding up, waiting for applause, then taking the volume and pace down for more intimacy and finally picking it back up when making her personal pledge: cue more applause.
Humour is not intuitive for Sturgeon but we got, I think, an off the cuff line with “I haven’t even finished with him yet” and there were a few more laughs.There was a nice line about not taking the opinions of bookies as seriously as her predecessor and an easy laugh at Thatcher’s expense. Over the years Sturgeon has lost much of the over-serious “nippy sweety” persona and humour is an area where she will never match Salmond but it needs time and attention. Perhaps in the past the need for gravitas trumped the ambition to connect emotionally and she would not be the first young politician to think that. Once you are the boss there is perhaps more opportunity to take a risk or two in this area. The combination of humour and gravitas is a challenging one, but the best master it: Salmond has but Boris Johnston, for example, still errs too often on the side of the clown.
In terms of delivery workmanlike might be an unkind- even inappropriate- adjective for this half hour but maybe the most apt, the audience helped lift it above that. And of course I am speaking here largely about the presentation rather than the politics: David Cameron delivered a barnstorming performance and Ed Miliband crashed and burned when they had their turn earlier in the year.
Nicola Sturgeon knows there is more to being a politician than being a great orator, but Alex Salmond has shown that the X Factor when behind the lectern at a keynote, or in front of it in a debate, is… well let’s put it in the top three.