LONDON (Reuters) - Scottish nationalists cleared the way on Wednesday for Nicola Sturgeon, a prominent figure in the failed campaign for independence in last month’s referendum, to become the country’s next first minister.
Sturgeon will succeed Alex Salmond as leader of the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) next month and take over his job as head of the Scottish government for complex negotiations with Britain’s rulers on transferring extra powers to Edinburgh.
In what some nationalists termed a coronation, Deputy SNP leader Sturgeon was the only candidate nominated by the party to succeed Salmond, who announced his resignation after Scots rejected independence in the referendum on Sept. 18.
Setting out her goals, Sturgeon said she would concentrate on improving employment and public services as well as holding Westminster politicians to account, accusing them of backsliding on promises of more autonomy for Scotland.
“My job will to be to... deliver strong, competent government with job creation, fairness and the protection of high quality public services at its heart,” she said in a statement to news agencies.
But Sturgeon, a 44-year-old former lawyer, made clear she has not given up on achieving independence from the United Kingdom. “I believe Scotland will become an independent country well within my lifetime,” she told the BBC later.
The unanimous nomination by the SNP, which has an outright majority in the Scottish parliament, means Sturgeon will assume her post on Nov. 14 and become the first female First Minister of Scotland, where the leaders of the two other main parties are also women.
Scots voted 55 to 45 percent in favour of staying in the United Kingdom. But shortly before the referendum when opinion polls suggested a tight race, leaders of the main British political parties promised significantly greater powers for the Scottish government, although the details remain to be settled.
Despite the loss, some nationalists have indicated they may seek another referendum. Triggers could be a failure to grant Scotland the extra powers or a British vote to leave the European Union in a possible 2017 referendum.
Setting out her goals as leader, Sturgeon steered clear of stoking referendum speculation. “I will always make the case for Scotland to be an independent country, but with the Westminster parties already backsliding on the delivery of new powers, my immediate job will be to hold them firmly to account,” she said.
After spending most of his adult life working for an independent Scotland, 59-year-old Salmond insisted during his resignation speech the day after the referendum that the dream would never die but that it was for another generation to direct the struggle.
Salmond’s biographer David Torrance, who is now writing a book about Sturgeon, drew comparisons with French-speaking nationalists in the Canadian province of Quebec who brought about independence referendums in 1980 and 1995, the second of which they lost be only the narrowest of margins.
“She won’t ostentatiously push for another referendum but at the same time she’ll await, like the Parti Quebecois, ‘winning conditions’, which might include an in/out EU referendum,” Torrance said, referring to the Quebec separatist party.
Sturgeon, who in her youth was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is less divisive than Salmond but slightly more interventionist, he said.
“Her instincts are more left-wing, but whether that translates into policy remains to be seen,” said Torrance, who said Sturgeon had to decide whether to include a promise of a second referendum in the SNP’s manifesto for the Scottish parliament elections in 2016.
Joining the SNP as a teenager in the 1980s, her politics were shaped by anger at then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose attack on unprofitable state-run firms closed swathes of heavy industry in Scotland.
While studying law in at university in Glasgow - Scotland’s biggest city which voted for independence on Sept. 18 - she was involved in the SNP student politics. In 2010, she married Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive.
A YouGov poll on the eve of the independence vote found Sturgeon was the most trusted politician in the referendum campaign, ranking higher than either Salmond or British Prime Minister David Cameron. SNP membership has tripled since the vote and Salmond has even joked that it could be due to his announcement that he quitting.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by David Stamp