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State within a state

In Lebanon, after a year of turmoil that was the worst in a decade, it is Hezbollah — with the backi

A two-square-mile grid of central Beirut offers a clue to Lebanon's troubles. Dominating the city's western quarter, the Sunni Mohammad al-Amin Mosque casts a glow over the concrete expanse of Martyrs' Square. About a mile south, through narrow streets, the Shia al-Hassanein Mosque rises up. Not far from here is the Druze temple, a glass and breeze-block building that looks like a public library, and on Mount Lebanon, the city's snow-capped backdrop, stone crucifixes dot the skyline.

The country's four main faith groups - Sunni, Shia, Druze and Maronite Christian - are imprinted on Beirut's landscape, just as their conflict is imprinted on Lebanon's history.

Over the past year, Lebanon has seen one government collapse while Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, has grown in influence.

Many fear a new civil war as the country suffers its worst political crisis in a decade. The Arab spring that bloomed across the Middle East has yet directly to touch Lebanon, which has issues that are too entrenched and too complex to be resolved through the catharsis of a single revolutionary act.

Lebanon's problems are systemic and chronic, created by a political settlement born of empire. The country began as a French mandate, carved from a chunk of Ottoman Syria. With indepen­dence in 1943, its sectarian character was accommodated within a "confessional" political system that distributed office according to religion. The majority Maronite Christians were given the most important government positions (including the presidency), then the Sunnis, the Druze, and finally the Shias. In a country unable to function without consensus, it has served as a prophylactic against dictatorship for almost seven decades. But it contains grave flaws. Most egregiously, France's imperial cartography left aggrieved Syrians believing that Lebanon was theirs. Syria occupied the country between 1976 and 2005 and, through manipulation and political assassinations, has acted as a bacterial agent of instability there to this day.

Then there are the demographics. In the late 20th century, the politically, socially and economically marginalised Shia community grew in numbers, something that has not been reflected in the political accommodation (the Maronites have repeatedly blocked a new census) and contributed to the 1975-90 civil war. The rise of Hezbollah is in part the product of Lebanon's entrenched discrimination; it is a system riddled with sectarian triggers.

The origins of the latest crisis lie in the events of Valentine's Day 2005, when the then Sunni prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was killed along with 22 others after a huge bomb exploded as his motorcade drove through central Beirut. On that day, Lebanon's diffuse political elite congealed into two loose blocs that have faced off against each other ever since.

Hariri's assassination ignited the Cedar Revolution, which led to the formation of the so-called March 14 alliance (the date in 2005 when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut to demand an end to Syrian occupation). March 14 is led by Rafiq Hariri's son Saad, who succeeded his father as prime minister, and is a coalition mainly of Sunni and Christian parties. The west's preferred partner, it is backed by Saudi Arabia, where Saad Hariri grew up.

Opposing it is the March 8 alliance. Broadly supported by Iran and Syria, the coalition includes Hezbollah and non-militant Shia and Druze parties, and takes its name from 8 March 2005, date of the first counter-demonstrations against the Cedar Revolution. March 14 and March 8 governed together until their coalition government fell in January last year.

The Hariri assassination created something else, too: the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Set up to indict and prosecute Hariri's killers, it has a mixed composition of Lebanese and international judges and an international prosecutor. Predictably, the tribunal divided Lebanon along party (and therefore sectarian) lines. March 14 supports the tribunal; March 8 denounces it as an Israeli-American tool designed to smear Syria and Hezbollah.

Throughout 2010, the country's already toxic political debate was poisoned further by rumours as both sides waited for the indictments to be handed down. Leaks indicated that people in Hezbollah would be named as the killers of Hariri, a charge the party angrily denied. Hasan Nasrallah, who leads Hezbollah, repeatedly attacked the tribunal's integrity and threatened to "cut off the hands" of any "collaborators". In early January last year, indictments were submitted but they remained sealed; fearful of what was coming, Hezbollah demanded that the government end co-operation with the tribunal and reject any findings. Saad Hariri refused, and on 12 January Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the coalition government.

Shortly before the government's collapse, I went to see Fares Soueid, the general secretary of March 14, at his Beirut office to learn more about Rafiq Hariri's murder seven years ago. On the day of the assassination, Soueid was with Hariri in the Lebanese parliament, drinking coffee in the bar outside the debating chamber. Hariri left, and five minutes later Soueid heard the blast. He knew it was a bomb - this is Beirut, after all - but it never crossed his mind that it might be his friend. "For us, Hariri was a superman," he told me. "We thought the guarantees from the United States and the Arab world would keep him safe. He was a 'Muslim with a tie': he wanted to show the world that Islam is not terrorism, and that it can work with the international community." Who killed him? "The Syrians and Iranians, through Hezbollah. The message was simple: 'There is no immunity for any Muslim in the Islamic world who has relations with the west.'"

For Soueid, Hariri's death changed everything. "Before the assassination, the demand [for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon] came from the Christians only," he told me. "After the assassination, the alliance was Maronite, Druze and Sunni. Only the Shias opposed it."

Unstoppable force

Sami Gemayel, scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite families, is another important member of March 14. Both his father, Amine, and his uncle Bachir, who was assassinated in 1982, served as president of Lebanon, a post that he, too, is tipped to hold one day. With Garo, my Armenian driver, I drove through the city's Christian quarter to see him.

On the pavements either side of us walked immaculately dressed women wearing dark blue jeans, pashminas and Ray-Bans. We took a corkscrewing road up Mount Lebanon, the Christian stronghold. As we rose, the landscape of civil war Beirut stretched out beneath us. Tangled steel ruins and bombed tenements shimmered in a silvery film of mist. "We don't want this again," Garo said.

The Gemayel residence is a sprawling brick and stone complex where, as president, Amine Gemayel would receive distinguished guests. Shaven-headed militiamen with low-slung AK-47s leaned against 4x4s strategically placed around the entrance. Once inside, I passed through a series of stone courtyards with coffee tables and benches scattered amid cedar groves and thick shrubbery. Sporting Harvard chic, Gemayel wore beige slacks and a V-neck jumper over a white shirt; tied around his wrist was a dangling crucifix. "Hezbollah accepts that the tribunal cannot now be stopped," Gemayel explained. "The strategy is to claim that a western-sponsored tribunal wants to label Hezbollah the murderers of a Sunni leader because they fight Israel. Their goal is not to lose public opinion in the Arab world. The best way to ensure this is to have the Lebanese government say it is all nonsense."

Many fear that if members of Hezbollah are indicted, there will be violence, maybe even war. "Hezbollah are trying to take hold of the government so they don't have to use violence," he said. "But if they are not successful, they will use force and we will have to protect ourselves." How? I asked. He paused. "By any means that we can."

According to Gemayel, violence back in 2008 between supporters of March 14 and those of the Hezbollah-led March 8 marked the beginning of a shift in power away from the former. "In May 2008 Hezbollah attacked [the Druze leader Walid] Jumblatt in his Chouf Mountains stronghold, and this still haunts him. He believes allying with March 8 will best guarantee the Druze's security. The west and March 14 were not able or willing to protect their allies, even politically." With Jumblatt's party on board, March 8 had sufficient numbers to trigger the government's fall in 2011.

A few days later, I got to speak to Jumblatt. Our conversation was pointed. Why had he joined March 8? "I started with March 14 but it was clear during 2005-2008 that, under American pressure, their policies would lead to sectarian strife and civil war," he told me. "Since Hezbollah's defeat of Israel in 2006 the Americans have been totally focused on attacking them - even at the price of Lebanese stability. I refuse this. Washington cares nothing for Lebanon or its future."

And what of the tribunal? "[It] is being used as political tool by the Americans. Look at the leaks coming out of it that appear on CNN and Fox News, all designed to smear Hezbollah. You must go back to the failure of Israel's war in 2006; they will try anything to discredit Hez­bollah. I was a vocal supporter of the tribunal in the beginning. But if it comes to it, I do not want to see my country dragged into a sectarian war. I choose stability over justice."

For the outnumbered Druze, conflict could be fatal. When I asked Jumblatt to explain his alliance with Hezbollah, his response had the quality of a mantra. "I support the Palestinian cause, which Hezbollah fights for," he said; "and I support Hezbollah in its struggle against Israeli aggression.

“It is true that in the past we exchanged some violent words," he added with understatement. In 2007 he labelled Hezbollah a "state within
a state", and his subsequent volte-face is more likely a reflection of the west's inability to protect its Lebanese allies. March 8, it seems, was now united and politically focused.

On a bright and crisp morning, I convinced Garo to take me into Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut to meet "Mohammad", a Hezbollah supporter. After we'd spent an hour inching through traffic, the southern tenements appeared on the horizon. I had crossed an invisible frontier. Litter and rubble replaced Armani and Max Mara. Around us, pictures of Nasrallah and Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran adorned walls and hung from lamp posts. Veiled women hurried by, ubiquitous but anonymous in thick black hijabs. As we pulled up, a group of Palestinian youths lethargically kicking a football around glanced over at our car. “Hurry up," Garo said.

I found Mohammad among piles of fake Levi jeans and Rolex watches behind a makeshift market stall. He told me that the Israelis had killed Hariri and the international tribunal was a Zionist plot to discredit Hezbollah. "We protect Lebanon and resist Israel's war on the Arabs. Now they want to smear us. But it will not succeed. We resisted the Israelis before and we will resist them again." Hezbollah did not want a civil war, he said: in May 2008 it had responded to deliberate provocations by the government and had taken to arms only as a last resort. Hezbollah, he said, would seek to enter a new government and move the country forward; it did not take its orders from Tehran. It was committed to Lebanon's future.

Day of rage

About a week after my meeting with Mohammad, news emerged that March 8 had nominated the Sunni MP Najib Mikati to succeed Saad Hariri as prime minister, and that he would begin consultations for the formation of a new coalition government immediately.

Despite his well-known closeness to Syria, Mikati is a consensus figure, popular with both March 14 and March 8. In 2005, he served three months as prime minister in a caretaker government and impressed all sides with his talent for compromise. But the sectarian obstacle is insuperable. Some said Mikati was Hezbollah's man; and, viewed in this light, a Sunni prime minister was now beholden to a Shia party.

On the day of his appointment, Sunnis across the country held a "day of rage", blocking roads with burning tyres as they vented their anger at Hariri's perceived overthrow.

As the consultations continued, I managed to speak to Saad Hariri's chief political adviser, the former finance minister and ambassador to the US Mohamad Chatah. The two men had been in close contact throughout the crisis as March 14 planned its next move. I asked him if he thought, as many were saying, that Mikati was obligated to Hezbollah. "Hezbollah brought Mikati into the government," he replied. "They appointed him." This left Mikati in a potentially awkward position. "Hezbollah is a legitimate political party," Chatah said, "and they enjoy considerable support, especially among the Shia population. When the country was under Israeli occupation they resisted bravely, and that is admirable. But you cannot ignore the fact that Hezbollah is a military force that operates independently of the Lebanese government, and that pursues an ideology not shared by the majority. More than this, the fact they are in alliances with countries that have agendas separate to Lebanese interests puts Lebanon in danger."

Chatah had recently been at a gathering of Sunni leaders, including Mikati, that reaffirmed a commitment to the UN tribunal. It now remained to be seen whether he would abide by this. "Hezbollah regard him as their choice. Whether he can go beyond that and control the government is the big question that now faces Lebanon."

Chatah told me that March 14 would refuse to join what it perceived to be a Hezbollah government, and he was true to his word. In early March, Saad Hariri officially declined Mikati's invitation to enter a coalition. Despite losing power, March 14 was politically well placed. Hezbollah was trapped. Attempts to neuter the tribunal had failed and the indictments would soon be made public, which left it with two options: accept the findings, which was inconceivable, given that it was likely it would be indicted, or reject them. But without Hariri in the governing coalition it would seem, even to the Arab world, that Syria and Iran were manoeuvring again. Worse, Hezbollah would be labelled killers of a Sunni prime minister in a largely Sunni Middle East. By this chain of reasoning, all Hariri had to do was wait and then obliterate March 8 at the next general election in 2014.

A country, not a nation

But Hariri appeared hamstrung by his allies. Against the backdrop of the Arab spring, the US was so deeply reviled by those Middle Eastern states not allied with Washington that it had become a liability. After a fairly innocuous meeting with a minor Lebanese official, the US ambassador was given a public dressing down for "interfering" in Lebanese politics. Meanwhile, the influence of Saudi Arabia, long Hariri's main regional backer, had receded and an increasingly assertive Turkey had taken the role of mediator. The region, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared last January, "could not cope with Lebanon entering a new atmosphere of uncertainty".

Sitting on a tree-lined avenue in west Beirut, I spoke to Misbah Ahdab, a Sunni and former March 14 MP from a prominent Tripoli family. Over coffee and Marlboro Lights, he told me: "So much of what happens in Lebanon is linked to what happens in Iraq, in Iran, in south Yemen, in Syria and in Palestine . . . This has always been the case. Syria meddles for regional, historical and political reasons, Saudi Arabia for financial, Israel for regional hegemony and its security fears. We are a small state used as an arena for the battles of others. Everyone has an agenda here. This is my country and I love it, but it is not a nation; it is a country.

“Look," he continued, "Hezbollah and March 8 are in the ascendancy. If it's local, Hezbollah controls it. They control the country. The international community might want some change and pressure for some sort of coalition to be formed. The US could come to a deal with Iran that decapitates Hezbollah. But leaving it as is - Hezbollah wins."

His words proved prescient. Consultations continued over the next few months until, on 13 June, five months after the government fell, March 8 at last announced a new cabinet. Led by Mikati, it gave Hezbollah and its allies 17 out of 30 cabinet seats - up from the ten it had held
in the Hariri coalition. This put a group that the US state department considers a terrorist organisation in control of Lebanon. Iran was seemingly on Israel's border.

Then the indictments came down. On 30 June the tribunal issued four arrest warrants to the Lebanese authorities, and on 17 August it published the names of those indicted: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, all, unsurprisingly, members of Hezbollah. Equally unsurprising was Hasan Nasrallah's refusal to hand the men over; publicly, he doubted they would ever be found.

Yet despite Hezbollah's steadfastness, the Arab spring - which had initially turned events in its favour - has proved problematic. Nasrallah's loud rejoicing as pro-US dictators toppled across the region turned to a more voluble and noticeable silence when the revolution hit Syria. Hezbollah has no choice but to stand by its patron Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and if Syria falls then so does its main source of funding and support. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's other big backer, Iran, faces increasing inter­national isolation over its nuclear programme. Perhaps most importantly, a party that derives legitimacy from fighting oppression cannot sustain its image while supporting a regime that murders its own people for the crime of wanting more freedom. The Israeli flags that once burned in Damascus have, for the time being, been replaced with those of Hezbollah.

In Lebanon, the internal politics is proving equally complicated. For several months the new government was divided over the country's mandatory financial contribution to the UN tribunal. Mikati, Jumblatt and the Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, favoured paying the required money to avoid confrontation with the UN. Hezbollah opposed making any payment. In reality, the dispute was over the tribunal's legitimacy - to pay would be an implicit acceptance of its authority; to refuse, an outright rejection. Despite Hezbollah's best efforts, this was a battle it lost at the end of November, when payment was made.

Jumblatt may yet prove a vital player once again. In an October interview on al-Manar, Hezbollah's TV station, he emphasised his ties to the party but expressed pointed dissatisfaction over its unconditional support for Damascus. Lebanon's political weathervane may yet turn again in expectation of the Syrian regime's collapse, and the chance to abandon Syria may prove too much of a temptation to resist. Jumblatt has personal as well as political reasons for welcoming the end of the Assads - Middle East lore has it that Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, had Jumblatt's father killed in 1977. Shortly after succeeding his father as head of the clan (the Jumblatts, like the Hariris and, indeed, the Assads, are dynastic), Jumblatt was summoned to Damascus to meet Assad, Sr in what must have been an already unpalatable appointment. His attempts to assert the Druze cause were met with a broad smile from Assad, who addressed his young interlocutor in a sweet, paternal tone. "Walid," he said, "sitting there like that, you remind me of your dear father."

Towards the end of the year, I contacted Gemayel again to ask him how things now stood. Hezbollah, he agreed, had been weakened by regional events but March 14 had not capitalised on the opportunity. Saad Hariri remained out of the country, shuttling between France and Saudi Arabia and depriving the coalition of its leader. The governing alliance, he felt, remained resilient as long as Hezbollah was strong. "We just don't know if Mikati will abide by Hezbollah's diktat or if he will end up resigning to safeguard his credibility," he said.

Where, I asked, would things go from here? "I don't know," he replied. "But it is very serious. The Middle East is in a transitional phase, and it is a very difficult one. We are witnessing the demise of old ways of government and the establishment of new ones."

David Patrikarakos tweets @dpatrikarako

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama