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Tom Holland on our island story: what England and Scotland share politically and morally

Magna Carta and the Declaration of Arbroath, Boswell and Johnson, Walter Scott and Disraeli – Scotland and England have long mirrored each other in many ways, says Tom Holland. 

Making of a myth: the Wallace Monument near Stirling commemorates the 13th-century hero of Scottish independence

 

The Tarbat Peninsula, a spit of land sticking out from the northernmost Scottish Highlands, seems an unlikely spot for a revolution. At its tip stands a lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle back in 1830 after a deadly storm in the adjacent Moray Firth; a few miles south lies the tiny fishing village of Portmahomack. Most visitors there today are tourists, attracted by its picturesque harbour and sandy beach; but back in the mid-6th century it was the scene of a momentous experiment.

A band of ascetics, wandering enthusiasts for an exotic new religion named Christianity, arrived at the court of a local king. Simultaneously intrigued and suspicious, he granted them some unwanted land on which to found a community. “The Haven of Saint Colmóc” – “Port Mo Chalmaig” – was the first ever monastery on the coast of Easter Ross. For 250 years, until it was destroyed by a terrible fire at the beginning of the 9th century, Portmahomack was one of the most celebrated places in Britain.

That it is impossible to be certain who either the king or “Saint Colmóc” was reminds us just how dark the Dark Ages can be. Various shocking details were reported of the people among whom Portmahomack was founded. It was said that they had come from Scythia; that they fought naked; that they were ruled by women who kept whole troupes of husbands. Most notoriously of all, they were reported to tattoo themselves: a barbarous habit that had led them to being nicknamed “Picti”, or “painted people”. A people more hostile to the norms of southern lands it would have been hard to imagine. Even the Romans had given up trying to tame them. Yet where the legions had failed, a hardy band of monks had succeeded. An outpost of Mediterranean culture had been successfully planted in the farthest north.

The coming of Christianity to Pictland was part of a much broader process that ultimately united the whole of Great Britain in a common religious culture. Pagan rulers, when they submitted to baptism, were rarely signing up to the poverty and pacifism preached by monks. What appealed instead was the awesome potency of the Christian God. Membership of the Church attracted those with broad horizons and a taste for self-enrichment.

Yet conversion to Christianity was never a one-way street. At Portmahomack, the missionaries were influenced by native customs, as well as vice versa. The tradition of holy men possessed of a privileged relationship to the supernatural was not unknown to the Picts. Even the tonsure worn by the monks derived from the Druids. The very stonework of the monastery was incised with patterns already ancient when the Romans had first arrived in Britain. The decision to become Christian did not, for the peoples of Pictland, imply surrender to an alien power. Rather, it reflected a creative engagement with the world beyond their various kingdoms.

In the words of Martin Carver, the archaeologist who led the recent excavation of Portmahomack, “People were arguing about their future, choosing with whom to align, and expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds.”

Today, when the people of erstwhile Pictland are once again arguing about their future and choosing with whom to align (albeit not necessarily expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds), it is valuable to remember just how protracted the emergence of a united kingdom within Great Britain was. The Act of Union between England and Scotland was only the final waymark on a journey that had begun as the island was becoming Christian. The notion back then of unifying it as a single kingdom would have appeared laughable. The Picts, so the great Northumbrian historian Bede reported, were only one of four different groups of people who inhabited Britain – and these four peoples were in turn forever fighting among themselves. The English, according to tradition, were like the Picts in being divided up into seven kingdoms; the Welsh, despite ruling a huge stretch of western Britain, from the Severn all the way to the mighty rock of Dumbarton, were even more balkanised; the Scots, penned in to what is now Argyll, were so isolated from their landward neighbours by the mountains of the central Highlands that they ended up inventing an Irish ancestry for themselves. Great Britain in the early Middle Ages could hardly have been more fragmented.

In this way, inevitably, the process by which a bewildering multitude of fractious statelets came to be forged into twin united kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south of the island, was bloody and complex. Perhaps, if the Vikings had not descended on Britain, it would never have happened. The destruction visited on Portmahomack, which was almost certainly their doing, was repeated across the island. Whole kingdoms went down in flames. Where there was ruin, however, there was also opportunity. The kings of Wessex, the only English rulers to stand proof against the Viking firestorm, succeeded in fashioning out of the rubble left by the invaders a united “Angle Land”. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, could plausibly claim to be Rex totius Britanniae – “king of the whole of Britain”.

Nevertheless, there soon emerged limits to the reach of the precocious new English state. The northernmost marches of Angle Land were remote from its centre of gravity in the southern lowlands. The great rock of Edinburgh, which had been in English hands since the 7th century, was lost to it soon after Athelstan’s death. So, too, some six decades later, was Lothian. A new power, fashioned just as England had been carved out of numerous toppled kingdoms, had arrived on the scene.

The forging of “Scot Land” was in many ways an even more remarkable achievement than that of Angle Land. By the early 12th century, three different groups of peoples, each originally speaking a different language, had come to think of themselves as “Scots”. Two of these, the Welsh and the Picts, had been subsumed so thoroughly into the Gaelic-speaking culture of their new overlords that their identities had vanished. The English-speaking population of Lothian, though, was to prove less assimilable – and with momentous consequences. It ensured that Scotland would be a kingdom of two languages, with Gaelic, in the long run, coming off second-best.

Similarly, the structures and presumptions of English kingship were destined to have a far greater influence on the emergent Scottish realm than the native traditions of the Scots. “It is almost as if,” in the impish words of James Campbell, the leading historian of the Anglo-Saxon state, “there are two Englands and one of them is called Scotland.”

 

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A less provocative way of making the same point might be to say that the two rival kingdoms of Great Britain, having emerged out of such similar circumstances, were in many ways the mirror image of one another. England and Scotland, despite their consistently bloody border, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages in ways that were strikingly parallel.

Both, after the Norman conquest of 1066, had a French overlay added to their respective mixes of native cultures; both, in the 13th and 14th centuries, began to define themselves in terms of an emergent sense of national selfhood. The age of Wallace and Bruce, which more than any other period of Scottish history has inspired Scots down the ages to see themselves as distinct from the English, also highlights something else: the strikingly similar ways in which the two peoples mythologise themselves.

Edward I, whose taste for hammering the Scots was what forced them into their desperate and ultimately heroic fightback, was also the first king with an English name since 1066, and a noted enthusiast for the Matter of Britain, as the legends of Arthur were known. This was not just coincidence. Edward’s predecessors, as befitted heirs of William the Conqueror, had preferred France to Scotland as a field for throwing their weight around; yet it was clear, by the time Edward came to the throne, that Normandy and the other French possessions of the English crown were gone for good. Scotland had become, as a result, more self-consciously English – but so, too, had the people it ruled.

Tellingly, the king who had lost Normandy, Edward’s grandfather John, was the same king who had signed in 1215 a document that would end up enshrined as the very foundation stone of English liberty: Magna Carta. Edward himself, desperate to fund his wars, was forced in 1297 to reissue the “Great Charter” in return for a new tax. Then, a couple of decades later, it was the turn of Scottish barons to pose as the defenders of their people’s rights. In 1320, with the war of independence finally won, they assembled at Arbroath Abbey and set their seals on a momentous document of their own. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” so it stirringly declared, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.”

A manifesto pledge understandably popular with the SNP today; and yet, in truth, the principles articulated in the Declaration of Arbroath were quite as pan-nationalist in their implications as they were nationalist. Like Magna Carta, it came to serve the people of a British kingdom as something truly precious: an assurance that no one, not even a king, should be above the law. Understandably anglophobic in tone though it was, its ultimate significance lay in ensuring that Scots and English would end up treasuring similar ideals.

This, as their fortunes became ever more entwined in the 16th and 17th centuries, proved fundamental in providing the peoples of the twin kingdoms with a genuinely British political culture. Increasingly, to many Scots and English, what divided them came to seem of less moment than what they shared.

Granted, this did not prevent the road to a united kingdom of Great Britain from proving almost as bloodstained as the forging of Scot Land and Angle Land had been. Even though the Scottish king James VI, when he succeeded to the English throne as James I, rejoiced in describing himself as monarch of “Magna Britannia”, the failure of his son to respect the fault lines that still divided the two realms later played a critical role in the descent of both into civil war.

Under Charles I, the Protestantism that was the shared legacy of the Reformation in the two countries began to set them at each other’s throat. In Scotland, Charles’s attempt to impose the Anglican Prayer Book precipitated in 1638 a particularly startling exercise in popular democracy, as congregations across the kingdom swore to uphold a “National Covenant”, “against all sorts of persons whatsoever”.

This, naturally, cast the Scots themselves as a Chosen People – a conceit so invigorating to Scottish morale that over the following decade entire armies of Covenanters ended up intervening directly in England. There, however, the challenge facing them was not how alien their southern neighbours were, but how similar. The English were no less prone to thinking of themselves as God’s elect than the Scots – and to such crushing effect that Oliver Cromwell, after his stunning victory at Dunbar in 1650, was able for the first time to impose a political union on the whole of Great Britain.

This particular dispensation, maintained as it was at the point of a sword, did not outlast the Lord Protector; and it took two Acts of Union, one passed by the English parliament in 1706, and one by the Scottish parliament in 1707, finally to meld the two chosen peoples, Israel and Judah, into a single nation. Unpopular as this was with many in both countries, a largely loveless marriage of convenience brokered by governing and commercial elites, the fact that the Union had been secured at all suggests the degree to which differences between Scotland and England – although still eye-catching, to be sure – had become increasingly skin-deep.

To those resentful of the nation that came officially into being on May Day 1707, it was a terrible false turn. That the contours of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom still remain so clearly distinct and defined, three centuries on, has encouraged some, particularly in Scotland, to cast British identity as a kind of knotweed: alien, invasive, positively demanding to be uprooted. It is this, no doubt, that gives to so much nationalist rhetoric its decidedly 17th-century flavour. Lurking behind many of the arguments in favour of Scottish independence lurks a presumption – sometimes left unspoken, sometimes not – that the Scots are a blessedly egalitarian and moral people, denied their chance to establish a social-democratic paradise only by evil neoliberals south of the border.

That Scotland, in reality, has become ever less keen on redistributive measures the longer its government has been devolved unsettles the true believers not a jot. The hold of the Kirk may have weakened; but as in the 17th century, so in the 21st: faith rarely derives from statistics.

If the Tories stalk the nationalist imagination as equivalents of Charles I, then the Yes campaign, with its fulminations against the iniquities of London bankers and the bedroom tax, has more than an echo of the Covenanter movement. There is mileage still to be had in appealing to the Scots as a chosen people.

Detail from Rowlandson's 1786 caricature of Johnson and Boswell walking arm in arm in Edinburgh

 

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Yet, for 300 years now, they – and the English and the Welsh, too – have had the chance to direct their gaze beyond the medieval limits of their respective kingdoms, and to work for the common good, not just of their own countrymen, but of all the peoples of Great Britain. So habituated have we become to our domestic stability that we forget just what an achievement it was, after the rack and ruin of the 17th century, to fashion an enduring peace across this island. In 1751, a mere six years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites had reached Derby, and five after the slaughter of Culloden, the war secretary could stand up in the Westminster parliament and praise Highland soldiers as the best in the British army.

A decade later, the most celebrated of all Anglo-Scottish friendships began when James Boswell met Dr Johnson in a Covent Garden coffee shop. There is surely no more moving or joyous expression of what the Union has meant in practice than Rowlandson’s marvellous cartoon of the two men, Walking Up the High Street. The emergent Britishness that enabled the gruffly English Johnson and the twitchily Scottish Boswell to end up sharing a sense of commonality would be fundamental, too, in enabling their countrymen, so long divided, to change the world. Enlightenment and industrialisation; empire and the spread of the English language; the defeat of fascism and the establishment of a welfare state: the achievements of the United Kingdom, for good and ill, have been on a vastly greater scale than anything achieved by England or Scotland on its own.

Not that this is necessarily an argument for maintaining the Union in its present form; indeed, for those ashamed of what Britain got up to in her swaggering heyday it can easily seem an argument for breaking it up. “Ukania”, Tom Nairn memorably termed the British state: a Ruritanian ghoul unable to escape the taint of its early-modern origins. Linda Colley argued that with many of the raisons d’être that had initially contributed to the forging of a British identity – Protestantism, empire and detestation of the French – no longer what they were, “Britain is bound now to be under immense pressure”. Perhaps – except that the circumstances that brought about the united kingdoms of England and Scotland are no longer what they were, either, yet both are still going strong. The sharing of ideals and traditions that enabled distinct nations to be forged out of the once-independent realms of Wessex and Northumbria, of Pictland and Dál Riata, have long since become the common heritage of everyone on the island. The values traced by the English back to Magna Carta, and by the Scots to the Declaration of Arbroath, were mingling and merging even before the Act of Union. Right and left in Britain: both have derived their principles from all the corners of Great Britain. They bear the imprint of Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli; of Robert Owen and Keir Hardie. The fluttering of Union Jacks over foreign battlefields was never the essence of British identity – although, as the recent D-Day commemorations showed, even that has not entirely lost its power to tug on heartstrings. It is in our shared political and moral culture that all of us who share this island are most truly British.

That culture, however, is hardly something static. Even to articulate the phrase “British values” is to be reminded that the native traditions of Great Britain are no longer the only ingredients of our mongrel identity. A millennium and more after pilgrim monks brought Christianity to Portmahomack, other religions are now in the process of becoming British. The Picts may never have originated in Scythia, as they liked to claim; but today eastern Europeans in their hundreds of thousands have settled in Britain. English identity is already proving inadequate to cope with the scale of recent immigration; nor is there any reason to think that Scottish identity will prove any more absorbent, should similar numbers start to settle north of the Border.

British identity, though, is a different matter: more recent in origin than either Englishness or Scottishness, it is baggier, more capacious, less ethnically centred than either. “Not at all, mate,” Mo Farah said when asked whether he would rather have won his Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Somalia rather than Britain. “This is my country.”

By a profoundly ironic fluke, the invented Britishness that back in the 18th century sent English and Scots out from their native island to conquer much of the world now, in the 21st century, provides the United Kingdom with something incalculably precious: a national identity as well suited as any in Europe to the welcoming and integration of newcomers. Britishness may have lost an empire; but perhaps it has found a role.

Much will depend on whether the United Kingdom holds together. The decision on that, in the short term, rests with the Scottish electorate alone. Nevertheless, all those in the rest of the island who profoundly value their bonds of citizenship with the Scots, who would be distraught to see them become foreigners, and who believe that the referendum, far from separating us, may instead enable us to repledge our vows, can but watch on in hope. British identity remains what it has always been: a journey, not an end.

Tom Holland’s latest book is “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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.”

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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 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story