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Interview: Peter Mandelson

Just before being reappointed to the Cabinet Peter Mandelson, one of the key architects of New Labou

"I think if the party were to be taken over by those who want to reject new Labour, reject what the party has done over the past decade and all its achievements - we would be inviting a very long time in opposition."

Standing at the window of his hotel room in Manchester, Peter Mandelson is apprehensive as he talks about what has gone wrong with the Brown government and how best to repair the damage. Before this meeting, he repeatedly said he would not go on the record; that he is wary of interviews. But having spent two days at the party conference, and deciding that the need for a carefully planned revival of the party is more "urgent" than ever, Mandelson agrees to make his most wide-ranging intervention on British politics since leaving the country for the European Commission in 2004.

His message is clear. The government must not move to the left; rather, it must create a fresh and coherent strategy to "renew new Labour" and win the next election.

First, the obvious leadership question. Mandelson finally disappoints those rebel MPs who have been agitating for Gordon Brown's departure by supporting the Prime Minister - but with a strong qualification. "I do not think changing the face at the top is the panacea some imagine," he says. "But the whole of the leadership must remain true to the values and prin ciples that have delivered us success in the past ten years."

Since May, Mandelson has been talking again to his old rival Gordon Brown, and not just about the Doha round of trade talks that have dominated his role as Commissioner for External Trade in recent months. "It would be odd if we didn't discuss domestic issues," he says. "We have a shared interest in Labour's fortunes. [But] the last thing Gordon needs is another full-time adviser."

The relationship between Mandelson and Brown has always been more complicated, and emotional, than is widely thought. Each could not be more different in personality - one a witty, metropolitan sophisticate, the other an intellectual hardened by the machinations of Scottish politics - but their fortunes became interconnected through a mutual desire for Labour to become the natural party of government.

From 1985, when this former London Weekend Television producer arrived as director of campaigns and communications at Labour's then headquarters in Walworth Road, south London, Mandelson worked closely with both Brown and Tony Blair, the two MPs who - in that order - he believed would lead the party into government. After John Smith's sudden death in 1994, Mandelson agonised as he found himself caught between loyalty to Brown and the realisation that Blair would ultimately emerge as leader of the party.

Soon after, it would be reported and accepted as conventional wisdom that Mandelson had duplicitously betrayed Brown by moving early to support Blair; it became part of the myth of how Brown was robbed of the leadership. But in spite of this and their many arguments in the past, there remains a mutual respect. It has been said that Brown's hostility to Mandelson had less to do with Mandelson than with his own, unstable relationship with Blair. The reality is that, with Blair out of the way, relations have become easier.

"I don't think one has to be a brilliant psycho-analyst to see that there was quite a lot of transfer of anger on to Peter that couldn't be inflicted on Blair himself. That came from the Labour Party generally and also from Brown and the people around him," says the novelist Robert Harris, one of Mandelson's most loyal friends.

"We have had our ups and downs," Mandelson says of Brown. "But remember, we have known each other for over 20 years."

Asked if Brown's leadership is the disaster that, in private, some Labour MPs say it is, Mandelson disagrees. "I don't accept that judgement of him, and I really don't think this is simply a matter of personalities."

What of Brown's personality? What are his qualities? "The reason why Gordon's speech at conference was a success was that it opened more of a window on to Gordon Brown," Mandelson says later, speaking from China. "The public want to feel a connection, a personal one, with their prime ministers. They know he has a full head of policy ideas and experience. But they also want to know more about him. These are serious times. But that doesn't mean he has to be only about policy, and he showed another side of him."

His support is not unequivocal. "It's a matter of political choices. A choice of who we are, what we stand for and what we want to do for our country. Do we want to go back to some variation of Seventies/Eighties Labour politics? Why should our voters be interested in that? You are saying to people: Go ahead, vote for the Conservatives instead. David Cameron would just have to sit back and watch the votes come rolling in. Labour would no longer deserve to win."

Walking around the conference halls with Mandelson in Manchester, I was struck by how warmly so many cabinet ministers embraced him. And yet, also present were many of his old enemies, including Charlie Whelan, Brown's old spin doctor who is now political director for Unite, the UK's largest union. Whelan was busy briefing journalists at the conference, as well as speaking to ministers.

Mandelson warns Brown not to be swayed by such voices. "When I listen to some of the trade union leaders and others who are organising hard on the left of the party, demanding renationalisation and an end to new Labour, sneering at the so-called Blairites, I realise there are still those who prefer the comfort of opposition to the hard tasks of government.

"If anyone thinks that the party has a future by splitting the difference between the old left and new Labour, that we can take six of one and half a dozen of the other and rebuild the party around that, we will go downhill fast. Because the country has to have a real sense of what we are about, a clear definition, and there has to be a hard edge to the party in what we stand for and how we present ourselves to the electorate. Not nodding in this direction, then that direction, pleasing this group, reaching out to the other, without any clear, purposeful direction.

"The public will conclude we are more interested in shoring up our own ranks and maintaining the appearance of unity than governing with a real project. The new Labour way is harder because it requires both more imagination and more rigour. It also takes more courage to demand change than unity. I came away from conference having talked to many former colleagues and friends and I've never felt such a sense of urgency for Labour to think through how it's going to win the next election."

There is a sense that the government has been too passive for too long. "We have to have more imagination and better ideas . . . I don't feel resigned to defeat, I don't feel fatalistic. I can't bear these people who, looking over the precipice, are frozen into inaction.

"That's not what got us into government in the first place, that's not what has driven us forward these past ten years, and there's no reason why we should be paralysed by our prospects now."

Born in 1953, Mandelson grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, in north-west London, where Harold and Mary Wilson were neighbours and good friends of the family: Tony, Mandelson's father, an advertising manager for the Jewish Chronicle, his mother, Mary (Herbert Morrison's daughter), and his elder brother, Miles. The young Mandelson was active in the Young Socialists while at Hendon County Grammar. After a period as Labour represen tative for Stockwell on Lambeth Council, he joined an elite band of young producers at LWT working on Weekend World, presented by the former Labour MP Brian Walden. In 1985, he applied for the role of Lab our's communications and campaigns director. The successful candidate remembers entering the party's dreary office, with its barely functioning table and chair, and having to start, against the odds, the job of helping remake the party and presenting it to the outside world as changed.

Mandelson was always more than just a PR man; and when, with Tony Blair's help, he sought and won his own seat in Hartlepool in 1992, the then leader, Neil Kinnock, and his chief of staff, Charles Clarke, were angry that such a trusted consigliere should wish to strike out on his own. After Labour's landslide in 1997, Blair made Mandelson minister without portfolio, then moved him to the Department of Trade and Industry the following year. But that December, someone close to Brown leaked news that, in 1996, Mandelson had helped fund the purchase of a house in Notting Hill with a secret loan from his fellow Labour minister Geoffrey Robinson. Mandelson resigned and was forced to return to the back benches. But as early as the following autumn, Blair brought back his old ally as Northern Ireland secretary.

In January 2001, he was brought down again after it was alleged that he had intervened on behalf of Srichand Hinduja, a businessman and sponsor of the Millennium Dome who was seeking a British passport. Mandelson still protests his innocence in the affair - and with some justification, given that he was cleared by the sub sequent Hammond inquiry. At this point, the cabinet career of one whom even the fiercest of critics accept is a man of rare talent was prematurely ended.

Robert Harris thinks these incidents should not be allowed to overshadow Mandelson's qualities and achievements. "Peter has a very good strategic sense," he says. "Of all the politicians I've ever spoken to, I think he's the sharpest, the most analytical. Oddly enough, I think that probably his most important time was before Labour came to power and during the government's early days. It may be that, when one looks back on it, this was always going to be his biggest contribution."

Reflecting now on the period during which Labour was preparing for a return to power, Mandelson says: "Recovery has got to be fought for. I hate the fatalism that some seem to have about Labour's prospects. If you battled your way through the Eighties and early Nineties as I did, when the situation in the party was dire compared to what it is now, you realise that you have to fight back. You don't resign yourself to losing or to thinking your opponents have found some magic formula for success.

"But what we also learned in the Nineties is that to win, you have to have purpose and direction. You need a very clear proposition to put to the electorate, and you have to have a clear sense of what you want to use your power for. Inevitably, it's more difficult when you've been in office for as long as Labour has, but it doesn't mean it is impossible to do."

Despite this, he qualifies his support for the "campaign for a fourth term" launched by John Prescott and Alastair Campbell in the New Statesman a fortnight ago. At the Labour conference, Prescott - who once compared Mandelson to a crab - was energetically handing out "Go Fourth" stickers to delegates.

Without being prompted, Mandelson says: "Rather than talk about the fourth term as if we are owed it, and that all we need to do is shout loudly enough for it, you have to work out what your project is. It has to be an extension of what you've done to date, built on what you've done so far, but it has to be about the future, not the past. If the Labour Party can renew new Labour afresh, I believe it has a real chance of winning the next election. But it has to be worked for and earned, not just demanded."

What does he say to the rebel MPs, led by Charles Clarke, who called for a leadership election before conference? "There is an attempt to brand all critics of the government as Blairites in order to isolate them and present their cause as one half of a destructive civil war." In a direct rebuke of the formula used by Prescott, he adds: "They are not Blairites or Brownites or bitterites. They are people who want the party to be successful, to win again."

Does he accept the media assumption that the Conservative Party has changed and "modernised" under David Cameron? "They have managed to change their image rather quickly by shedding some of the dogma, but I don't think they have done the equivalent major changes and I don't think they have carried the party entirely with them. [But] it is no use just attacking the opposition. We need to be confident in our own message. Labour's renewal has to come from within, not from simply refining our anti-Tory strategy, as some seem to think. That's not the way to a fourth term. When you have been in office this long, your main challenge is to renew yourself. If we cannot do that we will lose."

At his most “Mandelsonian”, he remains a constant scourge of the left, critical of those who take the dark view that Labour has run out of ideas

Earlier in the summer, while on holiday in Corfu, Mandelson dined with the shadow chancellor George Osborne. "[It was] by chance, rather than by choice, with 20 other people," he explains. "But I did enjoy talking to him, because I haven't known him previously and I wanted to find out what he's made of." And what is he made of? "I decided that a chance encounter in a Greek taverna didn't equip me well enough to form a judgement."

Mandelson looks pained - almost haunted - as he describes the reversal of the opinion polls over the past year, and accepts that Labour's plight is more grave than at any time under Blair. "I think that Labour has been thrown by what's happened. A lot of people active in the party now haven't known a time when we're not ahead in the polls. It's only in the last year that we've experienced such a reverse in support. But polls are like share prices - what goes down can come up as long as there's a change in performance."

At his most "Mandelsonian" - some might say paranoid - he remains a constant scourge of the left, critical of those who take the dark view that Labour has run out of ideas and should seek "to renew itself in opposition".

"I think the people eager for Labour to renew in opposition are those who see the chance to overturn new Labour and revert to the vote-losing policies of the old left. They are the same people who talk about a core vote and how we should return to our heartlands. In other words, cease to be a broadly based party, north and south, young and old, across geographical and professional boundaries.

"Those who say that are simply inviting defeat at the next election. That is exactly what the left said as the Labour government came to a close at the end of the Seventies; indeed, listening to some in Manchester, I'm rather reminded of that time where the old left were feigning support for the government and the leadership, but in reality were hastening its end.

"They wanted to take over the party and lead it backwards into the nearest cul de sac. We all know where that led. We spent the next 18 years languishing in the wilderness."

Instead, he says, the non-partisan, all-encompassing nationwide appeal that contributed to Labour winning two landslide election victories must be rediscovered. "We have to look at the whole country as our constituency, in the way that we did in 1997. We didn't look at Labour voters and non-Labour voters, heartland voters and non-heartland voters in 1997 - we looked at the voters as a whole, we looked at the country as a whole, everyone a potential Labour voter. People who agreed with what we wanted to do for the country, who recognised that we had put our class instincts behind us, and who were ready to embrace a modern economy in a sensible and disciplined way."

The work Mandelson did as one of the three principal architects of new Labour wasn't "about heartlands or Labour people and non-Labour people - it was about everyone". So what does he think of the left's mobilisation and agitation for a change of direction under the banner of Compass and the unions? "If the Labour Party reverts to that sectional, class-based way, then we can say goodbye to power altogether."

Later, as he walks in the Manchester sunshine on a lovely late summer evening, Mandelson speaks for the first time about his future beyond his present job, a job that has made him more powerful than most in the cabinet. "I enjoy my job. I couldn't have asked for a better brief than world trade. But I don't know what I am going to do next year when my term runs out. I am not seeking a second term. It's odd, because on the occasions that I come to London now I feel like a bit of a tourist, and I don't like that."

In person, Mandelson has the presence of a man who has learned much from his travels. "I will always want to remain in the world, in an international role, whatever I do, because I've enjoyed going to so many countries, learning so much. But, equally, it would be nice to have my home base back again."

Some ministers - especially those close to David Miliband, whose speech he watched from the front row after being excitedly greeted by a party steward - talk of a return to government for Mandelson. To others, the idea is absurd. But every previous former EU commissioner has been appointed to the Lords, and it is common for ministers and shadow ministers to be appointed from the Upper House.

Does he want to return to front-line politics? Mandelson says he hasn't given it a "second's thought", but adds: "Well, I care a lot about British politics, and as I travel I realise that British politics are among the best, the cleanest and the most civilised in the world . . .

"I'll always be contributing to Labour in one form or another, but I don't know what I will do professionally. You can be active in politics without being in parliament, and obviously I don't see a return to the House of Commons."

In 1935 Mandelson's grandfather Herbert Morrison was returned to parliament for the second time - and ran unsuccessfully against Clement Attlee for the Labour leadership. Mandelson once said that his ultimate ambition was to become foreign secretary. That hope may now seem unrealistic. Yet, given his experience from the past few years, after his second, reluctant resignation from the cabinet, it would be unwise to rule out some future international role for a natural-born politician who has come back many times before.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power

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 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power