Born again or Brown again?

We asked Labour insiders and commentators who should be the next leader of the Labour Party – now or

The Labour Party is in many ways already mourning its defeat at the forthcoming general election. There are still several possible outcomes to that election, but none of them is that Labour will emerge with a clear working majority. The bleak truth for Gordon Brown is that he is fighting his first and last election as Prime Minister. There is a general acceptance of this, and the mood in the parliamentary party is as resigned as it is jittery. The aim, at present, is to lose well, to expose the Conservatives and to prepare for life after Brown.

So what of the succession? Few doubt that a leadership contest is under way. The main contenders - Ed Balls, David and Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas - may be fighting a phoney war, but it is a war of sorts all the same, with politicians on manoeuvres and the corridors and back rooms of power febrile with speculation. "The mood is very uneasy at present," one leadership contender told me. "But at least I'm prepared to speak honestly rather than relying on unattributable briefings."

Labour is deeply divided, on several levels. There are the old, obvious (and tedious) divisions between the Blairites and the Brownites - always a spurious division founded less upon ends than means. Blair and Brown were not separated by ideology: they both passionately believed in New Labour and accepted the neoliberal consensus. What separated them and their followers was character and cold ambition.

Yet, more important, surely, are the divisions between the freethinking liberal pluralists (or democratic republicans) and the unreconstructed statists in the party, as well as those between the free-market reformers and the social democrats. In recent months this magazine has begun
to campaign for a realignment of left-liberal politics. We are attracted by the idea of coalitions between progressives, especially if they result in electoral reform, genuine reform of the House of Lords and of the City, legislation for fixed-term parliaments, stronger civil liberties, an enhanced Freedom of Information Act, closer ties with Europe, a multilateral foreign policy and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

During the years of the long, unregulated boom, New Labour's high command entered into a Faustian pact with the forces of finance and with the repellent Bush administration. In so doing, the party ceased to be a moral crusade, and many of its natural supporters became alienated. They remain alienated, but without them Labour can never win again.

The economic crisis has offered Labour an opportunity to learn from the wrong turns taken in recent years, but also from what the party got right. From crisis can flow opportunity. Above all else, what is required, if the election results spell the end for Brown, is for the party to elect a leader who has the vision, ideas and stamina not only to remake his or her party, but to lead a complete reconstruction of the British political system. But who is that person? And what should his or her priorities be?
Jason Cowley

Meghnad Desai

Economist and Labour life peer
I have seen seven Labour leaders come and six go - Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Blair. Gordon Brown is still very much here and not likely to go before the election. The new Parliamentary Labour Party will be slim, with maybe no more than 150 members, and it will need someone who can reconcile and unite, who can think anew the theory for a 21st-century social democracy, and who can be an internationalist rather than a small Englander.

My choice for the crown of thorns? The field is two Eds and two Milibands (overlapping ­categories), Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson. Some pine for Jon Cruddas. I don't. It is not enough to be loved by the left: remember Michael Foot - lovely man, disastrous leader.

Johnson is loved by the unions, but then they loved and destroyed Jim Callaghan. Balls is unlikely to unite the party. Of the two Milibands, I go for David rather than Ed. So it is between David and Harriet. If we are to take Middle England with us, it has to be David. I say that with some trepidation, lest it harm his prospects.

Roy Hattersley

Deputy leader of the Labour Party (1983-92)
Speculating about who will be the next Labour leader is good journalism but rotten politics.

If Labour wins the next election - and victory remains within the party's power - the next leader will not take over until 2014, and four years is a long time in politics. Long ago, Jim Callaghan told me that the party would be led, in ten years' time, by David Owen, me or somebody nobody had heard of. It turned out to be somebody who, then, nobody had heard of.

After the next election but one, it will be James Purnell, Ed Miliband, Jon Cruddas - or somebody nobody has heard of. I will vote for Miliband. Each of the politicians on my "shortlist" is a genuine radical who realises the im­portance of Labour setting out its vision of the good society and describing the practical - and sometimes necessarily controversial - policies that will bring it about. Ideological caution is the certain path to defeat. Whoever first made the point, New Labour foundered because it was "neither new enough nor Labour enough". The next leader must - instead of trying to invent an alternative to social democracy - work out a way of applying its basic principles to the modern and changing world.

Sunder Katwala

General secretary, Fabian Society
More important than who should lead is how Labour could get its next leadership election right. Let's hope it takes place in government, a few years from now. But if Labour loses this spring, the first decision could be its most important in opposition: whether to have an immediate leadership contest or leave it until after the first autumn conference. If Michael How­ard had not done the latter in 2005, the Tory leader would be David Davis, not David Cameron.

If Labour goes straight for a contest, we would miss the debate we need. So let's see the merits in playing it long. If Labour loses, Gordon must stay! If he prefers to make a quick exit, the National Executive Committee should appoint a caretaker and schedule an autumn contest. It could make a real difference to the chances of being out for one term, or three. Front-runners - such as David Miliband, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman - should not fear a longer debate with more ideas. Those who might not run - perhaps James Purnell and Jon Cruddas - might sharpen debates.
Without hearing their arguments, it is too early to set the field. So why not imagine that Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper could surprise us by emerging in front, with Cooper edging home as the party's first permanent woman leader?

Melvyn Bragg

Writer, broadcaster and life peer
I'm in at least four minds as to who should be the next Labour leader. When is the law coming in that allows peers to resign from the House of Lords? Because Hamlet/Mandelson looks very fit for the part of the new prince.

David Marquand

Professor of politics at Oxford University
Assuming Labour loses the election - not yet certain, but a lot more probable than not - the party will need to skip the generation immediately after Brown's and go for someone in the generation after that. The choice will be between the Miliband brothers: David or Ed.

Clearly, this will be psychologically difficult for them. Sibling rivalry is a powerful force. Ed and David seem well-balanced and harmonious. All the same, I imagine David would find it hard to give way to his younger brother. But so what? The party will have a right to pick the better man for the job, and I don't think there's any doubt that that means Ed should be the one to go for it. He is both a safe pair of hands and a potentially inspirational figure. A very rare combination.

He would face a daunting task. I don't believe Labour has yet taken the measure of David Cameron and the new-look Tory party he has constructed. Labour politicians and Labour-friendly commentators have convinced themselves that the new-look Tories are fakes: that, like old-look Thatcherites, they are slavering at the thought of making savage cuts in spending; and that Labour in opposition will reap a rich harvest of disillusioned Tory voters without having to engage in painful rethinking of its own. I think this is self-indulgent piffle. The truth is that social democracy is on the slide all over Europe. I don't pretend to know how the left should respond to this melancholy tale. Nor, I suspect, does Ed Miliband. But he has shown that he has the intellectual capacity to think through the problems - and the charisma to lead his party in the search for answers. It would be madness to choose anyone else.

Helena Kennedy

QC and Labour life peer
I really do think it is premature to have this debate. There is a whole set of potential leaders among the next generation, and I do not want to see some has-been who is seriously tainted by his or her complicity in the Iraq war taking on the mantle as some interim measure.

If and when a new leader is required, I want to see a proper debate within the party about what that person believes in and where they will take the party in the future. Whoever succeeds in taking on the role will have to throw off the taint of many New Labour policies and be prepared to participate in a total review of policy and vision. I think Compass is where the new thinking is currently taking place, and any prospective leader with any sense should be looking closely at its work.

Neal Lawson

Chair of Compass
Jon Cruddas should be the next leader of the Labour Party, because he understands that we face a triple crisis of inequality, sustainability and democracy, and that we need a progressive alliance of parties, unions and civil society organisations to make change happen and embed it. In practice, that means the effective regulation of businesses, and measures to democratise public services, such as a high-pay commission at one end and a living wage at the other; and real proportional representation, to ensure a new era of pluralistic politics rather than the domination of a few swing voters led by Murdoch and the Mail.

Above all, a candidate such as Cruddas would bring hope back into centre-left politics; the hope that we are aiming for a good society and have the wherewithal to make it happen.

Billy Hayes

General secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU)
There is no contest - Gordon Brown. To reconnect with millions of voters lost since 2001, we need to reassert the coalition between working-class communities and liberal-minded pro­fes­sionals. First, an expansionary economic policy is vital. Shutting down the government's life support to the economy could precipitate a double-dip recession. That is where the Tories would have gone, and will go. Labour must be different - voters will appreciate this.

Second, there must be a break from policies that have fractured our electoral coalition. Scrapping ID cards, committing to withdrawal from Afghanistan and scrapping the Trident replacement and aircraft carriers would help; they would also transform the future of government spending. Third, the problems of the housing market must be addressed. The private sector will not deliver for five million on the council-house waiting list. Government support for social housing is crucial.

Robert Skidelsky

Political economist and life peer
Your question is based on the assumption that Labour will lose the next election. I don't think this is a foregone conclusion. Labour might win a small majority or form a minority government with Liberal support. In either case, Brown will stay on as leader and Prime Minister. As to his successor, I have no preference.

Labour has a great opportunity to work out a post-slump political agenda. This could be based on: a) an expanded role for the state in the investment field (railways, housing, schools, hospitals, green technology), and b) greater equality of wealth and incomes. Both would require bringing the share of GDP spent by the state more in line with the European norm, but this will be necessary anyway for purposes of fiscal consolidation and one may as well make a virtue of it. The party should set up a high-powered commission of a non-partisan character to work out an intellectually grounded post-slump programme of action. The commission should be set up as soon as possible (ie, before the election), and its existence and preliminary findings should be one of the main grounds on which the government  appeals to the country.

Billy Bragg

Musician and activist
I want a leader who will do something about excessive bonuses and who will split up high street banks from the casino banks, so that next time the bankers mess up they lose their homes and we don't lose ours.

Greg Dyke

Director general of the BBC (2000-2004)
I suspect that we are living through the final months of the last Labour government ever to have an overall majority, as, by the time Labour has another chance to govern, the political world will be very different.

I suspect wholesale change in our political system will come faster than many imagine. The decline of the two-party system has been happening for years - in 1951, 97 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative; in the last election, that was below 70 per cent - but the MPs' expenses scandal has put the final boot into politics as we've known it. The election could well result in a hung parliament which, in turn, could bring the vast reforms we need. The introduction of proportional representation is no longer a ­matter of if, but when.

The next Labour leader will need to articulate a new left-of-centre ideology, unite the rational left, see off the Blairites and be able to negotiate with and befriend other radical parties in this new era of politics. Tough job.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos
It is tempting to say that the next leader should be Anybody Who Is Not Ed Balls. But the party should aim higher. David Miliband is a serious candidate, but he is seen as indecisive in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and has never been hugely popular in the constituencies or the unions. James Purnell remains the lodestar for liberal modernisers - but I am biased since he is a colleague at Demos. Perhaps Liam Byrne should be the next leader: he is younger, brighter and more passionate than many of his colleagues.

The new leader should ditch the anti-civil liberties measures of Blair/Brown; come out in support of real proportional representation; form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; support or steal the Tories' education plans; base a new attack on poverty and plans for public service reform on the "capabilities" approach of Amartya Sen; avoid new incursions against freedom in areas such as smoking and alcohol; and adopt Lib Dem tax policies hitting wealth, rather than income.

Last but not least, the new leader should surround themselves with people who will tell them when they are screwing up.

Stefanos Stefanou

Businessman and Labour donor
I think that Gordon Brown will now lead the Labour Party to the next general election. He will have a good chance of winning a small majority, but only if he reverts to being a strong, robust and determined leader, as he was when he started as Prime Minister. He is obviously surrounded by inexperienced ministers and advisers. They have managed to transform him into a person who performs for the media in a gimmicky way - that was never Brown's style.

However, if, for whatever reason, Labour needs a new leader, I think that the only person who will be able to lead and unite the party is Harriet Harman. She appears to be a strong personality, and charismatic without being a clown like Cameron. She will probably succeed, provided she doesn't allow the so-called PR experts to destroy her personality with their superficial techniques.

Frank Field

Labour MP for Birkenhead
Labour, whether it wins or loses, will be faced by a new kind of politics after the election. We will have to put behind us the modern era, when governing was largely about distributing a continual real-terms growth in public expenditure. The new politics of cuts will be centre stage, requiring leadership qualities that can combine Labour's idealism - particularly protecting those towards the bottom of the pile - with a realism that appeals to the majority. Courage will, above all, be required to mark out the political map of this new country, but with that courage must go stamina, and also judgement when taking risks in repositioning the party.

While there are a number of candidates who possess some of the necessary qualities, I see James Purnell as the one individual who combines most of them. But Labour in the new parliament will also need a deputy leader who can reach those parts of the electorate untouched by the current leadership, and who will also be trusted by our core voters as we engage that new country. Step forward, Jon Cruddas.

Bob Crow

General secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)
Who leads the Labour Party isn't the issue. What matters is that the party has presided over attacks on workers through the anti-union laws and privatisation, and through the extension of powers to the European superstate. Until Labour wakes up and starts fighting for the workers rather than the bosses, it's a dead duck, politically.

Ken Loach

Film director
Who should be leader? None of the present clique. What to do: reassert Clause Four and act on it to the letter.

Clare Short

Former Labour MP
It is very late in the day, but if part of the answer to Labour's problems is a new leader, we need an analysis of what is wrong in order to look for the kind of leader who might be able to put things right. I do not believe that anyone really knows the qualities of a politician until they have worked with them. Potential leader spotting is led by the media on the basis of unexplained qualities that appear to be completely presentational. Underneath this is a pro-Blair versus pro-Brown division. But this, too, is entirely presentational. They created New Labour together. Brown was the brain, Blair the frontman. The clashes were of egos, ambition and hangers-on, not of principle or strategy.

The reality is that the New Labour project has collapsed. Now we need someone who respects the democratic process in the party, parliament and cabinet. We need someone who wants to reverse the growth of inequality in the UK. We need someone who is willing to reorientate UK foreign policy, peel off from our craven, lapdog role and start to work with others for a stronger UN and a more equitable world order. We need a leader who will cease to echo US/Israeli policy in the Middle East and work with others for a just settlement in accordance with international law. The tragedy for Labour is that there is no such potential leader in the parliamentary party and little discussion in the wider party of how these changes might be made.

Lance Price

Former adviser to Tony Blair
Speculation about the next Labour leader is predicated on expectations of defeat at the election. But the question is legitimate. The debate and manoeuvring that accompany it are impos­sible to hide. Unless Gordon Brown pulls off a remarkable victory, the task confronting the next leader will be determined by the scale of Labour's defeat. Whoever it is must have an unambiguous understanding of what made New Labour popular. Of the two styles of ­politics embodied in the leadership since 1994, one worked and one didn't. If we want a compromise candidate whom we never expect to form a government, we may go for Harriet Harman.

If we want a leader with the creativity, popular appeal and determination to lead us back into power, the shortlist boils down to David and Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham and James Purnell. I would support the Foreign Secretary.

Charlie Whelan

Former adviser to Gordon Brown
There's going to be no leadership election because we're going to win the election and Gordon Brown's going to be leader.

Peter Wheeler

Member of Labour's National Executive Committee
The next leader of the Labour Party should be Gordon Brown - there is no vacancy. Without Brown, we would have faced the sort of economic meltdown they have seen in Iceland or Ireland. We are facing a Tory party more right-wing at every level than it was under Margaret Thatcher. This isn't the time for these dinner-party debates; it's time for Labour supporters to be campaigning hard for a Labour victory. I am just on my way out to deliver some leaflets - anyone is welcome to join us.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

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 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war