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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 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left

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Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left