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Nicola Sturgeon: Britain’s most powerful woman

The First Minister, who turned 50 this month, has had a good crisis and the SNP is surging in the polls. Is she destined to end Scotland’s union with England?

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In the car park of what is known in the Scottish Borders as a “bit of everything” store – it stocks pretty much all that’s needed to take you from cradle to grave – life-sized photographs of Nicola Sturgeon are placed in each bay. The unsmiling look on her face suggests she means business, that she is not someone with whom it would be wise to meddle. Accompanying it is the instruction “bide in yer car till yer teldt” which, loosely translated, means “stay where you are or you’ll have me to deal with”. Eventually, a member of staff arrives, stands at an appropriate distance and takes your order, which is delivered to the rear of your car for you to load. A card reader, attached to a plank of wood at least two metres long, is then thrust through the driver’s window to facilitate payment.

Similar inventive methods of coping with the commercial reality of Covid-19 are seen across Scotland. Many feature the First ­Minister, who, nearly every day for the past three months, has appeared on ­television to drum home the message that in order to survive the 21st century version of the Black Death we must do what we’re ­“teldt”, be it confining ourselves to barracks or wearing masks.

Sturgeon, who turned 50 this month, has adopted the posture if not the pointed finger of Lord Kitchener in the overture to the First World War. If she doesn’t actually say “your country needs you” it is implicit. Her manner is that of a headteacher who will brook no challenge to her authority or bending of the rules. These “no-nonsense briefings”, notes the New York Times, “have become a reassuring daily ritual, even ­providing grist for comedians”.

By most accounts Sturgeon has had a good crisis. Five and a half years into her reign as leader of the Scottish National ­Party and First Minister, she is the most ­powerful woman in Britain. Her avowed aim, of course, is Scottish independence and step by stealthy step she is creeping closer to achieving it. A recent Panelbase poll put her personal rating at plus 60, while that of ­Boris Johnson – who is even less ­popular north of Hadrian’s Wall than Margaret Thatcher was – is at minus 39.

More significantly, support for independence has risen to 54 per cent, usurping the result of the 2014 referendum, when 55 per cent voted in favour of the status quo. As things stand, the SNP is set to win a decisive majority of seats at next year’s election for the Holyrood parliament, which Sturgeon will surely interpret as a mandate to insist on a second referendum on Scotland’s place in the UK.

It is no surprise, therefore, that John ­Curtice, the UKs go-to psephologist, believes that support for the Union has ­never looked so fragile. “Crucially, that mood is even in evidence among Brexiteers and those who voted no. About three-fifths of both groups, neither of them sympathetic to the First Minister’s politics, believe she has done a good job in the crisis.

“For many nationalists, the past three months have exemplified how Scotland could govern itself better as an ­independent small country. But more importantly, it may have persuaded some former unionists of the merits of that claim, too.”

This piece is taken from the New Statesman's Summer special, available on newsstands now 

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Sturgeon’s admirers are barely able to conceal their glee. One senior SNP member of Scottish parliament who has known her for decades says, “we’ve been incredibly lucky to have her,” adding, “No one expected her to be quite so exceptional.” What has impressed him has been the forthright, uncompromising manner in which she has informed the public about what is ­expected of them. There has been no obfuscation, no false optimism, no dithering, no knee-jerk pandering to those clamouring for an early return to “normality”. People may not like what she has to say but in general they ­accept it as a prescription that must be followed. Yet, despite Sturgeon’s ­direct ­approach, Scotland has recorded 2,491 deaths from Covid-19 since March.

Flanked by the limelight-loving Jason Leitch, the Scottish government’s ­national clinical director, and the health minister Jeane Freeman – who always looks as if she is standing umbrella-less in a downpour – Sturgeon is big on empathy and short with anyone who wants to end lockdown before the all-clear siren is sounded. The pandemic has given her an opportunity to “exercise absolute control” says Magnus Linklater, a former editor of the Scotsman who now writes for the Times. Like ­others in the ­unionist camp, Linklater suspects that ­Sturgeon is consciously distancing herself from positions and decisions taken by the Westminster government in order to boost her own popularity.

“I believe that the relative slowness with which she has lifted restrictions stems as much from her reluctance to abandon this state of affairs as a way of using it to demonstrate a separate policy from the UK’s,” ­Linklater told me. “She has been able to build up her popularity in Scotland by ­playing the safety card, while at the same time mocking the ‘shambolic’ performance of Boris Johnson and his cabinet. The fact that Scotland has benefited hugely from the furlough system, the job ­retention scheme, the small business grants and now the ­generous arts settlement from ­Westminster, is less important than highlighting the misjudgments made along the way by Johnson and his pals.”

If that is indeed the case, it is a strategy that appears to be paying dividends. It is also an indication of how Sturgeon has blossomed as a politician. She first came to national prominence in 2016 during a televised debate on Brexit, where she performed particularly strongly with Johnson. Even then there were those in England – Remainers chiefly – who would like to have seen her as prime minister. By that point she had been First Minister for two years, ­succeeding her mentor Alex Salmond after he stepped aside following the loss of the independence referendum. In fact, Sturgeon might have become SNP leader in 2004 when, just as she was preparing to announce her own candidacy, Salmond – who had been leader from 1990 to 2000 – said that he intended to return to the Scottish parliament and throw his bonnet into the ring.

Over dinner at an inn in Linlithgow, Salmond’s home town, he persuaded her to become his running mate and, as one newspaper noted, invoking the inglorious escapades of Bonnie Prince Charlie, “let the king return from across the water”. Then 34, Sturgeon felt she had little option but to agree; in a duel with Salmond she would have been the one to emerge scarred. “He told me straight what he was considering,” she later recalled, “why he was considering it, and what he thought we could do as a team. But he said to me very frankly that if I didn’t want to do that… then that was fine, he would perfectly happily back me in doing that [standing for the leadership]. He gave me a veto on it. I told him I wanted to take some time to think about it and I’m not sure he wasn’t a bit surprised at that.”

The reality was that Salmond had out-flanked his protégé. But it also taught her a valuable lesson, that in politics it is often those to whom you are closest who have the sharpest elbows.

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The First Minister’s education has been intense and prolonged. Sturgeon, the elder of two sisters, was born in 1970 in the Ayrshire town of Irvine. She had an unremarkable lower-middle-class upbringing. Her father was an electrician while her mother was a dental nurse. He was 20 and she was 17 when they married. Both were nationalists. A few years after Sturgeon’s birth they moved to the nearby village of Dreghorn, birthplace of John Boyd Dunlop, inventor of the pneumatic tyre. In those days this was an unassailable Labour fiefdom, as was much of the rest of Scotland. Recruitment to the cause started early. At Sturgeon’s non-denominational secondary school, an English teacher, who was also a Labour councillor, assumed that his precocious ­pupil would join his party. She thought ­otherwise, or so she later insisted, and enlisted instead in the SNP. By the age of 16, she was already a keen canvasser.

Sturgeon’s enthusiasm was not spurred by nationalist icons such as Winnie Ewing, aka “Madame Ecosse”, or Margo ­Macdonald, whose totemic by-election victories in 1967 and 1973 respectively kept the flame of ­independence alive when it was near to ­being extinguished. Rather her model was fictional. Chris Guthrie is the heroine of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song, first published in 1932.

Despite being relatively unsung beyond Scotland, ­Sunset Song is routinely voted the nation’s best-loved book and Guthrie the best-loved character. As Ali Smith said, Sunset Song is “a blend of fury and ­kindness, heat and cold, melodrama and realism and its constant dialogue between romance and viscera”. Ironically, for the author of a novel that has converted so many of its impressionable readers to nationalism, Gibbon – a committed socialist – was not a supporter.

In her introduction to a new edition published earlier this year, Sturgeon said that she owed her love of literature to Sunset Song. For her, Chris Guthrie – independent-minded, self-aware, ambivalent about the land, torn between tradition and ­modernity, unsure whether to stop or go – personifies Scotland and, to a degree, embodied how a woman like her might live her life.

“When I first read Sunset Song,” Sturgeon writes, “I was contemplating a ­future at Glasgow University, the first in my family to go on to higher education. I was excited by it, but also more than a little ­intimidated, wondering if I’d be able to cope away from my family, my community, my roots … Chris – a victim of circumstances beyond her control – is forced to turn her back on college and learning and instead stay on the farm at Blaewearie. I went in the opposite direction.”

Ask anyone who knew Sturgeon as a student and the word “shy” crops up sooner rather than later. As she herself has said, she is not “a naturally gregarious person”. ­Socially gauche, bookish and introverted (she once hid under a table at her own ­birthday party), she was not unpopular but, as Mandy Rhodes, editor of Holyrood ­magazine, has said, “neither was she in with the in-crowd”. But at Glasgow, where she studied law, she began to flourish.

In 1990, Sturgeon ran the campaign that helped Pat Kane, a musician and political activist, get elected as rector over Tony Benn. “What I can remember that’s consistent in her,” Kane says, “is her deep seriousness when it comes to politics.” While others were keen to call it a day and head to the pub it was Sturgeon who insisted they stay put and concentrate on the job at hand.

As she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs – luxury: coffee maker, cup and milk; book: not Sunset Song (she probably knows it off by heart), but the complete works of Jane Austen – she was “a child of the ­Eighties” when the poll tax was ­introduced experimentally in Scotland, miners went on prolonged strike and Thatcher was a ­bogey woman. Sturgeon was not a ­persuasive ­debater. A fellow student, quoted by her ­biographer, David Torrance, recalled that she would turn up weekly at the students’ union and leave utterly humiliated. “But she’d come back, again and again, trying to get it right, determined to figure out how she could get better.”

In 1992, aged 21, she was selected by the SNP to fight the safe Labour seat of Glasgow Shettleston, which she duly lost. It was the first of seven such disappointments. Finally, in 1999, after a few years working in the ­legal profession, she managed to become an MSP, though only because she topped the SNP’s Glasgow “list” – a form of ­proportional representation that ­allows those, like Sturgeon, who are defeated in first past the post contests to enter ­Scottish parliament because of their popularity within their own party.

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Such persistence is in Sturgeon’s DNA. Like Andy Murray suffering one setback after another until he lifted the Wimbledon title, the First Minister tried again and again until she succeeded. For a long time she and Salmond were inseparable and in sync. Both came from the gradualist wing of the SNP, in contrast to the fundamentalists who, irrespective of public opinion, want to rush headlong towards independence. They are, however, quite different characters. ­Salmond is an extrovert glad-hander while Sturgeon is inclined to hang back like a wallflower at a ceilidh. He is a risk taker and keen ­punter, while she won’t cross a road without ­religiously observing the Highway Code. He is a natural performer while she prefers libraries to concert halls. But, while never quite soulmates – “it wasn’t always sunshine,” says an SNP insider who knows them both well, “they weren’t always friends” – they complemented each other and transformed the SNP from a dysfunctional collection of misfits, dreamers, delusionists and eccentrics into a modern political machine.



Political allies: Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon moments before Salmond delivered his final address ahead of the independence referendum vote in September 2014​. Credit: Simon Dawson/ Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salmond’s trial earlier this year, at which he was accused – and cleared – of multiple charges of sexual assault, caused Sturgeon much pain. “It was obvious,” says a senior SNP MSP, “that when she spoke to the parliamentary group before the story broke that she was distressed.” The fallout from the case and the forthcoming inquiry into how the accusations were initially handled by the Scottish government has ­already inflicted damage on Sturgeon. Both she and Salmond will appear at the inquiry, which will investigate the circumstances ­surrounding the Scottish government’s ­internal investigation of claims of sexual misconduct against Salmond when he was first minister.

Never before had relations between master and mentee sunk so low. In August 2019, the government admitted in court that it had botched its review and agreed to pay more than half a million pounds to cover Salmond’s legal costs. Sturgeon, it ­transpired, had talked to Salmond on five occasions about the investigation, including privately at her home in Glasgow. “I don’t think she will have done anything untoward,” says one of Sturgeon’s MSPs, though he cannot say the same for her staff and civil servants. During his trial, Salmond testified that claims made about his conduct were “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose”. After he was cleared, he said that evidence that he wanted to raise during the trial would now be revealed in a book.

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As threats go, it was at the more ominous end of the spectrum. Since he emerged triumphant from Edinburgh’s High Court in March, Salmond has not been seen in public. One friend who has known him since the SNP was in the wilderness, says he has spent the lockdown nursing his wrath in the village of Strichen, where he lives with his wife Moira. What he is planning to do no one can say, but it is not in his nature to tiptoe into obscurity.

Salmond has been wounded and he feels there are scores to settle. There are rumours that he could be involved in the formation of a new “list only pro-independence party”, which has been mooted in an article in the Scotsman by Kenny MacAskill, an SNP MP. “The focus of the election is almost certainly going to be on the constitution,” wrote MacAskill. “What better way of allowing Scottish voters a choice than a specific ‘independence’ option on the list.”

A poll for the Wings Over Scotland website, a haven for the fundamentalist cohort, found that 26 per cent of voters would either “definitely or probably” give their list vote to the so-called “Alliance for Independence” party if it was fronted by Salmond. It is not a prospect that those in the upper echelons of the SNP relish. “The idea of ­splitting pro-independence votes is manna from heaven for the unionists,” says one former confidante. “He is feasting with panthers.”

Comments on forums such as Wings Over Scotland, however, suggest that such an idea is not as self-defeating as it might seem, especially among those who suspect that Sturgeon is coasting and content to postpone indefinitely the final charge towards independence. They have an unlikely ally in Linklater, who wonders if Sturgeon “genuinely” believes in independence. “I suspect that her reluctance to embark on a second referendum stems from a fear of what breaking away would bring. She does not… have an economic bone in her body. But she knows enough about the political realities of what Scotland would face in the early years of separation to know that they would be exceedingly painful.”

For the moment, though, Sturgeon’s focus is on seeing off Covid-19. It has proved a more durable foe than those she faces in the Scottish parliament, where the Tories are the principal opposition. But, led by Jackson Carlaw, they lack the appeal they had when Ruth Davidson was dominant. Labour, meanwhile, is in the doldrums. It has one MP and 23 MSPs out of a possible 129. Richard Leonard, its Corbynite leader, has made little impact, but so bereft of talent is the party that his position seems secure. Thus support for the SNP stiffens and deepens. Most worrying for those who argue that the Union has a future are the voting intentions of young people, nearly 70 per cent of those between the ages of 16 and 34 say they support independence. “Like many Scots,” says Pat Kane, “I feel I can identify with Nicola, as a brilliant working-class girl made good. I would like to see her in-post during the early years of an independent Scotland. I think she could eashttps://www.newstatesman.com/2020-07-24ily be one of the great global statespersons.”

How long Sturgeon will continue as First Minister is anyone’s guess, though few ­believe she is likely to stand down imminently. Kevin Pringle, a former senior special adviser to Alex Salmond, says: “My hope is that Nicola Sturgeon is only around the halfway stage of her tenure, which would reflect a pattern of several SNP leaders serving terms of about a decade. She’s now, by a very considerable distance, the most experienced political leader in the UK and, with some obvious exceptions, Europe.” With her husband Peter Murrell as chief executive of the SNP – they have no children – she governs, says Linklater, “by clique” and is “unforgiving of her enemies”.

Where Salmond was “collegiate and would take advice from everyone”, observes Campbell Gunn, who has worked for both the former and current first ministers, Sturgeon relies on a small group for advice. The close circle includes Liz Lloyd, her chief of staff, and her husband. But other names are conspicuous by their absence. Gunn recalls that when he was working for Salmond and monitoring press coverage over the weekend they would be in constant communication. In contrast, Sturgeon is happy to delegate. “Call me if there’s ­something urgent,” she’d say. “Otherwise leave me alone.” Having said that, Gunn says of her: “If she achieves ­independence, she has her place in ­Scottish history. I thought Alex had done a ­remarkable job in transforming the SNP but Nicola has done even better.” 

Alan Taylor was deputy and managing editor at the Scotsman

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special