Now that they are no longer chief of staff and first minister, always-on employee and demanding boss, Liz Lloyd can keep Nicola Sturgeon waiting. “I was going to meet her recently in Edinburgh for a social night and I was late,” Lloyd told me. “She was at the bar on her own and she texted ‘what do you want to drink?’ It was just a complete mind-flip for me. I get there 20 minutes late, and she’s made some pals. I’m getting used to this, where we’re friends on even terms. She’s not the boss any more.”
That Sturgeon is no longer the boss is a change that both Lloyd and Scotland are still acclimatising to. The shocking suddenness of her resignation in February, which brought an end to the front-line political career of devolution’s dominant figure, continues to be a subject of speculation and intrigue. The judgements on her near-decade in power are accumulating and are not uniformly positive. Many people believe the former first minister has left the SNP and the wider independence movement in a profound mess.
Sturgeon’s administration was more of a black box than most, run by a hyper-loyal, tightly knit clique. I wanted to interview Lloyd in an attempt to prise the lid off that box. On a professional basis, no one was closer to Sturgeon throughout her time in Bute House. Lloyd became her chief of staff in 2014, when Sturgeon replaced Alex Salmond, and remained in post until the 2021 Holyrood election, when she became strategic adviser, focused on longer-term projects such as Scotland’s net zero plan and economic strategy. She left at the same time as her patron.
Lloyd, a softly spoken, 45-year-old Geordie, had a middle-class upbringing: her mother was a primary school teacher, and her father a computer science professor at Newcastle University. She took a degree in American studies at Edinburgh University, and stayed. As a social democrat who previously voted Labour and Liberal Democrat, she found herself increasingly impressed by the SNP’s case for independence. “I think the north of England thing gave me an understanding of distance from power and the challenges of wanting to do things that you can’t do, not having the levers,” she said. “It’s quite easy to get that disaffection.”
Lloyd makes an unlikely freedom fighter. She laughed that she “isn’t remotely Scottish. To this day, I’m not a big fan of bagpipes and I don’t like Irn-Bru. I don’t do flags, I don’t do tartan, I don’t know the dates of the battles or the history. And so I’m a very practical independence supporter.” After completing university, she did various “odd jobs” around the new Scottish Parliament before starting work for an SNP MSP (Jim Mather) in 2004, beginning the climb that would take her to one of the most powerful roles in government.
It’s easy to see why Lloyd was so valued for so long. She is sharply intelligent, and firm in making the case for the things the government did and why it did them. But she is too thoughtful to be overly defensive, and can be refreshingly reflective about what went wrong.
“I thought I saw it coming,” she said of Sturgeon’s resignation. “I’d been thinking for a little while that she didn’t seem as engaged or as active on some issues. She wasn’t reacting in quite the same way. I didn’t feel the same sense of fight or of enthusiasm, so I wasn’t wholly surprised.” As strategic adviser, she was seeing less of the first minister, so when a text arrived one Tuesday morning in February asking her to pop into Bute House for coffee, she thought, “Oh, OK. It was either she was resigning or it was a reshuffle. I walked into her study and she was sat in jeans and a hoodie at her desk, writing something. The minute I saw her, I knew.” Lloyd said the explanation Sturgeon gave her was “not that different” to her public statement the next day: “That she was done, she just didn’t have it in her any more. And in that conversation I could already see this huge weight lifted off her shoulders. She was remarkably calm and relaxed about it. She was obviously lighter, happier, jokier. It was time and it was on her terms.”
We met (coincidentally) in a café that sits in the shadow of Queen Elizabeth House, the UK government’s Edinburgh headquarters. Despite the SNP’s extraordinary electoral dominance over the past 16 years, this is not yet the home of a foreign power – nor is it perhaps even on the way to becoming one. I put it to Lloyd that the frenetic campaign for independence that restarted following the 2016 Brexit vote obstructed essential reforms in other policy areas.
She paused for thought. “Have we been debating the constitution a lot over the last five to six years? Yes. Did we intend to be? No. Nicola’s first ministership was not designed to be about the constitution, until Brexit happened. After the independence referendum in 2014, the voting was still polarised, but the public conversation was ‘yes we want more power, yes we want to do more, but we’ve got to wait a while’. We came in thinking, ‘Let’s focus on public-service reform, focus on the economy,’ and a lot of that happened regardless. But the public debate once Brexit came along, what got covered in the media, what was high profile, was about the constitution.”
This seems somewhat disingenuous. Sturgeon relentlessly pushed for independence, repeatedly demanding a second referendum from Westminster, commissioning a series of papers on independence by the civil service, and taking the UK government to the Supreme Court. She even set an official date for a second vote. For long periods, it was hard to find much else to talk or write about.
Lloyd wasn’t having it. “That narrative falls into one of the problems in the way this is discussed, which is that the constitution is seen as a thing apart from policy, economics, the state of our society. It’s not – it’s part of that. If you take that period from the Brexit vote, it put huge pressure on the Scottish government. Every bit of public policy is having to be changed and adapted. There are far more civil servants in the Scottish government who had to work on adapting, mitigating, re-legislating for Brexit than have ever worked on the concept of Scottish independence.”
Scotland voted 62-38 for Remain, and Lloyd said that Sturgeon wanted a Brexit deal that took account of the different outcomes across the UK nations. “We were actually all supposed to be signed up to this joint memorandum that the Brexit negotiating position would be agreed between the four nations. It never was. If that had been embraced, you could potentially have ended up with a single market position for the whole UK. And that was what we were arguing for. Every effort to find some common ground, a middle way, was pushed back because of the internal Tory debate.”
This left Sturgeon with little option but to accelerate the independence campaign. “As first minister, I think she had an obligation to say to the people of Scotland, the settlement you voted for is not what you’re going to get so it’s right you get the choice.”
Since Sturgeon’s departure, some harsh verdicts have arrived on what she achieved – or didn’t achieve – during her time in office, including from some in the SNP. Kate Forbes, who came close to defeating Humza Yousaf in the subsequent leadership contest, hit out at an “acceptance of mediocrity”. Critics (including me) grumbled about an obsessive focus on expensive social justice policies over reforms to public services and a plan to rekindle economic growth.
Lloyd – quite compellingly, it must be said – argued that this misses some of the government’s bigger, longer-term innovations. “We built a tax system in my time as chief of staff, we built a social security system, a national investment bank, a national manufacturing institute, [expanded] the childcare system. They’re complicated things, they take a lot of effort. But those are the things I think will really last and give future governments of whatever shape the ability to do things in Scotland that they would not have had. I think that’s not really recognised enough.
“We pivoted on the climate, really put effort into tackling poverty and shifted the debate on the kind of policies it’s OK to discuss. You know, Nicola put taxes up – that pays for the child payment [£25 a week to children under 16 in low-income families]. Considered politically undoable in the rest of the UK but done with huge support in Scotland. We were able to carry people to a more social democratic, fairer agenda.”
Yet when it comes to health and education, the two big public-service areas within Holyrood’s remit, there is a view that the thistle remained stoutly ungrasped. Senior figures in the NHS are unhappy at the SNP’s reluctance to engage with the hard thinking and restructuring that the ailing system desperately requires. On education – which Sturgeon said would be her main priority after she first took office – the overwhelming sense is of stasis or even decline.
Lloyd believes the performance on health is better than the government is often given credit for. On education, she points to a widening of access to university, but admitted the record on schools is patchier. I reminded her of proposed legislation to give greater autonomy to headteachers, supported by reformers then abandoned in the face of opposition from the teaching unions and Cosla, the body that represents Scottish councils.
“I don’t think we’ve done as well as we’d like to have done,” she said, adding that institutional resistance to change is an ongoing challenge. “With Cosla, there is a defensiveness about protecting their turf. You need teachers to be part of the discussion and you need local authorities to take their defensive hackles down, and come to the table with a willingness to be creative. You can’t force people into that.
“I’m not sure we had the political capital and the cooperation of the other partners in the education system. The government can pull far more levers in the health system than it can in education because the education system is owned by the local authorities. You can say, do this – [but it] doesn’t mean they’re going to do it.”
Across Sturgeon’s time in government, one topic proved more controversial than any other. Her commitment to the radical reform of Scotland’s gender laws led to bitter divisions in her own party, in the feminist movement, and among the Scottish population as a whole. Angry confrontations on social media and physical stand-offs have been regular occurrences. Although the bill made it through Holyrood with the support of Scottish Labour, it has been blocked by the UK government, which claims it would interfere with British equalities law – control of which is reserved to Westminster. Scottish ministers have taken the matter to court.
I asked whether, had Sturgeon handled the matter differently, at least some of the upset on both sides might have been avoided, and perhaps a compromise reached. It was clearly a subject that pained Lloyd – a feminist, she fretted especially about the split among women. “I reflect on this, and I try to think about what the different thing would have been for a piece of legislation that is the most consulted on in the parliament’s history,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with people in the women’s movement about whether there was something at the start of this debate… where a better way could have been found to accommodate and work through different views that women had. The debate has done a fair bit of damage to that women’s movement because people can no longer take each other on trust when you get to issues about men’s behaviour.”
Ultimately, she said, “I don’t think anyone on any side of this comes out with a halo over their heads.”
The other major controversy that consumed Sturgeon’s final days was her plan to use the next general election as a “de facto” referendum on independence. If the SNP had won a majority of votes, it would have sought to begin negotiations over Scotland’s separation from the UK. This too split her party, was unpopular in the country, and fuelled a sense that the first minister was losing her touch.
Lloyd wasn’t a fan of the idea. “I never thought we needed to set that position out. She knows that so I can say it!” The way forward, if the SNP is to secure its main goal, is simply “to raise the support. And that is really the only thing the SNP has control of. That is where I think the party should be and where the bulk of the party are. Independence will come in the same way devolution did – the ‘settled will’ concept.”
How and when, though? “It’s always dangerous to play fantasy politics, but I will. If you assume Labour are in government at Westminster and support for independence is 55-60 per cent, a Labour government is a different proposition to a Tory government. The Tories can just turn around and say no because they care not a jot about most voters in Scotland. Labour can’t do that. And that I think is what triggers some sort of progress.”
The SNP heads into next year’s general election with Scottish Labour having caught up in the polls, and threatening to steal as many as half of its Westminster seats. The party has a new leader in Yousaf, but is still at the centre of a police investigation into its funding which has seen Sturgeon and her husband, the former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, arrested, questioned and then released without charge. The power relationship between Sturgeon and Murrell, a married couple who held the top two jobs in the party, was often criticised. Lloyd said that “in hindsight, I think even they would say it probably wasn’t the best, or that maybe it could have been done differently”.
It’s now up to Yousaf to take the case for independence forward. But his early poll ratings suggest he has yet to convince voters he is up to the task. “There’s a balance that every leader has to find,” explained Lloyd. “You are the decision-maker, ultimately. I think Humza is very much listening to where everyone else wants to go, though perhaps [he] needs to be a little bit more the decider. I’ve said to him it’s all very well being collegiate, but at some point you have to decide, you have to pick a side. Over the next few months we have to watch and see what sides he picks.”