Scotland’s ‘Yes’ minister: Interview with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

The Scottish Parliament is no stranger to having women sit at the top table

by Nov 05, 2012 No Comments

Women lead two of the main parties in Holyrood, a woman also occupies the PO’s chair for the first time and the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities – with responsibility for government strategy and the constitution – and now leading the charge for the ‘Yes’ campaign for independence and Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, is undeniably the UK’s most powerful female politician.

Nicola Sturgeon already had a formidable reputation on her home turf but in 2009 came to UK prominence for her handling of the swine flu outbreak. National news anchors ran out of superlatives in describing her cool, calm and collected manner in the face of a potential crisis. And the year before, the BMA gave her two standing ovations for her stance against privatisation within the NHS. One Englishbased GP even asked her if she could move the Scottish/English border to Trent so that he could become a Scot.

Her dogged resilience in taking up the cause of minimum pricing on alcohol has won her international recognition and her support for groundbreaking legislation on equal marriage managed to confound and surprise the harshest of SNP critics on the Labour benches who had wrongly assumed the Nationalists would buckle under pressure from the Church and high-profile party donors.

In opposition she was as rabid an attack dog as she would now accuse her opponents of being and it was viewed with some satisfaction in 2010 when she was uncharacteristically tripped up by her own actions when it was discovered she had written a letter of support for one of her constituents who was due to be sentenced for benefit fraud to the tune of £80,000. She referred to the crimes, including a previous conviction for stealing £60,000, as “mistakes” and appealed to the sheriff for alternatives to custody. Labour said it was a resignation matter and revealed a lack of judgement. But Sturgeon managed to silence them with a full, complete and humbling apology to the Chamber. This incident seemed to indicate a change in manner for Sturgeon who was previously known for her blistering exchanges with her opposite numbers. However, she says that more than any other experience, her time as Scotland’s Health Secretary taught her that people who are dealing with personal, private and sensitive issues are more concerned about actions and outcomes than the politics and that knowledge has since helped shape her approach.

And when Conservative MP and junior Scotland Office minister, David Mundell, recently jumped the gun and told Holyrood that the drawn out referendum deal had all but been done, days before the Edinburgh Agreement was actually signed off, he also revealed that there had been some “cathartic” moment when the tone and character of the inter-governmental discussions had changed from one of prevarication and “dancing on the head of a pin”, to one of consensus and resolution. And that moment was when Nicola Sturgeon became involved.

For unlike her boss, Sturgeon had made no secret of the fact that she favoured a single question – straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – referendum and by all accounts when she took the lead in her new Cabinet role, in terms of getting the process moving along, her modus operandi was one of being constructive, to the point and with speed.

Sturgeon is a formidable woman. She is intelligent – a lawyer by training – and a veteran politician at just 42. She joined the SNP at 16 and has grown up in the full glare of the media’s eye, unable to escape the unfortunate and not entirely justified label of being a ‘nippy sweetie’.

She is, by her own admission, a bit “po’ faced” but with her tongue firmly in her cheek, she told delegates at the SNP conference last month that when she had gone in for the first meetings with Mundell his mobile had rung and it was his mother to check he was ok. That vignette had the party faithful, who clearly see Sturgeon as the natural successor to Salmond, rolling in the aisles.

But there hasn’t been too much to laugh about since. Firstly, the SNP was hit by the resignation of two of their MSPs over the Nato decision, leaving their ‘historic majority’ reduced to just two, and then it emerged that the First Minister had spent thousands of pounds of public money fighting a legal battle with the Information Commissioner over the right to not divulge ministerial advice over EU membership, which turned out not to exist in the first place. It also appeared Salmond had misled the BBC presenter Andrew Neil about that advice during a television interview. The FM was branded a ‘bare faced liar’ by Labour and Sturgeon was accused of guilt by association and of standing by her man. Salmond’s trust and integrity has undoubtedly been dealt a blow that clearly the opposition, if it is wise, will not let go of.

A week on and Sturgeon is clearly angry about the vitriol and name calling and in an emotional defence of Salmond, she tells Holyrood that having been in a longstanding political partnership with him, she trusts him implicitly.

Given our interview is all about the gender gap, I wonder if there is something intrinsically female about her defence of her boss, even when the most loyal of advocates must be wishing he had just haud his wheesht.

“Maybe this is a particularly female way of looking at things,” she says. “But when I hear some of the nonsense that I have heard spoken about Alex over the last few days, I judge him on my personal experience and I have known and worked very closely with this guy for 25 years and I totally trust him and I know he always has Scotland’s best interests at heart.

“He has been nothing but a huge support to me for my entire political career and I suppose it angers me when I hear some of these things that I hear people saying about him because I know they are not true.” One of the accusations levelled at the First Minister is that he is autocratic.

Does Sturgeon have the ability to tell him when he is wrong?

“Alex and I have a very close, very open and I think a very effective relationship and I’m not going into detail about the private discussions we have but he will say to me on occasion, ‘you are wrong about that and should think about this differently’ just as I would say to him, ‘you are wrong’. But what I am saying to you is that he doesn’t react any differently or less well than I would. We are both strong personalities but we are both people that have always worked well together and it is not perhaps for me to be the judge of that relationship but we have been leader and deputy leader for the best part of 10 years and it is quite unusual for that kind of relationship to work so well, as ours does, and I can sit here and say with all honesty I don’t just respect him, I like him and he is a colleague and a friend and someone I have absolute trust in.” I suggest that the opposition are latching on to a chink in Salmond’s popularity; that women don’t particularly like him.

“Och, I don’t buy that at all,” says his deputy.

“Alex is the First Minister and is, by any measure, a hugely successful politician, a hugely dominant figure on the political landscape and with any dominant figure, you will get some people who will love them and some less so. I don’t think that is a particular issue and certainly not in my personal experience and I have knocked on a lot of doors over the years and not picked that up as an issue at all.” Is the fact that she is a woman help their relationship work?

“I think and I always have thought that Alex and I make a good team for a variety of reasons and one of those reasons is that he is a man and I am a woman and that balances that team and balances that ticket and while we have similarities in personality terms, we are also very different and we complement each other as part of a team.” Does Sturgeon believe she has got to where she is because she is a woman or in spite of it?

“Neither, I would say. I think, and I hope, that I have got to where I am because I have worked hard and been good at the things I’ve done. I don’t think it’s because I’m a woman but I think to some extent, my perspective on things is different because I am a woman but nor do I think it’s in spite of being a woman either.

There are different challenges that face women in politics and I would like to see more women in the upper reaches and while I think there is a long way to go, I do think it’s got easier than when I started out and in that respect, Scotland should see itself as some shining example in that I led the SNP in parliament when we were in opposition and Johann is the second leader of the Labour Party and Ruth is the second leader of the Tory party, so having women in leadership positions in Scotland is not unusual and that’s good but we need to see more women coming up the ranks so Johann, Ruth and I can look behind us and see the future.” I suggest that the exchanges in the Chamber have become even more combative since women took the lead.

“Whether it has become more combative or as combative as it has always been – you always think the period you are going through is the most combative – I’m not sure, and I would say a couple of things to that; politics, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, is down to your point of view and taste but politics, in certain aspects of parliamentarian politics, is fairly adversarial and that is whether it is men or women involved. I do think there is a sense, and I am as guilty as any other woman in politics, that there was an expectation that women in leadership positions in politics would change that more than has been the case but the other point I would make is that the adversarial bit that people see in the Chamber is a very small part of the whole picture and you will find men and women MSPs doing business in a consensual, constructive way in committees and elsewhere outside the big set pieces in the Chamber in the Parliament.

“I think I can’t speak for all women, I think, and my opponents will probably laugh at this and say who is she kidding here, when I say I feel more comfortable having a proper debate on the issues than just hurling insults and I think we would all benefit from a bit less of the insults and a bit more of engaging on the substance and that’s where I hope we can get to over the next couple of years.” Do women bring something different to the political table?

“Women, to some extent, have the same priorities as men might have but I think we do bring a different perspective and I don’t want to generalise too much on this but perhaps that is it, that we do bring a different perspective, we see things differently, have a different way of looking at things, take a different approach and have a different tone to men and that’s why it is important that you have parliaments that are more balanced because that is more representative of life at large.” Would she describe herself as a feminist?

“I have always been comfortable describing myself as a feminist and still do. But I don’t just want to have the ability to do these things for myself but to be able to look behind me and see younger generations of women having not just the opportunities that I have had but greater opportunities and it is really important to me because I have a six-year-old niece and I want for her for when she is older, even more than was the case for me, to feel there are no barriers to any goals she sets for herself just because she is female.” Does she see herself as a role model for the next generation of women?

“God help us… to be honest, I don’t think about it every single day. Rightly or wrongly, I focus very much on the job in hand and in doing the very best I can do, given the responsibility I have at the time and maybe I should think more about the wider picture. Occasionally, more than occasionally, I will get emails or letters from girls in school wanting to know what it’s like being a woman in politics and when you get those emails, you do feel that responsibility to make sure that you are portraying politics and a career in politics as something worth doing, something that would be attractive to young women because I desperately want to see more women coming into politics and rising up through the ranks.” Does she believe in positive discrimination in relation to women and having all-women shortlists or quotas?

“I have to say, I have tended to be on the losing side of the argument within the SNP on this and back before the Scottish Parliament even came into existence, the SNP had a debate about whether we would zip the lists, as we called it, and I argued for it and was narrowly defeated.

But to be fair to the SNP, at the 1999 election it elected a fairly healthy proportion of women, not quite 50/50 but nevertheless, a healthy proposition. It’s true, the Parliament as a whole and the SNP have gone back a bit since then and that is not because women are not as good or as worthy to be in the Scottish Parliament but [it] says to me there are still institutional barriers to women being elected, which is why there is a case for positive action, positive discrimination, call it what you will but I accept the democratic decisions that the SNP comes to and the SNP has always opted to promote women in different ways to that and I respect that.” It’s interesting too that the Yes campaign has identified the need to target women in particular in an attempt to win the referendum. Why are women less enthusiastic about independence than men?

“I think there’s a variety of reasons. I think women, perhaps, take longer to be persuaded of things and maybe need more information to be persuaded and again this is a generalisation but as a woman, I can identify with this, that we are maybe more questioning, more sceptical and we want all the facts and figures to be persuaded.

It’s also true that more women in general tend to be in caring roles, more than will be the case with men, which perhaps brings with it an added feeling that you are making a decision not just for yourself but for future generations and that takes greater consideration. But I am very confident that if we can make the arguments for independence in the right way then women will see the benefits, not just for this generation but for future generations because it is, in my view, the only way to tackle some of the real injustices in Scottish society, with child poverty being top of that list. I think if we can make the arguments in the right way then we can rebalance what some polls say exists just now.

Can governments help fill in the gender gaps that exist in society?

“Totally and childcare is an important part of that. I was speaking at the women’s employment summit recently and someone described child care as essential infrastructure to the economy and in the same way as if you don’t have good train services or a good road system then you can’t get to work then so too, if we don’t have good childcare then women can’t get to their work either so as government, we do try to see these kind of services as integral and that’s a real example of how government can help women, if not have it all, then have as much as anyone else can.” Can women have it all?

“Yes, to the extent that anyone can have it all and I am not sure anyone can have it all without making compromises in one area of your life at the expense of another. Everybody makes trade-offs, men and women, so to the extent that anyone can have it all, then why shouldn’t women have kids, a good home life and get to the top of their profession or whatever role they find themselves in.

There’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the case for women as much as for men.” Sturgeon and her husband have no children and she is acutely aware that that often leads to speculation about whether she has sacrificed being a parent for a career. A question only ever raised about women. She seems relaxed about the situation and goes as far as to agree that ‘if it happens, it happens’.

“No, I don’t think I have sacrificed anything.

I feel very lucky with what I have been able to do with my life and if you had asked me at 16 when I joined the SNP if I would be the Deputy First Minister in a Scottish Parliament I would have said, don’t be daft, so the things [I did in] the five years I spent as Health Secretary will always count as one of the most special things I have done in life, the opportunities that [the job] brought, the experiences I have had, the people I have met, the difference I think you can help to make in these jobs, I just feel very fortunate.

“My sister and I were both recently at my mum’s 60th birthday party and my sister summed up what my mother had given us both and she gave us a sense of self-belief. Both my parents instilled in us that we should set out to do what we wanted to do and if we wanted it enough and worked hard enough then nothing should get in the way of that. I grew up as a young woman in a working-class family, in a workingclass area, and I can’t ever remember ever thinking or believing that there were things that I couldn’t aspire to because of that and that is a really valuable gift that any parent can give their children.” Women much more than men have to endure constant references to their looks, clothes and demeanour and Sturgeon has suffered from that more than most. How did that affect her?

“When you are in these situations and it might sound a bit odd but you don’t really think or worry about it. I’m not sure I was that conscious of it but looking back, the most frequent thing that was said about me was that I didn’t smile and that wasn’t true and wouldn’t be said about a man. There is lots of commentary about how you look and what you wear and while I wasn’t that aware of it, it probably did have a big influence on me. I think it made me more po’ faced and led me to take myself more seriously because I thought I had to be serious to be taken seriously and it is only much more recently that I have learnt to chill out a wee bit more – although I’m not sure anyone would ever describe me as particularly chilled out – but [I do] chill out and [do] not take myself quite so seriously. To be honest, if I am doing any job and I am doing my level best then that is what I should be judged on and I think it is partly due to the ageing process that you simply do get to an age where you are less bothered about what other people think of you.” What would the 42-year-old Nicola Sturgeon offer in advice to the 16-year-old Nicola Sturgeon?

“Smile more… Actually, I think the 16-year-old Nicola Sturgeon would simply ignore the advice that the 42-year-old Nicola Sturgeon would give her and so she should because you have to find your own way in life. You have to go through what you go through to become the 42-year old woman so while I would be tempted to say, lighten up, don’t take yourself too seriously, enjoy it and don’t allow it to be the be all and end all, I suspect she would ignore me…”

Mandy Rhodes Mandy Rhodes

Mandy Rhodes is Managing Editor of Holyrood Communications. Mandy is editor of the flagship title Holyrood magazine and responsible for the editorial content of all other associated titles and products. Mandy graduated from StirlingUniversity in the early 1980s with a joint Honours degree in Scottish History and Sociology. She trained on a local newspaper in Wester Hailes and completed her journalism training at Napier University. She has worked for nearly 30 years in journalism in Scotland in newsprint, television and radio broadcasting and was part of the launch team of Scotland on Sunday. She has won numerous awards over the years including PPA Magazine Editor of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Columnist of the year. She was social...

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