'Smiling Assassin' - an interview with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
In this general election campaign there is one party that seems to be the pariah for all
The only unity in UK politics right now seems to be a collective cry of ‘anyone but the SNP’.
Vote SNP and get the Tories, says Labour. Vote SNP and get Labour, say the Tories. And, meanwhile, the English-only editions of the Sun and the Daily Mail stir up the electorate with Nicola Sturgeon swinging across their pages variously photoshopped into a teeny weeny tartan plaid bikini or as a cartoon character with Ed Miliband plopped into a rather generous Barbara Windsor-style cleavage – and that’s one giant statistic that even Sturgeon can’t claim.
Sturgeon may be popular on her home turf – party conference is expected to be attended by 3,000 delegates this weekend and full membership now stands at an eye-watering 100,000 – but she is a threat to the Westminster establishment and they don’t like it up ‘em.
Only last week, the defence minister, Anna Soubry, described the prospect of a Labour minority government propped up by an SNP block of MPs as “terrifying” in terms of the constitution but also for the nation’s safety given that renewal of Trident could be a red-line issue for the SNP.
And her discomfiture can only have been further compounded by revelations later in the week by the former First Minister and Westminster parliamentary candidate for Gordon, one Alex Salmond, made in an interview (lubricated, we understand by a bottle of pink champagne) with the New Statesman that the SNP would vote down any minority Conservative Government even before it got past the Queen’s speech. And it’s not for the first time that Salmond has channelled the rumbustious spirit of the Irish Home Rule politician, Charles Stewart Parnell, who wreaked havoc in the Commons.
The Westminster establishment sees trouble ahead. And it speaks for itself that six months on from a referendum that she lost and less than two months out from a general election she can’t win, the politician attracting most interest and column inches is the leader of a party that wants to dismantle Britain and who is unequivocal in her assertion that the SNP will do no deal with the Tories. No wonder Cameron is feart.
Sturgeon has only been Scotland’s First Minister – the fifth so far and the only woman to have assumed the position – for four months and in that time she has been caught up in a whirlwind of engagements, including many in London, that have positioned her as one of the most high-profile politicians in the UK.
And she is one of the most popular. A YouGov poll in last week’s Sun showed that Sturgeon has a net approval rating across the UK of +7, compared to David Cameron’s net rating of -5, Ed Miliband’s net rating of -39 and Nick Clegg’s net rating of -47. More astonishingly, amongst respondents in England alone, Scotland’s First Minister, a woman who led the charge for Scotland to break away from the Union, is the only party leader who has a positive approval rating – with a net rating of +5.
For a politician that has never been elected to Westminster she has fairly pricked that bubble.
Sturgeon stands out from the other main UK party leaders for a number of reasons: she is a woman, she has a common touch and in a world of Oxbridge educated professional politicians, she appears authentically Scots; state educated, working class, left-leaning and believably human.
She has her flaws – potentially even more autocratic than Salmond, for instance – but she has not been afraid to expose her vulnerabilities, and has worked hard on being the persona she now publically presents.
Some say that is artifice and carefully manicured but then who hasn’t refined their image by the time they reach their mid-40s? Particularly women in senior roles who have spent years listening to pejorative comments levelled more at their looks than their leadership.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again, the way to describe Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to being First Minister of Scotland is, ‘entirely comfortable’. It just fits.
Sturgeon is, however, as much an observer of politics as she is a participant. She is always very interested to hear what is being said about her opponents and is also happy to express an opinion or two of her own.
She is more instinctive than Salmond and much more aware of how things can look to the outside world. She is an avid user of social media – she tweets personally and personably and is happy to pop up in unexpected discussions about things like her kitchen or who does the housework in the Sturgeon/Murrell household (him, although she still does iron his shirts).
This may all look more authentic, more normal, than for others, but it is also carefully contrived. She told me she applies an alcohol-free rule to her tweeting and she is clearly and carefully in control of herself and her team.
Her swift response to SNP members who have stepped out of line – like the troll that abused Tory leader Ruth Davidson – is in sharp contrast to Salmond who would have prevaricated over such matters. And she is also a much easier interviewee than her predecessor. Salmond has a tendency to ramble on, enjoy his own jokes and not finish sentences, whereas she is much more concise, much more aware of a soundbite and less likely to slip up. Although, she is equally happy to muse and explore. She basically knows her subject so is confident going off script but not message. She also knows the pitfalls and how not to plunge into them.
While Salmond can adopt a chumminess that can as quickly be turned off, Sturgeon is genuinely warm. I would describe her as a woman’s woman; she likes a gossip and a laugh and is entertaining company basically because she is interested in others in a way that Salmond never really was. She doesn’t need to be the centre of attention – even though she frequently is – and she just has a more acute emotional intelligence than Salmond.
"Scots want to exert ourselves, exert our influence and make our voice heard, so I think, given that has been the prevailing mood since the referendum, I guess it’s not surprising that we are in this position now"
But for a politician that likes to be liked, this could be an uncomfortable general election campaign. We sit down days before her first party conference as leader and as First Minister. I ask her what it feels like to be the pariah outside that party bubble.
“I see it differently,” she smiles. “I think we are demonstrating that the party is standing up for Scotland, winning support in Scotland and I think we are in the process of frightening the Westminster establishment, which I think can only be a good thing for people in Scotland and, I have to say, for people in the other parts of the UK as well. If Westminster gets shaken up a bit by the SNP then that’s good for the rest of us.
“On the contradictory messages that both the Tories and Labour are putting out about what you get if you vote SNP, then I think as long as they are both saying it in the opposite direction it kind of proves the point that none of it is true. They can’t both be right. Look, as far as I am concerned, if you vote SNP you get SNP.
“I think if you had asked me before the referendum whether I would have seen the SNP in the position it is now, I wouldn’t have predicted it. I wouldn’t have wanted to predict it because I would have wanted to think we were looking at a Yes vote, and as you know, because we spoke about it in the final stages of that campaign, I thought that’s where we were heading. But if I had thought about this scenario, I don’t think I’d have dared to predict we would be in this position.
“However, since the referendum and almost from the day or a couple of days after the referendum, the direction of travel in Scotland has been very clear and so it doesn’t really surprise me that we have ended up here but from where we take absolutely nothing for granted.
“The SNP is in such a strong position because I think almost from the moment the polls closed on the day of referendum and the result started to become clear there’s been the sense that we don’t want to go back to business as usual where we are just an afterthought for Westminster. Instead, Scots want to exert ourselves, exert our influence and make our voice heard, so I think, given that has been the prevailing mood since the referendum, I guess it’s not surprising that we are in this position now. But I certainly didn’t predict it.
“I think for Labour, what we are seeing has almost become the last desperate vestige of a failing Scottish Labour party and a failing campaign. They appear to have no positive argument to put to people in Scotland as to why they should vote Labour so they are just falling back on the old vote Labour to stop something worse happening, which they say would be us.
“The flaw, or the many flaws [to Labour’s strategy], in my view, is firstly, folk are not daft and people remember the last election when the argument was the same and we did vote – obviously not me – but Scotland voted Labour and we ended up with the Tories and Scotland knows that’s happened many, many times before in living memory.
“They also know the SNP are never going to put the Tories into government and arithmetically as long as you have an anti-Tory majority in the House of Commons the only way the Tories can get into government is if Labour let them into government.
“It’s a threadbare argument and I guess maybe Labour relied on getting away with threadbare arguments in the days when people weren’t as politically engaged and informed as they are now. The problem for them now is people are a lot more engaged, educated and informed about politics, and they can see the lies.
“I’m not sure UK Labour has even yet woken up to how out of touch they now appear to be with mainstream opinion in Scotland. I don’t know what runs through the minds of Labour people when they look at polls. That in Scotland, a traditionally Labour voting country, you have a Labour leader who is less popular than a deeply unpopular Tory Prime Minister. How does that happen? What is their explanation for that? I just know Labour is out of touch and Scottish Labour, in desperately trying to find its way back, is insulting the intelligence of people by almost hoping that people have erased their memory of positions that the party has held and of all the things they’ve done for the last few years. Again people are not daft.”
"I’ll never become part of the Westminster establishment. We are the government in Scotland but I challenge this notion to be the government you have to stop being on the side of the people"
And yet, paradoxically, she would be willing to prop up a deeply unpopular Labour Prime Minister whilst at the same time having killed Scottish Labour off?
“I don’t see it as propping up, I see it as keeping it honest and putting a bit of backbone into them and trying to make sure that they deliver some of the progressive politics that people traditionally would have associated with a Labour government. I am certainly not prepared for the SNP to back a Labour government that just implements Tory policies.
“The benefit and strength of having SNP MPs there in numbers is we can force the kind of policies we want to see coming out of Westminster. I’ve spent a wee bit of time in London over the past few months and the idea that this is just purely about Scotland dictating the direction of travel in Westminster – and if we are a valued and equal part of the UK then there is nothing wrong with us trying to do that – just isn’t true because I am seeing a lot of support for the kind of policy positions we want to pursue at Westminster from other parts of the UK as well.”
I say to the First Minister that it is interesting that as a party of government in Scotland the SNP still retains a sense of being anti-establishment south of the border. I sense a bristle at the implication.
“We’re not the establishment. I’ll never become part of the Westminster establishment. We are the government in Scotland but I challenge this notion to be the government you have to stop being on the side of the people. Perhaps the reason we are so successful is we’ve managed to be the government but still be seen very clearly as on the side of ordinary people. As long as we manage to not just appear like that but also to be like that then we will hopefully continue to be successful.
“I’d never want to be part of the so-called Westminster establishment and I’m never likely to be part of it. I think this is a time, not just for people in Scotland, but for many people in the UK to see that Westminster is really, really broken – the Tories and Labour are just symptoms of that broken system – and this election can be the opportunity to shake things up, to force the democratic reform across the UK that people are crying out for and if we can be part of forcing that drive for change then we will be.”
What kind of change would the SNP be looking for?
“I would absolutely think reform of the electoral system, the House of Lords, and a move for further devolution. It’s not for me to say whether other parts of the UK should want or have devolution and more power but I think the whole democratic landscape of the UK really needs to be reformed. We’ve had lots of talk about it down the years but very little meaningful action.
"When there was a referendum on voting reform, the system that was put to people was so complicated it was doomed to failure. So I think all of these things are back on the agenda, or should be back on the agenda, and we will be doing our best to put them on the agenda.
“We obviously support a system of proportional representation and we would push for that and use whatever influence we have to push for that kind of progressive reform. That also applies to the voting system within the House of Commons and in this day and age having the House of Lords, where we still have people with no democratic mandate writing the laws of the land, I just find completely and totally unacceptable and indefensible. So there’s lots we can do but even if we are very successful and live up to poll expectations, which I would be very cautious about, we’re going to have to look to make alliances elsewhere across the UK to try and force some of that change through but we will certainly be trying to do it.”
I begin to ask her under what circumstances she might agree to an arrangement with the Tories. She just shakes her head and stops me before I can even finish the sentence.
Alright, but I tell her that Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland, had told me at his party’s conference the week before that the Lib Dems had gone into coalition with the Tories because it was the right thing to do for the country, that you can’t just pick a partner that thinks like you, and, after all, shouldn’t democracy prevail?
“That seems to me to be a rather wordy way of trying to justify selling out on all your principles and values,” she says dismissively. “For me, the honest thing in politics is to do after the election what you said you would do before the election. In the Liberals’ case, that was not introducing top-up tuition fees and they immediately went back on that. The Liberals are in the position they are now not because they went into coalition per se, it’s because they went into coalition with the Tories and then jettisoned all the things that they had stood for as a party in the election and I think they have lost credibility, and rightly so.
“There is no chance of us going into a coalition of any kind with the Tories. None. It’s about a mixture of all of these things that I’ve just said. But mainly, it’s about principle. You know, I abhor much of what the Tories stand for and much of what they are doing in government to some of the most vulnerable people in society but Scotland just doesn’t vote Tory.
"Every single general election in my lifetime, the Tories haven’t just not won the election in Scotland, they have been comprehensively rejected by the people in Scotland. I wouldn’t expect that to be any different this time round. For the SNP to foist on Scotland a government that Scotland has rejected in every general election in my lifetime would be unthinkable, so for a variety of reasons there are no circumstances, none, in which we would do any kind of deal with the Tories.”
Given that the polls are predicting that the SNP could be the third largest party in Westminster and that Sturgeon herself has already complained that UK civil servants have refused to engage with her in any pre-election discussions which are common for opposition parties, I ask her if any of the parties themselves have tried to engage.
“No and I don’t think there should be any discussions of that nature this side of the election. One of the inevitabilities of the polls being as they are is that a lot of the discussion is focussing on what is happening after the election. I get that, I understand that, but I think we’ve all got to be careful that we don’t, in the process of that, forget that there is the very important matter of the election to happen. People have got a right to vote and then once people have voted if there are discussions to be had we can have them then.
“I will lead those talks but the SNP is a team and we’ve always operated as a team and of course Alex is an important part of that. Of course he is. But I’m the leader of the party. That’s the reality and it’s not a big deal within the SNP because it’s perfectly well understood and I’m sure pretty quickly after the election, if we are in this scenario that we are painting, then it will be well understood in Westminster and Whitehall as well.
“Alex is an asset for the SNP. I think he is an asset for Scotland. The more he’s out there complimenting what I’m doing as party leader, playing a role as part of the SNP team, then that’s good for the SNP. I guess I’d be much, much more troubled at the moment if we were facing what we have traditionally faced in Westminster elections when none of us are on the telly in a network UK context because we are struggling to get heard and struggling for relevance. So I’m quite happy with where we are just now.
“If we are in a situation, and again I’m breaking my own rule here by getting into the realms of this discussion, then of course I will have to make sure that I am where I need to be to lead on any negotiations. These things are not about compartmentalising your time.
"The most important job I have, by a hundred country miles, is the job I do as First Minister and that will always preoccupy me and occupy my mind and that will always have the first call on my time. But most Prime Ministers are also party leaders and you do the different aspects of that job and you don’t divide it into wee chunks of time – it’s just part of the job that we do and this will be no different. If we are in that position then we will have a strong team of MPs down there who on a day-to-day basis in the House of Commons will be the ones doing the work but in terms of overall strategy and position and policy of the party then that’s my job as party leader.
“I think there are elements of the Westminster establishment that can’t see beyond the length of themselves but if we are in the position of minority government, for instance, then I think very quickly people have to get their heads around that. What it means for us in the SNP is that we bring to bear a huge amount of experience of making a minority government work, making it successful, stable, effective and getting things done and we can use that experience to try and get things done in the Westminster system as well.
"We’ll continue to push away at that and before you ask me I’m not going to tell you what it all is, but I’ve got a fairly developed idea in my head of what our tactics and what our objectives will be in that scenario and we will continue to prepare ourselves for that. But most importantly we will continue to be working hard to get people’s votes. Unless we get people to vote for us and win seats then all of this talk is academic. That’s the total focus of the next few weeks.”
Sturgeon will address the party faithful this weekend in unprecedented times for the SNP. Polls are consistently predicting a wipeout for both the Lib Dems and for Scottish Labour and the SNP has become the focus across the UK in a Westminster election. It really is an election, ironically for them as a party that can’t ever actually win, that is theirs to lose. I ask her how she can manage expectations.
“It’s impossible at the moment,” she laughs. “With polls the way they are, it just is impossible to play down expectations. I think what I’ve got to do is two things: firstly just put things in context and the most MPs we’ve had at Westminster ever is 11 and we’ve got six just now so in a sense any seat we win beyond 11 is record-breaking and we’ve got to make sure we don’t lose sight of that. But equally I don’t want to be putting a limit on the party’s ambitions and the more seats we win the louder Scotland’s voice will be, so I want us to win as many seats as possible.
"Which takes me to the second thing I’ve got to do and that’s make sure the party doesn’t start to rest on its laurels and think it’s in the bag because the polls are good. We work really, really hard but we know from all of our experience that polls don’t win elections.
"Hard graft and having the best ideas, the best vision, and the best ambition for the country is what wins elections, so that’s what we’ve got to do.”
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