Hope rising: Interview with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon hopes the debate around independence will adopt a more optimistic tone
Nicola Sturgeon: Picture credit - David Anderson
There are words that disappear from the common lexicon for want of use and it is perhaps telling in these austere times that ‘respair’ falls into that category.
But ‘respair’, whose last recorded use was in the 15th century and can be both a noun and a verb, meaning the return of hope after a period of despair, is what Nicola Sturgeon hopes will catapult ‘No’ voters into the ‘Yes’ camp as the arguments for independence gather pace.
It’s hard to establish just when this new momentum for independence shifted up a gear but given for most of the last decade spring has been election season, perhaps our political body clocks have been set to crave a campaign.
And last month, after weeks of tedious debate about how many independence supporters had gathered in Glasgow to march to the beat of that particular drum, it felt like politicians of all stripes were either talking about independence, trying hard not to, or telling others to give it a rest.
The old ‘Better Together’ band was back on stage to talk, ironically, about why the SNP should stop talking about independence, when all they did was just that.
And despite the constant reminders of why they had been collectively known as ‘Project Fear’ during the 2014 campaign, it was, all-in-all, a convivial affair. The former leader of the Better Together campaign, Lord Darling, joshed with the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson. He said that in watching her develop as a politician, he wondered why she was not in the Labour Party; while she riposted that when watching Corbyn and John McDonnell, she wondered why he was still in it.
Meanwhile, at the same event, Jim Murphy, the former Scottish Labour leader, who had been at the sharp end of a thrown egg during the last independence referendum campaign, bizarrely claimed that he was not a Unionist.
But the main thrust of it all was to tell Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of a party committed to independence, to put a sock in it.
Four days later, the SNP’s long-awaited Growth Commission report was published, with Sturgeon announcing that it provided a “great foundation” for a positive debate around the benefits of an independent Scotland.
And so, it begins.
The much-heralded report was published six years to the day from the launch of the star-studded ‘Yes’ campaign in 2012 when Alex Salmond claimed that Scotland would become an independent country if one million Scots signed a new “Yes Declaration”.
By August 2014, that target had been smashed and a month later, Scots voted ‘No’.
Second time around, Sturgeon will be putting her faith in more solid numbers. And in the report, published by former SNP MSP and now corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson, she believes the economic arguments not only stack up, but offer a more hopeful and aspirational vision of what an independent Scotland could become.
More importantly, publication of the report buys the SNP leader time.
Sturgeon is not a politician who makes decisions quickly and it was perhaps uncharacteristically rash of her to call for a second referendum in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote.
True, Scotland had overwhelmingly rejected the vote to leave the EU but Sturgeon revealed more about her passion for Europe than a real understanding of the current public mood.
And so it has proved.
But ever since, she has been fighting a losing battle to quell the impatient troops who had been marched up the hill and want indyref2 asap. Meanwhile, the door was left ajar to a popular Scottish Conservative leader who managed to detoxify the Tories and tap into a scunnerdness at referenda. Sturgeon paid the price at the ballot box in 2017 and lost 21 of her MPs.
So now she faces a dilemma. And it is many-pronged.
On the one hand, support for independence remains high, there is a democratic mandate for a second referendum and the current criteria are, in some ways, more conducive to achieving the desired result than they were in 2014.
But on the other, support for independence isn’t enough yet to win a referendum. It is still too soon to see the economic consequences of a hard Brexit, there’s a Scottish Parliament election in 2021, in which the independence block of SNP and Green MSPs could be lost, and there’s a general election in 2022 which the Tories could still win.
In addition, Theresa May has so far refused a referendum, saying ‘now is not the time’.
Sturgeon is not normally one to gamble and so she is banking on the intellectual heft behind the Growth Commission report to buy her time to build an argument and paint a vision of a brighter future than the damaging one currently on offer by being part of the UK and out of the EU.
So, as the party faithful head to Aberdeen for the spring party conference this weekend, I ask her, with all this renewed talk of independence from Ruth Davidson and others, ‘are we now on the countdown to another independence referendum?’
“No, I wouldn’t describe it in that way,” she says. “The Growth Commission has been doing its work and publishing its report and I just think it is an opportunity to have a calm, considered debate about the benefits of independence and how we address the challenges that would flow from independence.
“I think for those out there who are open to be persuaded, then my view is that that is a more important thing to do right now than having a debate about the timing of a referendum. The debate about the timing excites those of us who are already convinced but we have work to do to convince those that aren’t yet convinced.
“As for Ruth Davidson, I think Ruth talks about independence so much because she doesn’t really have anything else to talk about. She has, as far as I can discern, no domestic agenda to talk about, she clearly doesn’t want to talk about Brexit because she clearly doesn’t want to stand up for what she used to argue for on Brexit. She has basically just become a very passive, silent supporter of the Brexiteer wing of the Tory party. When your main message is telling the SNP to give it a rest about independence, when you are about to be the headline act at a conference about independence, and when you are saying that the Union has become too London centric, the week after you voted for a power grab to centralise Scottish Parliament powers in Westminster, then I do sometimes think, if I can say this as politely as I can, a dose of self-awareness just occasionally might not go amiss.
“I think there is a new and dangerous element in the Scottish Tories – in their own group here and in a wider sense across the UK Tory party – where there is a much harder Unionism at play and what we saw from the Scottish Tories around the Legislative Consent Motion debate in the Scottish Parliament was almost as if during the 20 years of devolution, where they had reconciled themselves to it and had become a party comfortable with devolution, they had then rolled back and I think that is dangerous for them.
“Of course, people have different opinions about whether we should be independent but my experience is that there is overwhelming support for a strong Scottish Parliament and Scots won’t want to see it undermined. And as for the Tories, if they are seen to be part of a process, whether deliberate or as a by-product of a Brexit process, that undermines the Scottish Parliament, I think there will be a heavy price for them to pay.”
But, I wonder, do Scots really get aerated by geeky arguments about the Scottish Parliament withholding consent for legislation that the UK Government can pass anyway?
“I think that’s really missing the point because although it’s quite technical, it really matters, and if people don’t have the time to get their head around the technicalities and why it matters, it is our job as their elected representatives to do that for them.
“And it really matters. At the weekend, I was talking about the issue of food standards and that is just one area where this has a real impact. If we end up being restricted in the use of our own powers for seven years while the UK’s running off trying to do trade deals with the US and whoever else, selling out our environmental standards, our food standards, the protection for our whisky industry, and so on, in the process then people will rightly look to the Scottish Parliament and ask why we can’t do something about this and we won’t be able to because the powers will have been taken away.
“So, it does really matter and in time, people will come to see it matters and I wouldn’t want to be the First Minister that says I just meekly signed away the powers so I can’t do anything about things that people are worried about.
“I suppose there is part of me that thinks with all the utter mess that Brexit is, and all the various issues that the UK Government is having to try and deal with to make any kind of sense of it, why on earth do they want this disagreement with us added to that list, and why not just get this resolved and deal with it in a way that most people would see as perfectly acceptable and sensible?
“On the other hand, I don’t think everyone in the UK Government is, on this issue, of the view that here is a chance to take powers away from Scotland and it is all part of some dastardly plot.
However, I do think there are those looking towards trade deals and the last thing they want is Scotland putting a spoke in the wheel of a trade deal with us standing up for environmental issues and so on. I also think there are lots of others in the UK Government, and I am talking about the Whitehall machine, not just the politicians, that simply don’t have the bandwidth to think about Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland because the whole Brexit project is consuming them and I think for them it is just easier if they take control because then they don’t need to think about what Scotland might do.”
And inherent in all intergovernmental negotiations is the omnipresent threat of what Scotland might do and yet amid all the chaos of Brexit, support for independence is no higher. Has that surprised her?
“At the end of the day, whether it surprises me is neither here nor there because I think where we are in terms of independence support is a strong position to be in but I think we need to re-engage with the core arguments for it and how it enables us to seize a whole variety of opportunities, which is what the Growth Commission will allow us to do.
“It’s a really good piece of work, a very comprehensive, robust, well considered, well balanced piece of work and Andrew and his team have done a really good job on it. It is not SNP policy the minute it is published and was never meant to be. It will go through a lot of discussion and deliberation and decision within the party framework and we will see what the party makes of it, but I would expect the party to be very positive about it and it gives us a really good foundation to go forward and inform the debate.”
In a way that the previous White Paper failed to do?
“I was the minister responsible for the White Paper and you will not hear me saying the White Paper was a load of rubbish. The White Paper was a very good, very strong, very comprehensive prospectus for independence and on the strength of the White Paper, support for independence went from the low 30s to 45 per cent. Much of the White Paper, I think, is solid and you see a lot of that reflected in the Growth Commission report but time and circumstances have changed since then.
“We have seen changes around oil and gas, although oil prices are heading up very strongly at the moment, but we are reminded about the volatility of oil prices so there is a different approach from the Growth Commission on how we deal with the great asset that is oil and gas. Clearly, we will inherit a position from the UK in terms of the fiscal position in an independent Scotland and so you see the Growth Commission set out a very frank but very well thought through pathway to deal with that, in a way that stays true to things we think are important and allows us to take a very different approach to the austerity approach that has been taken by the UK government.
“You see a very different approach to currency and not because I think the currency position in 2014 was wrong – in fact, you heard the Governor of the Bank of England saying that economically that was entirely possible – but it ran into a political roadblock and we don’t want to be the hostage of people that want to be politically oppositional around these things, so we take a different and a sensible approach to currency in this report.
“It’s a set of recommendations and I am not sitting here, and neither would Andrew, expecting every comma, recommendation and detail to necessarily become SNP policy but I think the general thrust is in the right direction and gives us a very strong foundation and opens the door to a much more optimistic and aspirational debate about what Scotland can achieve, which is in pretty sharp contrast to the depressing, despairing debate we have had in the last couple of years about how we limit the damage of something that we didn’t want to have happen to us anyway.
“The report has a very optimistic tone to it, but not an unrealistic tone. It’s pretty hard headed, so it doesn’t sugar coat the challenges, it doesn’t shy away from the challenges but it, quite rightly in my view, makes the point that those challenges are inescapable whichever path we take. So, the choice is, do we take the path where we can navigate our own way through these challenges? Or do we stick on the path that created them in the first place that is, because of Brexit, threatening to make them worse rather than better. So, it had that optimistic kind of ‘let’s take our destiny into our own hands’ tone, and I do think there’s an appetite for that.
“I think people are sick of a debate that’s about how we limit damage as opposed to how we maximise opportunity and I think this gets the SNP, and the independence movement, back onto the ground of how we maximise opportunity.
“There’s a line in the report that there’s no pot of gold, black or otherwise, at the end of the independence rainbow and I think that’s quite a nice way of putting it. You know, we made this point repeatedly, I remember doing public meetings, the length and breadth of the country, where I went to great pains to make the point that independence wasn’t a magic wand, we have to earn our way to success, but you’re more likely to do it if you have the tools in your own hands rather than some of the tools being in somebody else’s hands and that’s the realism that runs through the report but it is unashamedly, and unapologetic, as it should be, upbeat and positive.
“The Tories and Labour, if they allow themselves to be part of that coalition again, and that’s a decision for them, but it seems to me, their success depends on making people feel depressed and divided and scared of trying to do things better. It’s almost a kind of ‘look, things might be rubbish, but you don’t have any right to expect them to be any better than that, so stay in your place, know your place because it will be too risky to do anything else’. So, the whole Better Together argument in 2014 depended on making people feel like that and I think it became one of their biggest weaknesses in that campaign and I think it will become one of their biggest weaknesses again because I think people, by nature, most people want to think that we can actually do better and that we can get over challenges rather than just have to expect the inevitability of whatever the Westminster system chooses to chuck at you.”
Meanwhile, Sturgeon has her own domestic record to defend and you would have to be a true optimist to believe there were no real problems there.
“We face challenges in our health service and in education which I have been very frank about, in all the time I’ve been First Minister, but we’ve got a whole programme of work in each of these areas to overcome these challenges.
“Health services everywhere are facing the same demographic challenge, but we’re probably better placed and further ahead in equipping and preparing our health service for that than certainly other health services across the UK, especially in terms of integrating social care, the transfer of resources and some of the work that we’ve done to get our emergency services into better shape.
“The NHS continues to have really high patient satisfaction scores but don’t get me wrong, there are challenges in our health service. We are seeing demand increase and although we’re putting in extra resources, there is a pressure on the ability of the service to meet that demand, which is why as well as the investment, we have also introduced reforms, particularly around social care and integration, and the new GP contract, which is about building up community services. These are all really important pieces of work which are essential if the health service is to be sustainable in the longer term and we’re getting to grips with them. I don’t know if there’s any other government in the UK getting to grips with these in the same way, so yeah, I’ve got five years’ experience of being Health Secretary and as you say, being Health Secretary is never an easy job, you never know when the next thing is going to happen but that’s part of what makes the job fantastic as well, because you’re dealing with a public service that everybody is passionate about and cares about so much.
“It’s fair to say that we used to do this in opposition as well, but opposition parties like to pretend that the answers are simple; just change the Health Secretary and everything will be all right.
That’s not how these things work. You have to put in the hard work to put in the longer-term reforms, and that’s what we’re doing and that’s what Shona is leading on very well.
“I stick by everything I’ve said on education and being judged on it and I think we are starting to see some real progress. If you look at the figures around attainment, not just in schools but in access to universities now, we’ve had a 12-13 per cent increase in young people from more deprived communities going to university. In schools, the pupil equity approach, I keep saying this but I only keep saying it because I keep getting told it by teachers and teachers who will probably take issue with other things we’re doing in education, but they will literally seek me out to say the pupil equity is transformational so I think there’s a lot of signs for cautious optimism in what we’re seeing now as a result of the changes we’re making in education.
“And I think this is a real contrast, I don’t know what the UK Government is doing, apart from Brexit. I don’t think they’re doing anything apart from Brexit. We’ve had ambitious domestic programmes from the day and hour we were first elected but in terms of big stuff that we’re doing now, we’ve got possibly the most transformative domestic programme underway than we have had at any time during our time in government and for a government 11 years in, that’s pretty important.
“From the doubling of childcare, to the education reform, to the work around shifting the balance of care in the health service, the establishment of the National Investment Bank, the National
Manufacturing Institute, the superfast broadband expansion programme, the infrastructure investment programme, building a new social security agency and delivering social security powers, possibly at no point in the last 11 years has there been so many big impactful transformative domestic initiatives underway all at the same time.”
So why is independence still so important?
“Being in control of your own destiny in overall terms translates into millions of individual practical examples, being able to take on the challenges we face and chart our own way through them, as opposed to having to accept the inevitability of a path that we know is going to make all of us poorer. This is the week in which the Governor of the Bank of England sat before a Westminster committee and said Brexit is already making people £900 per household poorer. We know that Brexit is going to make the country poorer and we can sit here and think, fine, we should just accept that or we can say, yes, independence has challenges of its own, it’s not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but my goodness, it gives us the opportunity to do what other small independent countries have done in trying to get to a better end point and I think that’s a far more uplifting and inspiring and exciting proposition than the Brexit despair that we’ve been living with for the past couple of years.
“It’s a crazy, crazy time in politics right now. You could argue it’s a crazy time globally as well as in the UK but you know, and I lived through the Thatcher government and all the damage it did, this
UK Government right now is the most dysfunctional, incompetent, chaotic, selfish UK Government in my entire lifetime. And Labour is still trailing them in the polls. Which is another argument for Scotland being independent!”
I ask her who she would rather face in any independence negotiation – Corbyn or May? “Ha, you assume that either of them will still be around,” she laughs. “My conversations around independence have to be with the Scottish people first and foremost, and until we persuade a majority of the Scottish people, the rest of it is academic, so we’ll concentrate on that.
“We have a very, very strong long-term domestic programme in place just now which I’m very proud of and we’re absolutely committed to seeing through but a good dose of optimism for Scotland is needed at the moment. It’s not optimism in the sense of trying to ignore the challenges but trying to focus people on the best way to address these challenges is not to get ourselves collectively sunk in the Brexit despair but work out that we can do this better.”
I suggest she is starting to sound a little like full-on Willie ‘Mr Optimism’ Rennie…
“I think the chances of me going full on Willie Rennie on anything are as close to zero as anything you can get."
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