"I haven’t ruled anything out" - Nicola Sturgeon on indyref2, the general election and SNP conference
Exclusive interview with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ahead of the SNP conference
Nicola Sturgeon - image credit: David Anderson
Earlier this year, during a fiery Scottish Parliament debate, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives held up her hand in a stop sign and curtly told Nicola Sturgeon to ‘sit down’.
For an SNP leader whose raison d’être is to stand up for Scotland, being told to sit down by a Tory during a debate on a second independence referendum was a ‘stop-in-your-tracks’ moment but perhaps just a salutary warning of what was yet to come. Three months later, in the snap general election, the SNP lost half a million votes and 21 of the 56 Westminster seats it had won in 2015. Ruth Davidson, meanwhile, based on a simple but effective message of ‘no to a second referendum’, had increased her tally from just one MP to 13 and symbolically, had taken the scalps of two of the SNP’s biggest hitters: Alex Salmond and deputy leader Angus Robertson.
That result came hard on the heels of the local government elections, which saw the Tories exceed expectations and followed on from last year’s Scottish Parliament ballot in which the SNP lost its majority, put the Tories ahead of Labour to become the main opposition at Holyrood and prompted Davidson to boast that she had put Sturgeon’s government on notice to quit.
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And in June of this year, just three months after having bullishly announced she would put the wheels in motion for a second independence referendum in the autumn of 2018, only to be told by Theresa May that ‘now is not the time’, and just weeks after the snap election which had seen her lose 40 per cent of her MPs, Sturgeon returned to the Holyrood chamber to announce a much anticipated ‘reset’.
In a statement, the First Minister said: “The Scottish Government remains strongly committed to the principle of giving Scotland a choice at the end of the [Brexit] process.
“However, I reassure people that our proposal is not to have a referendum now or before there is sufficient clarity about the options, but rather to give them a choice at the end of the Brexit process when that clarity has emerged.
“I am therefore confirming…that, having listened and reflected, the Scottish Government will reset the plan that I set out on 13 March.
“We will not seek to introduce the legislation for an independence referendum immediately. Instead, we will, in good faith, redouble our efforts and put our shoulder to the wheel in seeking to influence the Brexit talks in a way that protects Scotland’s interests… At the end of the period of negotiation with the EU, which is likely to be around next autumn, when the terms of Brexit will be clearer, we will come back to Parliament to set out our judgement on the best way forward at that time, including our view on the precise timescale for offering people a choice over the country’s future.”
The statement did nothing to appease her critics. It appeared, at best, a fudge – less a U-turn and more of a scuttling backtrack. Ruth Davidson said Sturgeon hadn’t been listening and that independence should be taken off the table completely. And even the FM’s supporters seemed nonplussed. Former SNP minister Marco Biagi tweeted: “The messaging on this indyref announcement now seems to be all over the shop. Danger is everyone hearing what they *least* want to hear.”
Sturgeon appeared narky, unsure and seemed to have lost that seemingly inexhaustible ability to pick herself up and shake herself down. And because politics is all about momentum, inevitably much of the ensuing commentary centred on the rise of the Tories and the fall or flatlining of the SNP. It capped what had been a torrid time for the SNP. Daily headlines were damning, Sturgeon’s popularity was slipping, there were signs of internal unrest and while she may have been finding it difficult to shake off a persistent cold, Sturgeon was finding it even more difficult to shake off the accusation that she was not getting on with the day job. Evidence of slipping standards in key areas of health and education fuelled the argument that this was a government in decline and with a tunnel vision skewed to independence – and that had undoubtedly fed into the election result.
Sturgeon said she wanted to use the summer recess to refresh. And but for a few left-field interventions, having to justify what she meant in a hypothetical conversation during the Edinburgh book festival about not using the word ‘national’ in the party’s name if she was setting it up today, or having to defend Alex Salmond against accusations of sexism during his one-man Fringe show, she remained relatively absent from the political fray. The rest clearly did her some good. And after the usual week in Portugal with her husband at her in-laws’ time-share, a cursory attempt at housework and a lot of reading, she returned to parliament with a powerful programme for government, a new vigour and clearly ready for the fight. Her humour has been restored and she’s even started running, having become bored of using an indoor cross-trainer at home. She is now out a couple of times a week on a half-hour run on Edinburgh’s southside with some of her staff – an activity that so far seems more about necessity than pleasure – “I’m still at the stage of counting down the lampposts on the route back,” she laughs.
I sit down with Sturgeon ahead of her own party conference in Glasgow and on the day that the Prime Minister has, inexplicably, said in one of her own pre-conference interviews that the Tories hadn’t been prepared for the snap election.
“Ha,” laughs the First Minister. “If the Tories weren’t prepared for a snap general election, they should sack the person who called it…I mean, it’s terrible that the election took her [Theresa May] by surprise quite so much.”
The truth is, however, that the election could not have come at a worse time for Sturgeon. Having already staked her political reputation on being judged on her record on education, and having fired the starting gun on a second referendum, May’s snap election became a snap judgement on the two things that Sturgeon was not yet prepared for.
“Look, we didn’t call the election, but we fought the election well,” says Sturgeon. “It was a difficult election for everybody and we came out of it losing seats that I regret deeply – she describes Salmond’s departure as like “losing a limb” – but we came out of that election with our second-best election performance in a general election ever and but for 2015’s exceptional result, this would have been seen as an historically good election for the SNP.
“I think we did have the right messages and you can go over and over and over election campaigns and messages, and all parties do that, all parties should do that, but it was an election of its time, it was an election that I think most people would have probably preferred not to have had at that particular time and I think there was also a certain sort of fatigue on the part of a lot of voters.
“I know people don’t want me to say this all the time, but, yes, sometimes you can be the victim of your own successes and if you’d asked me even just a few years ago whether the SNP winning a Westminster election in Scotland with as many seats as we did this year could ever be seen as anything other than a massive success, I would have laughed at you. So, we are where we are, and after 10 years in government, we are again the victims of our own success. If you look at polls just now, we’re polling more strongly now 10 years in than we have been at an equivalent point after both of our previous Scottish election victories – we’re 10 to 15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.
“But by nature, I’m not complacent and we’ve always, particularly at a 10-year point, got to be looking to where we go from here, how we refresh, which is what we did in the programme for government, but to sit here and have a discussion that somehow suggests the position the SNP is in is anything other than a really strong one sounds, to me, kind of artificial.”
Indeed, I tell her that despite losing his seat, Salmond, who she confidently predicts will be back in politics, believes that Sturgeon is in the right place and was right to call for a second referendum after the EU vote. He told me that time will justify her position. He described the election as a “misfortune”, a “point in time” and that “the strategic position in two years’ time is going to look extremely positive for the SNP.”
She nods. “It’s a fair analysis and it goes back to what I said about the timing of the election, which I think was difficult for everybody for different reasons. It’s one of the big culpabilities of the Tories, having taken us into the EU referendum – taking that massive gamble with the future of the country and having lost that gamble and plunging the country into a period of uncertainty and huge risk – to then call a snap general election in the middle of that when the clock’s already ticking on Article 50, and we’re now seeing the price of that lost time in the Article 50 process. I just think [it] all adds up to a Tory tendency to play fast and loose with the future of the country.
“Look, we literally don’t know right now when Brexit will happen. She [Theresa May] made the Florence speech, and don’t get me wrong, there were elements of that speech that I think suggest that there is at least a kernel of realism emerging in what they’re trying to do, but there are still significant hurdles and just making one speech is not going to, as we’ve seen in the intervening week, change the entire dynamic on its own. We know that she has a deeply divided party, and already, having strong-armed or whatever they had to do to get Boris Johnson to stay on message, I think on at least two occasions this week, I’ve seen comments from Boris Johnson that go back on what she said in the speech, so managing the Tory party is going to be a significant challenge for her.
“Then of course, and this is the bit that the UK Government never seemed to have acknowledged, it’s a negotiation. It’s not just a case of them deciding what they want and that’s what happens. The other side of this negotiation has a say in this as well. There are significant hurdles still to be overcome therein. So, who knows where the negotiation is going to go. What I do know now is that this is a big concern in my mind, and I know it will be concerning different people across the UK, that as the clock ticks and as the moment of exit gets closer, the worry and concern that people have about the implications grows almost daily, and that’s bad for the country.”
I suggest that in normal circumstances having such a dysfunctional Tory government at Westminster, ongoing austerity and all the uncertainty of Brexit would feed into an argument for independence now, but in a recent interview with the New Statesman, Sturgeon appeared to question whether there would be a second referendum at all, never mind when, and while the publication has since corrected the journalist’s interpretation of her answer, the ongoing ambiguity surely doesn’t help her cause.
“I made the statement to Parliament in June, where I said we would reconsider the timing when the dust had settled and things had become clearer. Nothing I said in the New Statesman interview changed what I had already said. We have a mandate for a referendum in this parliament, so that’s not ruled out. I haven’t ruled anything out, but I have recognised that people feel very uncertain, things are up in the air, so there is a need just to let the dust settle a little bit. We don’t know exactly what will happen in terms of a transition period. Hopefully, that will become clearer over the next few months, but we do know that this negotiation that’s underway just now must come to some conclusion in the autumn of next year for the ratification process to happen. So, that struck me before, and it still strikes me now, as the period in which we think and we reconsider that timing issue. But clearly, given I’m saying we’ll reconsider it then, means I haven’t yet decided what the right timing will be.
“I’m not going to say anything more about timing beyond what I’ve just said and I will continue to try to take decisions that I think are in the best interests of the country, every step of the way. I’m not, unfortunately, in control of the Brexit process, therefore, I can’t look ahead and tell you exactly how that process is going to unfold. Does that make the judgements I must make more challenging? Of course it does, but my job is to try and make those judgements based on the best information I have at the time and if I come to reconsider this, that’s what I’ll do. In the meantime, we get on with trying to protect Scotland’s interests in the whole Brexit process as best we can and we get on with taking forward the programme for government we set out a few weeks ago.
“One of the things I accept, but can still find amusing at times and mildly frustrating at other times, is that there is a sort of over-forensic examination of every syllable and every punctuation mark in every sentence that I utter on the issue of independence. I say things one way and because I’m not a robot – not that I’m suggesting any other leader across the country is – I don’t always say things using exactly the same words all the time. So, you say the same thing, but you might say it in a slightly different way, and suddenly it’s, ‘oh my god, she’s said something different or new’ and I’m like, ‘well, no, I’ve maybe used a slightly different formulation to describe the same thing, but the substance is not new’.
“We had an instance in the general election where we literally came down to having a debate with journalists about where the comma in a sentence I had uttered was. I said, ‘the issue in this election is *pause* whether you believe in independence or not *pause* Scotland should have the right to decide’ and they said that I said the issue in this election is whether you support independence or not. So, you get into these ridiculous discussions about what it is you have said, even when you are the one that has said it…I’m not complaining, I think it is just a feature of the debate now.
“But just to be clear – this SNP leader believes wholeheartedly in independence for Scotland – and there is not a comma or a pause in that sentence.”
Sturgeon knows that much of that case for independence will have to be built on sound economics that many didn’t feel were there last time around. It is now over a year since she charged former MSP Andrew Wilson to come up with that economic prospectus as the chair of the SNP’s growth commission. She is, she says, in no hurry, but that he is coming to the end of that process – I understand it is in its ‘final edit’ – and while she is still to see the final report, says it will be a comprehensive piece of work that will not just feed into the arguments for independence, but will also help inform government thinking “on the here and now” with the powers it currently has.
The most immediate of those is on income tax. In her programme for government, she announced that she would “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. So far, much of this debate has centred on whether the SNP would or wouldn’t introduce a 50p tax rate. She won’t confirm whether she will or she won’t, but given she wasn’t convinced of the arguments to do so just a year ago, what’s changed?
“What’s changed? Well, we’ve seen the Brexit implications start to loom, which are going to inevitably have an impact on our economy, we are clearly facing continued Tory austerity, which has an impact on our own public spending and at the same time, rightly, given rising inflation, we want to reward our public sector workers better. Put together, all of that says we need to take a better look at how we could use tax powers to progressively help create the kind of country we want to be: good public services, good support for business, well rewarded public servants and a good strong social contract with free tuition and the benefits that people value.
“I don’t want to put people’s taxes up, and I make no apology for that, but sometimes the income tax debate over the past couple of years in Scotland has seemed, on the part of some people, to be like kids playing with a new toy – we’ve got it so we have to use it. Decisions that politicians make about tax should always be very, very carefully taken because a decision I make about tax is paid for by taxpayers across the country who are already grappling with all sorts of pressures on their household finances. So, I make no apology for being quite cautious on tax, I think it’s the right thing to do. Equally, I know that the success of the country depends not just on our rates of tax, it depends on how much we’re investing in business R&D, the infrastructure that business needs, the quality of the public services we’ve got, and at a time when – and you saw this in the recent Fraser of Allander report – if the UK Government continues on the path that it is going, the next few years are going to be increasingly challenging. I don’t, just because I’ve made one decision last year, close my mind to another decision this year.
“But we don’t have full power of the income tax system, we have power to set bands and rates, so if we’re going to have an honest, frank debate about that ahead of the budget then it should focus on the whole of that debate, not just a small part of it.
“Every tax decision you take is a balance and it’s why I have been very mindful when talking about the 50p rate and doing it just in Scotland without all of the powers over tax avoidance and tax evasion, to ask, do you end up losing more revenue than you raise? So, as I say, I don’t apologise for being very considered around these decisions because you’ve got to get the judgements absolutely right.”
Is she going to try and out-Corbyn, Corbyn?
“We’ll continue to do what we think is right. We’re a left of centre, socially democratic party and that’s what we’ll continue to be. I’m not taking decisions with an eye on where it puts me vis-à-vis somebody else. I’m taking decisions based on a rational consideration based on what’s right for the country. An honest look at tax and what we contribute to the kind of society we want to be is part of doing what’s right for the country rather than part of responding to what any other party or politician might be doing.”
But with no election for another four years, Sturgeon also knows she must perform a difficult balancing act of keeping the campaign for independence alive and on track while also reassuring the electorate that her focus is on governing the country for the benefit of all.
She goes into this weekend’s party conference with much commentary focusing on a party in decline and a leader of the Scottish Conservatives on the up, and even being tipped as the next PM. But like much in politics, nothing is quite as it seems. And while it is true that after 10 years in government, the SNP is starting to fail against some of its own ambitions, they are by no means at so-called ‘peak Nat’.
Sturgeon personally is upbeat. She remains the most popular political leader in Scotland, her party commands a majority of MSPs – 63 as opposed to Davidson’s 31 – and holds three times as many Westminster seats as the Scottish Tories. The SNP has won nine out of the last ten elections, outperforms all other parties in opinion polls – the latest Survation poll shows them gaining 42 per cent of the constituency vote at the next Holyrood election. And even with a slight drop from its 120,000 high, it has more members than all the other parties put together – and then some – and despite everything that has been thrown at it, support for independence still sits where it was in 2014, at around 45 per cent. Certainly, too close for any prime minister to risk a call. And importantly for Sturgeon, the SNP still has a mandate from the Scottish Parliament for a second referendum in this parliamentary term, which means, despite hollow pleas from the Tories to put it finally to bed, independence remains very much game-on. And it is Brexit over which Ruth Davidson’s party must take ultimate responsibility, which will help write that next chapter.
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