Nicola Sturgeon on the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 12 March 2016 in Inside Politics

Interview with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Over 350 women from the Scottish Women’s Convention gathered in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament earlier this month to mark International Women’s Day by hearing about global progress in closing the gender gap.

African women dressed in colourful traditional garb, young girls in school uniform, older women and mothers pushing babies in pushchairs. It was a shock to the system and a joy to behold as a whole parliament filled up with women jostling to get the best seats at the front of the house, replacing the many grey-suited MSPs who would normally sit there.

The only man on site, a photographer, found his discomfort at being the solitary male only compounded by normal rules on photography in the chamber being suspended and the debating space becoming selfie central, with the popularity of one particular subject obvious by the queue of other women surrounding her with their mobile phones held high.


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As Scotland’s first female First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has lifted the issue of gender equality from a fringe subject that most politicians paid lip service to but did little to address, to one at the very heart of her own government, having established one of the first gender-balanced cabinets in the world, being one of the original signatories to the Women 50/50 campaign, and throwing her support behind the prospect of legally enforced quotas of female representation in parliament as well as on public and potentially private boards.

Closing the gender gap is a public promise that Sturgeon made to her young niece on the day that she became First Minister and is one, she says, she intends to keep.

But last weekend, sitting in her usual seat at the front of the chamber, she was just one of the girls. Casually twisting on her seat to look around the space, she spotted someone she thought she knew and gave a hesitant little wave. The chamber erupted into giggles – ‘look, the First Minister is waving’ – as if the First Minister doing something so ordinary as acknowledging a friend was in itself out of the ordinary. She giggled along with them.

And that’s what this First Minister does particularly well: being ordinary while at the same time being in an extraordinary job. She has elevated being normal into an art form and therein lies the secret of her popularity.

She isn’t just the role model implicit in the symbolic nature of what she does but given her working class background and the intimacy she shares with the world via Twitter that brings her easy conversations between everyone from her mother to famous actors to other politicians and beyond, she has introduced a tangible familiarity about high office which makes the possibility of any woman becoming First Minister feel like an ever-closer reality. If someone so ordinary – so like me – can do it, then why can’t I?

She told the women in the chamber that Saturday afternoon in the first week of March that when she looked around and saw a parliament so full of women, she couldn’t help but think it would make parliaments a much better place. The comment may have been slightly tongue in cheek to a clearly receptive audience but she also made the more serious point that with women accounting for just 36 per cent of the current MSP intake, that progress on gender equality was taking far too long.

To that end, going into May’s election, she has led a charge for a change in her party rules to ensure that when a sitting SNP MSP stands down they will be replaced by a woman candidate. And by having all-women shortlists in the nine seats where the mainly male incumbents were departing, she has significantly increased the chances of more women in the next parliament.

Currently, 41 per cent of the SNP’s constituency candidates are women and, given the polls, all look set to take a place at Holyrood in May. The favourable positioning of women on the SNP regional lists also means, given what the opinion polls are predicting, that even more women are likely to be elected that way too.

And this isn’t gesture politics. Sturgeon sits in the enviable political position of leading a party that is consistently polling at well over 50 per cent of the vote in both the constituency and the list for May’s election – just nine weeks away. Her personal likeability ratings soar above any other political leader, not just in Scotland, but across the UK. And she is arguably one of the most influential political leaders in Europe today.

The SNP has framed Scottish politics for the last decade which has, in turn, framed UK politics and will now play into the EU referendum, as well as the potential for triggering a second referendum on Scottish independence.

On the eve of her party’s last conference ahead of May’s election, I ask Sturgeon what is possibly a rhetorical question: what could possibly go wrong?

She laughs. “Well, obviously, it’s the pre-election conference and so one of the key messages I’ll be wanting to get across is that while opinion polls might say one thing, no election is a foregone conclusion. We can’t and shouldn’t ever take anything for granted. So I’ll be using this conference to get the party really geared up to get out there and win the election, not through a belief that the opinion polls have got it sewn up but through sheer hard work.”

I ask her how much further she thinks the high-water mark can be pushed for the SNP.

“I’m prepared for it to go as high as it’s prepared to,” she says, stretching her arms into the air. “I’m never too far from remembering the days when opinion polls used to make miserable reading for the SNP and while I never allowed myself to get too down by them, equally I am trying just now not to allow myself to get too up by the polls we are seeing.

“At the end of the day, things can happen in politics that you haven’t predicted. We’ve seen quite dramatic changes in the political environment in Scotland in the last few years. Things can happen. Events can happen. People can change their opinions quickly so you know to never take anything for granted.”

On that question of uncertainty, I ask her about the EU referendum. She was almost the first politician off the blocks once David Cameron had announced the date – 23 June. And there was some irony in an SNP First Minister standing on a platform in London making the case for the UK staying in the EU when ultimately she wants Scotland out of the UK and this referendum could trigger it. How does she square that particular circle?

“Because I don’t think the ideal scenario in any circumstances is to have England out of the European Union,” she says. “If Scotland becomes independent, I think it would be better for us if England, our closest neighbour, was also still a member of the EU. It’s a similar view, I guess, in Ireland just now where they would say that while they are independent, they still see it in their interests for the UK to remain in. So I want Scotland to be independent and whatever circumstances Scotland is going to become independent, then great.

“People often say to me, are you secretly hoping for a Brexit because it will hasten the road to independence and the answer to that is no, because I just don’t think those circumstances are ones that I want to see.”

Was it fair for her to say that Cameron should think twice about campaigning in Scotland during the referendum?

“Look, I was joking. I was asked the question by Andrew Marr and all I said was that he might want to consider whether that would be in the best interests of the campaign. I had my tongue firmly in my cheek at the time.

“I think there is a lack of humour in parts of… how would I put it… in some of the coverage of politics and political discussion. That’s just the way it is, I’m not sure that’s particularly new, actually. People say to me why, and let’s forget the Cameron joke, people say to me ‘why would you campaign in England?’ Well, it actually matters to people in Scotland how England votes because if we don’t want to find ourselves taken out of Europe, we’ve got to hope that England votes to stay in.

“So while I don’t know whether anybody in England will want to listen to me, it’s kind of important for us to make the case to them as well because there is a real risk of us being outnumbered in this referendum.”

Doesn’t she worry that the SNP brand could be tarnished by her potentially assisting a Conservative Prime Minister push his favoured result over the line in the same way that Better Together so fatally wounded Scottish Labour?

“No, that’s seeing it through the prism of party politics and personalities. What I’m trying to help, in my own small way, is to keep the UK in the EU. That’s what I think is the right outcome. It’s not about helping a Tory Prime Minister, a Tory Prime Minister, by the way, who has completely and unnecessarily in my view brought about this referendum. But I want to see that Scotland remains within the EU and as long as we are still in the UK, that means campaigning for the UK to stay in.”

She must at least have to shake her head in disbelief at some of the ‘scaremongering’ given the way it was used against her own arguments during the independence referendum?

“I’ve had a few wry smiles,” she smiles. “Interestingly, when I was in London on Monday the other week, I woke up and was flicking through the newspapers on my iPad and found the UK Government warning that in the event of a Brexit vote it would take 10 years at least for the UK to exit the EU.

“This is the same UK Government that told Scotland we’d be thrown out overnight if we voted Yes, so yes, I’ve had a few wry smiles listening to the arguments replayed in different ways by different people.”

Given the SNP appear so rabidly in favour of the EU, is she happy with the relationship the UK and Scotland has with it now?

“No. Nobody is. It’s an institution and it has its flaws, like any. If you relate it to your everyday life, people join clubs and societies and organisations because they want to be part of it, they agree with the general aims but probably there are a million things about that institution that sort of irritates them and they wish would be different.

“It’s the same with the EU. I made a speech in Brussels – last year, I think – where I set out the things I would like to see changed about the EU. But the fact is, I think we are better trying to effect that change from within.

“One of the things, and without laying it on too thick, one of the things that irritates me just now is not being able to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol because it is getting taken through the courts on points of EU law. So clearly, for me, it’s not perfect, but overall we are better off within than out.”

What if the polls and her own view of Scotland’s more pro-European sentiment are confounded and Scotland actually votes out?

“Well, that will be a democratic decision and while I will disagree with it and be disappointed that that’s the case then I will obviously respect it. I don’t think that will happen, though. But I don’t say that with any kind of sense of complacency and arrogance about it. There is still, although it is a short campaign, quite a long way to go and the arguments have to be made here just as they have to be made elsewhere, so I don’t assume what the outcome will be but certainly thus far, the evidence suggests that there will be an ‘in’ vote in Scotland.”

Before that, however, there are more domestic matters at hand and Sturgeon is clearly focused on the Scottish election. Her irritation at the “disrespect” of the EU referendum happening just weeks after the Scottish election has been reduced to a pragmatism that it is what it is. But one source tells me that her speech in London on the EU referendum will be her first and last major foray into the debate while the Scottish election campaign is going on.

I ask her what she makes of the assertion by the likes of former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who wrote in the New Statesman that somehow the SNP manage to portray themselves as both the incumbents and the insurgents in this coming election.

“I have to make a terrible confession,” she smiles. “I haven’t read Jim Murphy’s piece in the New Statesman.”

Although that doesn’t stop her from commenting on it.

“I think the fact is that if he is still, and I haven’t read it, if he is still writing about that and in a kind of moaning and a complaining way, it kind of proves that even after everything that has happened to the Labour Party in Scotland, he still doesn’t get it.

“People in Scotland want a competent government that delivers the things they want in Scotland but they also want somebody to stand up and be counted and make Scotland’s voice heard in the wider UK, Westminster environment. That’s what we do. I know that’s what we do so maybe instead of just whinging all the time, Labour could, and I say this humbly, obviously, maybe they could just learn a lesson or two.

“I mean, I’ve been kind of wondering about this during the recent negotiations with the Treasury over the fiscal framework, if the Treasury had come for £7 billion when Labour was in power they probably could have walked away with £10 billion.

“I made a decision, probably last autumn, or rather John [Swinney, the Finance Secretary] and I made a decision together, that we were not going to be a walkover when it came to these negotiations. We were not going to see a price tag attached to the powers that had been promised and that meant we were prepared to say no and not agree it.

“I think it took a while for the Treasury to understand and appreciate that we weren’t kidding. I was determined that we weren’t going to be taken for a ride and we weren’t going to have money locked out of our budget. This was a promise that hadn’t been our promise to make, it was a promise that had been made freely and unconditionally by the UK Government and it was important that it was delivered without a massive cost to Scotland.

“So it was a case of being constructive, trying to find ways through it but at certain key junctures dig our heels in and dig our heels in firmly and when we had to also explain publicly what was going on and why we weren’t getting progress.”

Was she surprised at how long the negotiations took and the proposals that the Treasury made?

“No, because the Treasury is the Treasury and the UK Government is the UK Government. I suppose I was disappointed. Yes, disappointed, because you think, ‘well, you made this promise and it is a bit rich now for you to try to extract a price for it’.

“I’ve dealt with the UK Government in different ways over the past nine years now so I don’t suppose I was hugely surprised but I was determined they weren’t going to get away with it. I would like to think they learned something from it. You know, they can’t just come in and treat Scotland the way they tried to do there.”

For some Scottish council leaders, those words will echo hollow from the leader of a party that has just delivered a budget cut of 3.5 per cent on local government. Doesn’t her government’s treatment of councils smack of hypocrisy in the context of her response to the Treasury’s treatment of her?

“You know, we’ve had to make tough decisions, but when I speak to people around the country they understand there are pressures on services but they also understand why that is the case and they understand that we’ve all got to contribute to dealing with that. I also think ordinary people don’t think the burden of that should be transferred to their shoulders in the form of increases in their income tax, which is what Labour is suggesting.

“Any job loss is a matter of concern to me so I’m not underplaying or playing down in any way the importance of job losses, whether they are in the public sector or in the private sector, but, you know, Kezia Dugdale stood up in parliament the other week and cited a number for just one council that the previous day the council had passed a budget with that number a third of what she said it was.

“Similarly, a couple of weeks ago, claims were made about a certain council and what they were going to do, all of which turned out to be not true. So I think there has been a degree of that, but that’s a criticism of Labour, it’s not of those who work in our public services who I know are feeling pressure.”

Unusually, there are three resolutions tabled for the SNP conference focusing on local government with one specifically calling for a merger of health boards and councils. I ask Sturgeon if restructuring is being planned.

“We’ll cover this ground to some extent in our manifesto but what I would say is that when you look at health and social care integration, and when you look at some of what I want to do around education, with empowering schools and headteachers, then it does raise the question over whether we need to look at not just councils but also health boards, and do we need to look at how they all work together.

“However, partly based on my experiences as Health Secretary, I’ve never been a massive fan of just big structural change because it tends to divert people’s attention from the things they should be doing.

Nevertheless, we can’t close our minds to the fact or to the question that in a country of five million people, where we are seeing all these different reforms and different directions happening anyway, do we need to ask ourselves whether the current framework is the right one. So I don’t rule out having a look at that.

“But it’s not starting from a question of should there be 32 local authorities; it’s saying that we’ve got health boards and councils working together around social care, we’ve got a number of councils co-operating around city deals and in other arrangements and we’ve obviously had police reform, so all of these different things are happening and you do get to a point where you have to question whether the framework around that is any longer appropriate.

“As I say, that’s not necessarily just a question for local government but obviously, local government will have its own strong views about this, which we will want to listen to.

“These things are not always easy and while people might sometimes accuse us of not being radical enough, we made a decision in the last parliament around Police Scotland which has not been without its challenges as it bedded in. That was about saying that if we want to protect frontline services in a time of serious budget pressure then we’ve got to do something to cut the costs behind the scenes and the same is true of councils, the same is true of the structure of the public sector generally.”

Sturgeon stops short of revealing any further details but says the party will cover the issue in its upcoming manifesto. On what plans she has around the new tax-raising powers coming to the parliament, she is just as circumspect.

“We’ve got to be careful in Scotland in the early days of having these greater tax powers, it can’t just become some kind of political virility test. Whenever a politician makes a commitment about tax, that’s a commitment that people all across the country have to pay, so we’ve got to make sure that we are doing it reasonably and in a balanced way and for a purpose. Labour just seems to want to wear this cloak of ‘we are going to tax everybody more and therefore that proves that we are more left wing’. Well actually, does it?”

In the last Scottish election, the SNP campaigned on its record and its team. With both her record, her team and now her left-wing credentials constantly under political attack, what will her winning formula be this time round?

“To some extent, the same; we’ve got, I think, the best team, I think we’ve got a very good record and we have a strong vision in terms of the plans we will put forward for moving the country forward. We want to make sure that Scotland’s voice is heard, that this parliament continues on a journey of becoming more autonomous and more powerful and hopefully, in my view, becoming an independent country, but that’s not entirely in my hands.”

So how does she feel the SNP in government has moved Scotland forward?

“I think we’ve done a number of things from the very practical, to the less tangible. I’m proud of much of what we have done on health. You know, the health service is not perfect, no health service is ever going to be, there are still challenges but if you look at Scotland relative to other parts of the UK under the Tories and in Wales under Labour, the health service looks, from my perspective, like being in real crisis.

“In Scotland, we have the best performing A&E in the UK, we’ve got some of the shortest waiting times in the UK, and we have started a really ambitious programme of reform around health and social care integration.

“I’m also very proud of free university education, one of the touchstone principle policies that I’m proud of.”

But with falling rates of numeracy and literacy, how can she claim success in education?

“I don’t think it is necessarily true that rates are falling, but we have now set in train a fairly fundamental set of policy changes to address the issue. When I became First Minister, one of the first things I tried to do, because I’d never had a job in education in government, I tried to understand the extent to which that claim was true and the reality is that in primary schools and early secondary schools, we don’t have a lot of information about the performance of pupils. What people base that view on is the survey – the SSLN (Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy) carried out bi-annually and alternately for literacy and numeracy – but it is a sample, class-based survey.

“So I don’t think it is particularly strong evidence. Now, it may be true and that’s why we’ve put in place the national improvement framework with the plans for standardised assessment at key intervals so we do start to build up that really robust evidence base that tells us what is going on in our schools and allows us to measure the things we are doing to try and improve standards and close the attainment gap.

“And in terms of the less tangible things we have done, I think Scotland is a much more confident country than it was when we took office. I think we are more comfortable in our own skin. It might not be a complete exercise but I think we have started to shake off that sense of the Scottish cringe. I think Scots are less embarrassed about making their voice heard because of the journey that we have been on and it is not yet over.” 


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