Profile: Nicola Sturgeon spoke to Mandy Rhodes about her miscarriage

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 5 September 2016 in Inside Politics

Profile of Nicola Sturgeon and her approach to leadership

Nicola Sturgeon - image credit: David Anderson

The following is an extract from Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes’ contribution to “Scottish National Party Leaders”, edited by James Mitchell and Gerry Hassan. The full chapter will appear in Holyrood Magazine on 12 September.

Saturday, 2 January, 1971, is remembered as the darkest day in Scottish footballing history. Around 80,000 people left for the traditional Old Firm Ne’erday match at Ibrox that morning, but 66 Rangers fans would never return — crushed to death on stairway 13 at the Copland Road end of the ground. No one is quite sure what happened, but as the fans left the stadium at the end of the match it seems likely that someone fell, creating a domino effect, a barrier collapsed and thousands of people were trapped in a desperate battle for life. The disaster, which left 66 dead more than 140 injured, changed Scottish football for ever.

Four decades later, thousands of people gathered at the ground on 3 January, 2011, to mark the anniversary of the disaster. Rangers players past and present, including John Greig, the captain on the day of the tragedy, were joined by family and friends of the dead as well as Scotland’s religious leaders and leading politicians. Among them was the SNP’s deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, whose constituency of Glasgow Govan covered Ibrox.


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It was a grim occasion and, looking back now at pictures from that day, Sturgeon appears tired and pale. Some images show her with her eyes tightly shut and, while the occasion was undoubtedly sombre, she looks to be in real pain. The cause of which was something beyond the commemoration. In fact, as she sat on the terraces that day, Sturgeon was going through her own very personal anguish. She was miscarrying a baby. She should have been at home in her bed, being looked after by her husband, Peter Murrell, chief executive of the SNP, and not sharing in what was a public grief. But it was her public duty to be there, so there she was.

Over the years there has been much speculation about the fact that Sturgeon, now 46, has not had children. In interviews she had been constantly asked when she would be starting a family, questions that she deftly deflected and moved on. Nevertheless, assumptions have been made and opinions have been formed. I knew only by accident — a slip of words over lunch — that being childless had not been an entirely conscious choice for Sturgeon and it has made me reflect on how much female political leaders, in particular, wrestle with what they expose of themselves and why.

Sturgeon is, despite outward appearances, an intensely private person and our relationship has been a slow burner. Not long after the 2011 election, in which the SNP won by an historic majority, we were having lunch, going over the politics. The conversation turned to a mutual friend who had lost a baby, when intuitively I realised that Sturgeon was also talking about herself. 

She chose, as is her prerogative, not to talk about the miscarriage publicly, and I have respected her need for privacy in an increasingly public world, but with the passage of time she has become less adamant that it stays a secret and has allowed me to refer to it now. It is important because it says something about the pressures on and the conjectures made about women in leadership positions. Crucially, it also says something about the impact that all of that scrutiny and speculation has had on her and how she manages it.

In December 2010, Labour was polling way ahead of Sturgeon’s own party in Scotland. There were serious questions about whether the SNP could hang on to power — they had formed a minority government in 2007, having beaten Labour by just one seat — and Sturgeon knew she had a fight on her hands and that the next few months would be a struggle.

Had she not lost the baby, she would have been almost 41, and six months pregnant going into the formal election campaign and, while clearly happy about being pregnant, she would also have been anxious about how it might affect not just the election campaign but also her role in any future Cabinet. And while these are normal feelings for any woman with a career to think about, for someone as politically programmed as Sturgeon, who would also never have wanted something as personal as a pregnancy to see her accused of exploiting a personal situation for political gain during an election, they would have been paramount.

Being prepared and in control is what has powered Sturgeon — turning the gauche, unsmiling teenager that first stood on a platform for the SNP at the age of 16, where she was derisively dubbed the “nippy sweetie”, into the powerhouse politician that she is now. Being vulnerable and powerless are not positions Sturgeon likes to be in.

Why does any of this matter in the context of political leadership? It matters because Sturgeon is cognisant of the responsibility that she has as a role model. As the first female first minister, she is acutely aware that some young girls will look at her and think that, as a woman, you have to sacrifice part of your life to climb the career ladder. And in that respect, it is important to understand that being childless was not always a conscious choice for Sturgeon. She is also aware that women in politics are afraid to show vulnerability, as if revealing emotion in the male-dominated world of politics is seen as a weakness that would reflect adversely on their ability to lead. And that, too, is wrong.

It also puts into some context the repeated accusations that she has had to endure, both in and out of the parliamentary chamber, that, as a political leader without children, she could not understand some of the concerns that parents might feel about the impact of her political decisions.

“Speaking as a mother” is a phrase frequently used by politicians with the presumption that being a parent gives you a shortcut to authenticity and normality. As if not being a mother makes you less of a person — abnormal. Week in, week out at FMQs, Johann Lamont would start off her questions to Sturgeon with what political commentators dubbed her “mum-isms”. One very senior female Labour politician once described Sturgeon to me as “ruthlessly ambitious”, all because she assumed that, given that she had no children, she had put career first.

She is far from the only female politician who has had her childless status used against her. During the Conservative leadership contest, party hopeful Andrea Leadsom appeared to tell a journalist for The Times that she had an advantage over Theresa May because she was a mother and therefore had more of a stake in the country’s future. The ensuing media storm ultimately led to Leadsom withdrawing from the contest, leaving the way clear for May to become prime minister.

For a female politician, being childless becomes a much more defining characteristic than it ever does for a man. Sturgeon herself has posed the question about how many interviewers have ever asked Alex Salmond why he didn’t have children. And the answer is, of course, very few. Mainly because they made assumptions — rightly or wrongly — about his wife, who is 17 years his senior.

In July 2015, New Statesman magazine ran an article entitled “The motherhood trap” and on the front cover pictured Sturgeon along with Theresa May, Liz Kendall and Angela Merkel standing by a cot, empty bar a ballot box. It asked the question: “Why are so many successful politicians childless?” Sturgeon later praised some of the content of the article, but had initially tweeted, “Jeezo … we appear to have woken up in 1965 this morning!”

The article cited research that showed 45% of female MPs were childless compared with just 28% of men, and raised a fundamental question about how we perceive our female politicians. However, it also made fundamental assumptions about why women may or may not have children. 

For Sturgeon, there have been moments, for instance, during her appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2015, when it seemed that she was almost on the verge of making public what was clearly a very private matter, but at the last minute decided against it. Instead, on questions over why she and Murrell did not have children, she said: “That can be hurtful, if I am being brutally honest about it, because people make assumptions about why we don’t have children. The assumption that people sometimes make is that I have made a cold, calculated decision to put my career ahead of having family, and that’s not true. Sometimes things happen in life, sometimes they don’t.” 

Sturgeon hasn’t been public about her own circumstances before because, clearly, while the miscarriage was a highly personal experience that will always be with her, it is not something she wants to be defined by. She is acutely self-aware and knows how things like this can be viewed or even manipulated.

Despite her overwhelming public popularity, Sturgeon retains a very definite personal boundary. And despite the outward appearances of being incredibly comfortable with the cult of personality; the selfies, the informality on Twitter, the public shows of affection and so forth, when it comes down to actually talking about herself or sharing intimacies she is much less comfortable — even with close associates.

She is naturally a bit of an introvert: this is the woman who admits that, as a child, she hid under a table at her own birthday party. She wasn’t unpopular at school but neither was she in with the in-crowd. She has few lifelong friends and most of the people that might describe themselves as close — and whether she shares that view is debatable — are of and from the party.

Ironically, as Sturgeon’s public appeal has grown, her closest relationships have diminished to a handful: her husband, her family and, to some extent, Shona Robison, Scotland’s health secretary, who is often quoted as a close friend. There is no real inner circle — something that she is attracting criticism for — and the Sturgeon/Murrell wife-husband combo at the top of the party has led to some misgivings internally that there is no real avenue for criticism, constructive or otherwise, of the party leadership.

Sturgeon and Murrell are very self-contained as a couple. They have known each other since she was 18, when they met on party youth weekends that he organised. They started going out properly in 2003, having become particularly close during that year’s election campaign, when they were living in adjacent flats on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, lent to them by other party members. They can sit for hours in silence just reading, rarely socialise as a couple and spend their holidays alone at his parents’ time-share apartment in the Algarve in Portugal. She doesn’t seek his counsel on major political decisions; in fact, she says that most decisions that she takes on a day-to-day basis he will know nothing about. 

However, crucially, she says she can’t imagine doing the job without him. And while he often doesn’t even know where she is or what she is doing, she does utterly rely on him for fundamental practicalities such as cooking and driving (unusually, she has never learnt to drive). He is, clearly, her rock, and he adores her.

In fairness to Murrell, he is also a very significant SNP player. He was chief executive of the party even before they started going out together and has a longer history of party involvement than his wife. He was first employed by Alex Salmond in his constituency office in 1987, then worked for the SNP MEP Allan Macartney, before moving to the chief executive role at SNP HQ. He has never sought a public role or profile, but he is responsible for the party’s organisation, has presided over its exponential growth in membership and electoral success and he clearly supports his wife to the hilt. He is also extremely personable and can be very funny.

Despite her reputation as being a bit frosty, Sturgeon herself has a quick wit, a risqué sense of humour and she laughs a lot more than she is credited for. One profile described her as someone you wouldn’t see on a girls’ night out, but that is just not true. She is very much a woman’s woman — depending on the woman — and can talk as enthusiastically about shoes and fashion as she can about fighting inequality.

She has become adept at giving the impression of being just like you and me, elevating “being normal” to an art form. This is undoubtedly the secret to her recent popularity. Yet, paradoxically, she is more at ease, it seems, with strangers, than she is with closer acquaintances, where more personal investment might be required.

In her younger political days, she was — by her own admission — a “bit po-faced”. If there is one bit of advice she would give her younger self it would be to smile more. And, despite much speculation to the contrary, there was never any big image makeover, just a simple evolution over time and with maturity. The “nippy sweetie” of her youth, she says was “probably not [me] being the real me”, but a persona she adopted because she believed it would help her fit better into the political arena. Now she is not so sure:  “It’s a cliché, but all the things that are seen as positives in men can be seen as negatives in women.”

Sturgeon was born in July 1970 and grew up in a terraced council house — which her parents later bought under the right-to-buy scheme — in the village of Dreghorn in the west of Scotland. Her emerging interest in politics was played out against the 1980s backdrop of the Thatcher government. The local impact of Tory policies was stark: rising unemployment, closures of heavy industry and a widening gap between the rich and poor. She says she became aware of “a sense of hopelessness” among her school friends and even then believed independence was the route to make change happen.

She remembers feeling that she would not necessarily take a conventional path in life and thought she might grow up to be something like a famous children’s author. She remains a voracious reader.

She joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in her early teens and followed this up with membership of the SNP at 16, signing up in a fit of pique after her English teacher, who was also a Labour councillor, presumed she would be a Labour supporter. The introverted but determined teenager was soon campaigning vociferously on the doorsteps in the 1987 general election for her local SNP candidate, Kay Ullrich. It was during this time that others say she blossomed, becoming more comfortable in herself. And while Ulrich failed to win the seat for the SNP, this did not deter the young Sturgeon. Fuelled by a hatred of Margaret Thatcher, which she says has been “the motivation for my entire political career”, she ploughed her energy into the Young Scottish Nationalists, joining its national executive when she was still 17 and at school. She went on to study law at Glasgow University, where she gained a 2:1.

Eradicating poverty through independence remained the driving force behind her political consciousness and it became even more focused when, as a young lawyer, she worked in the law and money advice centre in Glasgow’s impoverished Drumchapel.

In 1991, aged just 21, she was selected as the SNP’s candidate for the Glasgow Shettleston seat, making her the youngest candidate in the 1992 general election. She was beaten by almost 15,000 votes by Labour, the first of seven consecutive electoral defeats before she eventually secured Glasgow Goven in 2007. However, she did enter the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as an additional member via the party list voting system, a form of proportional representation.

In 2004, following John Swinney’s resignation as SNP leader after a poor set of results in the European election, Sturgeon stood against Roseanna Cunningham for the leadership. Cunningham, 19 years her senior and a very close friend for more than a decade, may have felt betrayed when Sturgeon announced she would run against her, but any friendship they had previously enjoyed disappeared overnight when Alex Salmond, who had quit as leader in 2000, then announced that he too would be running, but with Sturgeon (who by now was on course to lose to Cunningham) as his deputy. The rift, despite Cunningham now sitting at Sturgeon’s Cabinet table, has never healed.

Sturgeon was formidable in opposition. She made few friends across the political divide and it was therefore viewed with satisfaction by some in the opposition when in 2010 it was discovered she had written a letter of support for one of her constituents who was due to be sentenced for benefit fraud. 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 judgment. But Sturgeon managed to silence them all with a full, complete and humbling apology to the Chamber. What was most striking about the episode was that she committed what Salmond would probably consider to be the cardinal political error: publicly admitting to being wrong.

Yet, in the Scottish Parliament election of May 2011, she won her seat easily, with a majority of more than 4,000. Years of electoral defeat have meant she assumes nothing, but even she was surprised to see the SNP overtaking Labour as the largest party in Glasgow.

The victory also meant that an independence referendum was now a reality rather than just a point for debate, and Salmond was to put his deputy at the forefront of that independence campaign. It was an astute move by the first minister. His deputy already had a formidable reputation at home in Scotland. Salmond was also acutely aware that, while his popularity remained high, support for him and for independence among women was relatively low — Sturgeon could fill that gap.

Conservative MP and then junior Scotland Office minister David Mundell said that there had been a “cathartic” moment when the tone and character of the inter-governmental discussions changed from one of prevarication to one of consensus and resolution, and that was when Nicola Sturgeon became involved.

Salmond stood down as leader within hours of the No vote in the referendum, saying it was time for a new generation. Since then, Sturgeon has unexpectedly taken the party to a whole new level. Until her coronation, there were many political commentators who believed the SNP was a one-man band. However, after losing the referendum, the party has, ironically, only risen in popularity. Today, under Sturgeon’s watch, the SNP is now the third largest party in Britain. The party was at the centre of every other party’s rhetoric in the last general election campaign. Sturgeon herself became the favourite in the UK leaders’ televised debates, her name the most Googled during the broadcasts. Her critics may have called foul, saying she got away with murder because she wasn’t being scrutinised on her record in a devolved Scottish government, or the fact that she wasn’t even a contender for Westminster, never mind No 10, but the end result was that she presided over a landslide victory in Scotland for the SNP. Her party traduced Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives to just three seats north of the border, with the SNP taking 56 of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster.

And what could be more humiliating for a prospective leader of the UK Labour Party than to be asked on live television what characteristic they wish they shared with the leader of a party that wants to break up Britain? But that is exactly the question that Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn were asked as part of their first televised debate in their party leadership contest.

Burnham said he admired Sturgeon for being a plain talker and an effective campaigner. Kendall talked about being a woman and Cooper observed that she couldn’t manage Sturgeon’s heels. It was left to veteran left-winger Corbyn, at that point a rank outsider, to point out that what he shared with Sturgeon was opposing Trident and the Iraq War. He added that Scotland’s first minister had been “very effective in putting forward a message that resonated with people”. 

Indeed, she is a much more empathetic politician than Salmond, and her clear vision of a socially just Scotland plays well to the new, more impassioned, left-leaning Scots who have joined the party in droves since the independence referendum. When the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, warned her party that Sturgeon would take the SNP lurching to the “left”, it was not a description that unduly upset her.

In accepting the role of first minister, Sturgeon, a working-class woman from Ayrshire, referred to her eight-year-old niece, Harriet, and said she hoped her appointment sent a strong and positive message to girls across our lands. “If you are good enough and if you work hard enough,” she said, “the sky is the limit — and no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams.”

No one can deny that Sturgeon has achieved high office through anything other than merit. Almost 30 years of political experience have done little to lessen her ideals, although her left-wing rhetoric has been toned down to a degree and she would describe herself more as a social democrat than as a socialist. She put poverty and inequality at the heart of her government and has shown by example on gender by creating a 50/50 split Cabinet of men and women. 

“Equality means a huge amount to me, gender equality in particular means a huge amount to me, and while I can’t change everything as first minister, I made a decision before I was in the job formally that I was going to use the fact of being the first woman first minister to make as much change, or try to influence as much change, as I can. I can’t look to other people to make that change if I’m not prepared to make it myself.” 

She is acutely aware that women have become the shock absorbers of austerity, that low-pay, zero hours contracts, part-time work and the prohibitive costs of childcare mean many women can’t afford to work at all. She knows that women have paid a far higher price, proportionately, than men for the so-called welfare reforms, and that with more women than men working in the public sector, they are also doubly hurt by the cuts in public service spending — with more still to come. She also knows that gender inequality became a touchstone for a political awakening during the referendum year and if now is not the time to enshrine equality, then when?

She has become one of the world’s most powerful women — she is ranked 50th on the influential Forbes list of 100 most powerful women. She has presided over a remarkable rise in SNP membership, from 25,000 before the referendum to nearly 120,000 today. She has the highest approval ratings of any party leader and has led her party to an historic third term in government in the May 2016 Scottish Parliament election.

Within weeks of her becoming first minister, she had to deal with the tragedy of the Glasgow bin lorry crash and the news that the Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey had contracted Ebola while working in Sierra Leone. She did both with great dignity and emotion expressing a heartfelt sorrow. “If I ever get to a point in this job where I am scared to show human emotion I think I will give it up, because that’s the point where you are absolutely not being yourself and it is critically important to me that I remain ‘me’,” she says.

“Now as a politician you have to on many occasions keep your human emotions under check in a way that is about representing the nation, particularly in times of tragedy, but politicians are human beings and we share the same reactions to these things as anybody else does. I think we should be forgiven for showing how we feel.” 

There is no doubt that for women in politics there is a balance to be struck between being genuine and revealing too much. Sturgeon protected herself in the early days with steel-plated armour, which many interpreted as evidence of a cold nature. As she has grown more comfortable with herself, however, she has had the confidence to reveal more.

An interesting question is whether Sturgeon could have achieved all that she has if she had had children. “If the miscarriage hadn’t happened, would I be sitting here as First Minister right now? It’s an unanswerable question. I just don’t know,” she says.

“I’ve thought about it but I don’t know the answer. I’d like to think ‘yes’, because I could have shown that having a child wasn’t a barrier to all of this, but in truth, I don’t know. Having a baby might have so fundamentally changed our lives that things would have taken a different path, but if somebody gave me the choice now to turn back the clock twenty years and say you can choose to start to think about this much earlier and have children, I’d take that, but if the price of that was not doing what I’ve gone on to do, I wouldn’t accept that, no.”

© Mandy Rhodes 2016 Extracted from “Scottish National Party Leaders”, edited by James Mitchell and Gerry Hassan, to be published by Biteback on September 15 at £25

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