Turning up the heat: EXCLUSIVE interview with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 13 March 2017 in Inside Politics

Nicola Sturgeon spoke to Holyrood ahead of the announcement that she will request a Section 30 order to allow Scotland to hold a second independence referendum

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon: Picture credit - David Anderson

There’s a smell of burning in the Bute House drawing room and the First Minister’s nose is twitching.

She gets up from her seat just as we start the interview and goes seeking out the source. Unable to find it, she returns and settles down, albeit looking a tad agitated and occasionally sniffing the air.

Nicola Sturgeon is getting used to the heat being turned up on her politics, if not in her official residence.

And ever since the UK voted to leave the EU and Scotland overwhelmingly did not, the arguments for a second independence referendum have been ratcheted up and the arguments against the nationalists have become ever more fiery.

And in this post-EU referendum world, where Brexiteers are lampooned as racist loons and where Donald Trump presides over the free world like a great, vulgar, golden monument to ‘the people vs the establishment’, it’s a lazy and inaccurate characterisation to conflate the rise of mainly right-wing populists with the popularity of the Scottish National Party.

But that hasn’t stopped the mayor of London trying.


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In a preview of his speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference in Perth, published in the Daily Record, Khan wrote: “The world is becoming an increasingly turbulent and divided place. We’ve seen Brexit, President Trump elected in the Unites States and the rise of right-wing populist and narrow nationalist parties around the world.

“It’s up to us – whether in Scotland or in London – to fight this trend.

“The last thing we need now is to pit different parts of our country or sections of our society against each other – or to further fuel divisions or seek separation.

“There’s no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.”

The ensuing storm over his incendiary words prompted a hastily inserted paragraph when he actually came to deliver his speech from the platform in Perth’s Royal Concert Hall, at which point he said he was not actually saying that nationalists were racist or bigoted.

But with a big metaphorical ‘but’ hanging in the air, the last-minute augmentation did little to quell the Twitter fury, particularly when fellow Labour politicians Anas Sarwar, Douglas Alexander and Jackie Baillie only served to reinforce the notion that nationalism and racism were the same thing in a series of online comments.

Sarwar tweeted that the First Minister should ‘drop faux outrage’ and Baillie asked Sturgeon what her supporters were if not racist when they told her to go home because of her English accent.

Scottish Labour conferences are littered with memories of regretful interventions by Westminster-based politicians in Scottish affairs.

Who can forget Jack McConnell’s face at the Oban conference in 2006 as MP after MP took to the small stage in the Corran Halls and upped the anti-nationalist rhetoric ahead of the 2007 Scottish Parliament election?

John Reid talked of the prospect of guard dogs at the border with England if the SNP gained support and McConnell, who had had a fairly positive election campaign to that point, saw his chances of electoral success slip away amidst the bile and the rhetoric.

And while the politics being played out by Khan’s attempts to paint the SNP as the nasty party ahead of any second referendum are obviously rooted in the demise of his party in Scotland and his own lack of insight as to why, they just don’t wash with the majority of Scots who, in the main, have gone through a pretty peaceful independence referendum and are unlikely to recognise the divided country that Khan and others wish to portray.

And while it may be true that there is no smoke without fire – all parties attract extremes – Khan’s ill-judged comments got the First Minister beelin’.

In a series of tweets following the Mayor of London’s speech, Sturgeon said: “I’m a big admirer of Sadiq Khan but today’s intervention is spectacularly ill-judged…

“It is an insult to all those Scots who support independence for reasons of inclusion and social justice – the antithesis of what he says…
“…and it is a sign of the sheer desperation and moral bankruptcy that has driven so many from Scottish Labour’s ranks. Very disappointing.”

Sturgeon and I sit down a couple of days later and the ripples from Khan’s speech, particularly comments about nationalism pitting the English and Scots against each other, are still being felt, with commentators coming out on all sides. I ask her whether her political opponents wilfully misinterpret her brand of so-called civic nationalism.

“It’s absurd,” she says. “Scottish nationalism or support for independence or whatever you choose to describe it as, has nothing to do with where people are from or their ethnicity.

"I know many people in Scotland and in my own party who were born in England – people in my own government who were born in England – but take the view that if you live in Scotland, you have as much of a stake as anyone else in shaping the kind of country we are.

“Modern Scottish nationalism, my nationalism, has got nothing to do with, and has never had anything to do with, any ethnically-driven view of the country and it’s absurd to suggest right now, than it has been at any other time because the SNP, the Scottish Government and I suppose the independence movement more generally are probably the loudest voices right now in the whole of the UK in favour of freedom of movement and making the positive case for migration, so it is an absurd accusation to make and really, really ill-judged.

"I think it is also really irresponsible because we live in a time just now where there are real threats from those who are perhaps racist. There is a growing sense, not just in parts of the UK but internationally, of intolerance and at times like this there is an even greater duty on those of us who oppose all of that to stand united against it, no matter what our other disagreements may be. 

“Labour and the SNP disagree on politics and disagree on the constitutional future of Scotland but I think we have a duty to stand united against racism and intolerance in all of its forms and to start to throw silly accusations at each other is just deeply irresponsible. 

“I think it is desperation on the part of the Labour Party and yes, they have done it for a long time, but I think now a lot of what you hear coming from the Labour Party is borne from sheer desperation.

"They’re in a position now where a) I think they don’t know what they stand for and b) find it increasingly difficult to convince anybody else that they stand for something.

"As a result, their whole approach appears to be based on trying to demonise the SNP and that demonisation takes many different forms. Over the weekend of their party conference we saw it take a rather nasty form that is equally regrettable.

“But the problem with Labour’s characterisation of not just the SNP but the wider independence movement is that it jars with the reality and people’s knowledge of what the reality is.

"Almost half of the Scottish population voted for independence and of the half that didn’t, almost everybody will know someone that did and therefore, to try to suggest that people that are known to even ‘No’ supporters in their everyday lives are somehow nasty xenophobic racists just jars with reality, so not only is it absurd with no foundation in reality, it is also irresponsible at a time when we should be standing united against racism.

"I don’t even think it is credible and making allegations like that, Labour doesn’t really hurt the SNP, it just further damages their own credibility.”

However, I suggest to the First Minister that there are people who represent a seriously nasty element, particularly on social media, who have attached themselves to the SNP either as supporters of independence or as self-proclaimed nationalists. What can she do as the leader to discourage that or at least distance her party from it?

“Every party has people who will claim to be its supporters who say things and stand for things that is the antithesis of what the party itself stands for and that will be true of the SNP, of Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems and any party anywhere in the world but anybody espousing racist views would have no place in the SNP.

"In fact, they would be chucked out of the party if they had been shown to express racist views.

"So the idea that somehow any level or part of the SNP is in any way how Sadiq Khan tried to characterise us is just out and out wrong and it does a disservice to the wider imperative right now in parts of the UK – and I say this with not a shred of complacency, but not in Scotland  – where we have seen racist incidents since the Brexit vote and seen worrying trends in different parts of the world. 

“All mainstream politicians who stand against that kind of view have a duty to do so and not to throw around silly accusations because that undermines the wider campaign against racism. If you call someone who is clearly not a racist a racist, then you devalue the whole currency of that language and it lets the real racists off the hook.”

I later cite the case of Sonja Cameron who was part of the anti-English extremist group, Settler Watch, and was once suspended from the SNP for her links to the group following her conviction in 1993 for her part in an anti-English propaganda campaign and fined £80.

Newspapers have recently revealed that Cameron is now back in the party and has passed vetting to become a council candidate.

I am referred by one of the First Minister’s advisers to a statement released by the party in response to the recent revelations about Cameron’s party comeback. It said that Cameron deeply regretted what had happened 23 years ago and that her “behaviour back then is entirely at odds with the way she conducts herself today.” 

I am all for forgiveness, but it is perplexing to me for the First Minister to be so robustly against intolerance on one hand and to then let such extreme bygones be bygones on the other.

And while it is really rather seductive to believe that Scotland is an all-forgiving, all-inclusive type of nation, it does rather beg the question of why a party at the peak of its popularity, and with its pick of candidates, would endorse such a tainted candidate. However, it is also clear there is little point in me pursuing it.

I ask Sturgeon what the difference is between a nationalist and a patriot.

“I would say anybody who is proud of being Scottish and of Scotland is a patriot. There are patriots who voted ‘No’ in the referendum as well as patriots who voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum and patriotism is not tied to one particular political or constitutional view.

All countries are full of people who describe themselves as patriots, but patriotism is a pride in your own country, it is not a denigration of another country or people from other countries and one of the things which is quite core to my patriotism is that knowledge that Scotland, and I’m not saying there is no racism in Scotland, is generally an open, welcoming, tolerant, internationalist, outward-looking country and that is one of the things that makes me proud of Scotland and one of the things that makes me a patriot.”

Why then has the idea of whether you are a patriot or a nationalist been seen as the cause of making Scotland such a divided nation?

“It’s not. Scotland is a country, long before the independence referendum and no doubt long after it, that loves to debate things.

We are a disputatious country, in many respects, we love nothing more than a good argument about things that we care deeply about and that is not the same as division. Scotland is not divided in the sense that so many of the opposition politicians try to pretend that it is.

That’s not to say that there’s not passionately held and opposing opinions on some big issues, of course there are but that is healthy in a democracy and we should be encouraging that vigorous type of debate because it is good for democracy and again, at a time when in many other countries, we see almost attempts to close down debate, we should support and encourage it.”

Flippantly, I suggest, it would all be a lot simpler if the party was not called the Scottish National Party and then accusations, negative ideological connections and clumsy attempts by opponents to rename them the Scottish Nationalist Party, might not be so easily made…she flashes me a look – not a good one.

“You know,” she takes a deep breath. “In a sense, I kind of really resent sitting here and having to justify all of what I stand for simply because Sadiq Khan ignorantly comes up to Scotland and throws out baseless allegations. Because of what he has said, I am having to sit here and justify even the very name of my own party.” 

She sighs. “If I was starting again and founding the SNP today, maybe I would call it something else but I’m not and it has been in existence now for 90 years and the problem here is not the name of the SNP, it is the absurd and irresponsible and unfounded comments by Sadiq Khan that are the problem here.

"So in a sense, it should not be me that is having to justify anything and frankly even the SNP’s sternest critics, if they were being remotely fair, would know that what Sadiq Khan said was complete tosh.

“It’s the old truism about Labour, isn’t it, that they support independence movements in every other part of the world except for the one on their doorstep in Scotland but that is one for them to explain.

“My view, not just of Scottish nationalism, but my view of the kind of country I want Scotland to be, whether independent or not, is open, welcoming, diverse, tolerant, a country where we don’t mind where people come from or where they were born but take the view that if people want to make Scotland their home permanently or temporarily and want to live here and make a contribution here, then they have a stake in building a better country and that is the notion of society which drives all of my politics and always has done.”

It is clear she’s not taking any lessons from the Labour Party on nationalism but I wonder if, when she viewed the half empty conference hall in Perth, she pondered on the catastrophic fall from grace that there has been for a party that used to reign supreme. Did she get a glimpse of the future?

“Labour stands as a warning to all of us, doesn’t it,” she laughs.

“That is what happens when you take people for granted and I have no intentions of ever leading a party that takes the people of Scotland for granted so in a sense, Labour does us all a favour because it stands as a monument to what happens when you become arrogant, stop listening to people and assume you have a god given right to lead and the SNP, certainly as long as I have anything to do with it, will never be like that.

"Part of the problem with Labour right now is that it still thinks it has a god given right to lead and still hasn’t got over the fact that people have thought differently.”

This weekend, Sturgeon will take to the stage at her own party conference, the hall will be packed to the gunnels and there will be just one question hanging in the air, ‘when will she call a second referendum’?

It is a question that dominated at both the Scottish Labour conference and the Scottish Conservatives’ rally. And ironically, for parties that criticise the First Minister for an obsession with independence, they never stopped talking about it.

In fact, both the Prime Minister and Ruth Davidson repeatedly referred to independence and a referendum in their conference speeches and with Theresa May mentioning the SNP 25 times during a half-hour address to the party faithful and Davidson more than 30, you did start to wonder where the obsession lay.

“It’s funny, isn’t it, that the people who accuse me of being obsessed with the constitution seem to spend a lot more time talking about it than I do. It is for them to explain why, but I have been consistent to the point where people have accused me of repeating myself over the past eight months or so about the need for Scotland not to find itself in a position where it is completely powerless to determine our own direction. 

“A majority of Scots voted against independence and to stay in the UK which was part of the EU. The EU was a big issue during the course of the independence campaign but here we are, two and half years on, despite voting overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, facing being taken out of it and not just out of it but also out of the single market and the customs union as well.

"It is fair to say that the direction the UK seems to be going in right now is very different from the direction that people would have envisaged in 2014, and not just because of the EU issue but because of the position of Labour.

"I suspect Labour has never been further away from power at a Westminster level in my lifetime, so we face not just exit from the EU but 10 or 20 years of Tory government. 

“And I have been very clear that if we can’t find, and I have been trying very hard to find, an accommodation that allows us to square the circle of the different votes across the UK, that if we can’t do that and the UK Government is not willing to compromise, then Scotland should have the right to choose whether it wants to accept that direction or choose something else.

“Do I think the views of Scotland and the Scottish Government are being respected in the negotiations? No. 

“There has been no shortage of meetings but being in a meeting and having the ability to say your piece is far removed from then feeling as if you are being listened to.

"The Joint Ministerial Committee is not a forum, it was never intended to be a forum where the devolved administrations just get a chance to have their say, it was meant to be a place where we try to reach agreement and come to views that carry the support of the different governments within the UK and right now, there is a definite feeling of a UK government – I was going to say going through the motions,  but it’s not even that – it’s a UK government that is saying it is their way or no way and that is very frustrating. 

“The paper we published before Christmas, from the point of view of a Scottish Government that wanted to stay in the EU – and remember, we had a 62 per cent vote in Scotland to stay in the EU – was about compromise because it accepted we would leave the EU but we put forward compromise options to protect our place in the single market, firstly, arguing that the UK should stay in the single market.

"But then Theresa May ruled that out without any consultation with the devolved nations.

"Secondly, [we argued] if that is not going to be possible they should try and negotiate an outcome  for Scotland that would allow us to do so.

"We hear lots about special deals for the car industry, the financial sector and all other kinds of sectors but no willingness to countenance even discussing a differential approach for Scotland.

"Far from there being an appetite to look, as I think should be the case, at the balance of power across the UK in the wake of Brexit, we can’t even get guarantees that powers that we currently have won’t be taken away again, so it is their way or no way.

"If the prospect of another independence referendum is becoming more and more into prospect then that is not down to the Scottish Government deciding that is what we want, come what may, it is down to the intransigence of the UK Government.

“I have only met Theresa May twice or three times since she became PM, we have spoken on other occasions on the phone, but I don’t get the sense that the rhetoric she used before she was PM about equal partnerships or what she said in this very building a couple of days after becoming PM about wanting to find a UK-wide approach with the devolved administrations before triggering Article 50, I have not had the sense that that was anything other than rhetoric and nothing that has happened since bears it out or substantiates it.

“Theresa May is a very different personality to David Cameron but then people say that about me and Alex Salmond and that in itself is not the issue.

"I think in some respects, there may be more similarities between us than there were with David Cameron, the obvious one being that we are women and we are both quite business-like in the way we go about things but I don’t think the personality issues are what is standing in the way of us reaching agreement.

"What is standing in the way is that we have a UK government, very much led by the Prime Minister, that has shown no willingness at all to compromise and it is very difficult then to try and reach some common ground. 

“I have been very open in saying I wanted to explore whether there was a way of squaring the circle between Scotland’s Remain vote and the UK’s Leave vote. I didn’t ever think it would be easy, but we have tried very hard to find where that common ground might be but if you have a UK government on the other side of the table that is just not interested in shifting one iota from its very hard position then that is very difficult to do.

“Mike [Russell, the minister for UK negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe] has been in the room with David Davis [UK Brexit minister] and I have been in the JMC meetings and spoken to the Prime Minister by telephone as well but you don’t get much beyond the soundbites, even in the room.

"At the first JMC back in October, and I’m not saying anything now that I didn’t say at the time and not saying anything that Carwyn Jones [Welsh First Minister] or at the time, Martin McGuinness [former Northern Irish First Minister] would have said, and that is that we pretty much got a prime minister that was sitting on the other side of the table saying, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and not much else.

"In those circumstances it is then quite difficult to get into meaningful discussions where we could all say that while we might not come out of this with our ideal positions, there might be common ground that we might all be able to agree on if we are all agreed to compromise a bit.

"But all the compromise has come from the Scottish and Welsh governments – all from that side of the table – and there hasn’t been a single scrap of evidence of compromise from the UK Government. If anything, it has hardened along the way.

“[In terms of what happens next] I’ll continue to follow the course I set down on 24th June and take the decisions that I think are right for Scotland. I have made no secret of the fact that time is running out to find a compromise and we will continue to try even at this late stage but that window of opportunity is closing and it is closing fast.”

Whether Sturgeon will actually name the date for a referendum when she speaks to her members gathered in the Aberdeen Exhibition Centre, is doubtful but she will need to throw them some scraps to chew on. 

She may reveal some more detail of the work that has been going on to make a more credible economic argument for independence and given that it was this that, arguably, lost it last time around, she needs to get that right.

And the groundwork is happening. Two weeks into the New Year, Angus Robertson, the deputy party leader, called a top-secret summit of SNP insiders at the Craigellachie Hotel in Moray. The very location where in 2006 he famously called a similar meeting to help draw up the battle lines for the party to become a party that wins elections post the 2003 disastrous show in the polls.

And, as we now know, the strategy worked.

In attendance at the 2017 Craigelllachie meet were, among others: the First Minister; her husband, Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the party; John Swinney; Humza Yousaf; Kate Forbes; Sturgeon’s chief of staff, Liz Lloyd and director of communications, Stuart Nicolson; Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, now head of European public affairs at Aberdeen Asset Management; former SNP director of communications, Kevin Pringle, now a partner with Charlotte Street Partners; former MSP and advocate Duncan Hamilton and property developer and party donor, Mark Shaw.

The two-day gathering was an opportunity to mix socially as well as have a serious meeting of minds but the focus, however, was squarely on former MSP, now director of corporate communications company Charlotte Street Partners, Andrew Wilson, who had been charged by the First Minister back in September to chair her Growth Commission with a remit to look at “how to generate further growth with the powers of independence”.

Wilson, I am told, gave a slick PowerPoint presentation to the assembled group with the aim of offering a more credible foundation for the economic arguments that will need to be built ahead of a second referendum.

He faced some tough questioning but he did not offer a firm position on the currency, although an initial pegging to the pound was discussed, he made clear that increasing taxes would not be an advisable approach and rather than offering simple headlines, he has proposed that an independent Scotland with a ‘steady as she goes’ approach to the economy could see a recovery of the position it now finds itself in over a five to 10-year period.

He also made clear that the position as told by the numbers in the GERS figures is a more pessimistic view than the one he believed Scotland would be in should it vote for independence.

One insider told me that Wilson’s presentation was impressive and that he ‘is a good salesman’ but that importantly, it was all underpinned with some weighty economic research.
Key members of Sturgeon’s inner team, like Finance Secretary Derek Mackay and Brexit minister, Mike Russell, who couldn’t make the Craigellachie confab, have seen the presentation separately. 

But Sturgeon is not willing to give details of the Growth Commission’s findings.

“Not right now… it is hugely in depth and Andrew is leading on a really impressive piece of work that I think will stand us in very good stead for the debates in the future but I am going to allow it to conclude and then the SNP will debate it and it will, of course, be subject to wider debate in due course.” She does not give any detail on timescale.

But Sturgeon knows that the clock is ticking. Opponents of the SNP will attack the party and its case for independence based on its credibility as a party of government and its economic case. Already there is an embarrassing weight of evidence that things in education and health under a ten-year tenure of the SNP are not looking so good and Wilson’s first public foray into explaining his economic plans last week managed to score an own goal with the implication that the party had got it wrong last time around on the subject of oil.

But while there is no doubt that a new independence campaign would start in a better position than the 2014 campaign – there is a clearer opinion that Scots do not want another referendum before Brexit.

I ask her if the polls worry her?

“Not really…remember, we have gone through in the period of the run-up to 2014 with people telling us that the polls weren’t moving and people tend to not necessarily get into the debate in their own heads until the issue is actually engaged but I am pretty happy with where things are in terms of the polls.

“I have been pretty clear that Scotland should have the right to have a referendum at a time that the Scottish Parliament thinks is right but that should be before the UK finally exits the EU.”
And would the question of re-joining the EU be fundamental to the question on the independence ballot paper?

“Right now, I don’t see why you would have a different question to the one we had last time if you are talking about what actually will be on the ballot paper. but If you are talking about the choice people will have then it is not even just a choice anymore between independence or hard Brexit; it is a choice of do we allow our future as a country  to be determined by a UK government that we don’t vote for that is increasingly taking the UK down a path that wasn’t envisaged in 2014 or do we want the ability to chart our own course and that, of course, includes our relationship with Europe and a whole loads of other things.

“I think there are big challenges ahead but I am optimistic that if Scotland tries to shape its own future and chart its own course then we will be in a much better position than allowing others to do that for us.

"I have always believed that the fundamentals about Scotland are right and there is not much wrong with Scotland that cannot be put right by everything that is good about the country but we need to be in charge of our own future because at the moment, if I look ahead, the things that worry me most are the things that are out with our control right now and Brexit being at the top of that list.”

The First Minister was at Murrayfield watching Scotland beat Wales at the rugby when Labour leader Kezia Dugdale spoke at her conference, and she was in the Scottish Parliament speaking to the annual Scottish Women’s Convention when Ruth Davidson looked straight down a television camera lens at her party conference and said: “We said no. We meant it. Are you listening, Nicola?”

One suspects, when it comes to a second referendum, that the First Minister will be listening, but it won’t be to the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

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