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Exclusive interview: Nicola Sturgeon reflects on 20 years in parliament

Image credit: Cat Thomson

Exclusive interview: Nicola Sturgeon reflects on 20 years in parliament

Nicola Sturgeon is the only MSP to have been elected in May 1999 to Holyrood and to have been: a list MSP, a constituency MSP, a committee member, deputy party leader, party leader, leader of the opposition, a shadow minister, a cabinet secretary, deputy first minister and then finally to have completed the political hat-trick by becoming first minister, a position which she has held since 2014.

This might make her the most successful, if not the most titled, politician in the history of the parliament, but amid the successes, by the time Sturgeon was elected in May 1999, she had already experienced her fair share of electoral disappointment.

In 1991, aged just 21, making her the youngest candidate in the 1992 general election, she was selected as the SNP’s candidate for the Glasgow Shettleston seat and although she was beaten by almost 15,000 votes by Labour, it became only the first of seven consecutive electoral defeats.

In 1992, 1994 and 1995, she failed to win seats on local councils, then in 1997, she fought Glasgow Govan in the general election, losing again to Labour, with Mohammed Sarwar winning the seat for the party but with a substantially reduced majority. Undeterred, Sturgeon contested the same seat again for the Scottish Parliament in both 1999 and 2003, eventually securing it in 2007.

However, she did enter the Scottish Parliament in 1999 on the Glasgow list and has been a fixture ever since. This issue of Holyrood magazine come out on the exact anniversary – 6 May – that Scotland went to the polls 20 years ago to vote in that first intake of MSPs. And while it’s hard to imagine two decades on, and having been in power for 12 of those 20 years, Sturgeon went into that election with low expectations.

“You have to remember that I was in a party that had always been the underdog, that had never, until 1999, really fought an election campaign where anybody thought we had a credible chance of winning and so that was quite a difficult psychology to shift,” says Sturgeon.

“Alex used to talk about it in terms that intellectually, you knew were true, but emotionally, it was quite hard to really believe. He used to say that eventually oppositions win elections and so common sense told you that one day the SNP would displace Labour, but back then, given how powerful Labour’s hold on Scotland appeared to be, it was quite hard to believe.”

And true to form, that first election produced few surprises, with Labour winning 56 seats, just nine seats short of a majority, and going into coalition with the Lib Dems, who had won 17. The SNP, despite good showings in the opinion polls leading up to the election, won 35 seats and settled into being the main opposition for the next eight years but at least with an iron-clad belief, unlike Lord Robertson, that devolution would not kill nationalism “stone dead”.

“I was always on what was back then described as the gradualist wing of the SNP,” says Sturgeon. “I always thought that if you got a Scottish parliament, the direction of travel after that would only ever be one way toward independence. It might not always be entirely linear, there might be steps forward and steps back, but I believed the parliament would inevitably accrue more powers and that ultimately would end in independence. I still believe that today, and I think in the not too distant future the parliament will become an independent parliament.

“Looking now at the photograph of us all on that first day, I think how young I look and how just unencumbered by all the stresses and strains that have come since. So yeah, first thoughts on how it was back then, are about how young I look. I was 29 then and to be honest, I don’t even think I look 29 there, but that’s the strange thing, you look at a picture like that and it looks and feels as if it’s from a different time altogether and yet the 20 years that have passed don’t actually feel like 20 years. I mean, it’s been almost like a blink of an eye. It’s a really strange feeling looking back at that photograph, really strange.”

For Sturgeon, it has been a very public growing up as she has matured from quite a gauche, often nippy, politician of 20 years ago into one who is confident, polished and of global stature. Watching the assured politician she now is, it is hard to reconcile that with the Sturgeon who is naturally quite shy and a bit of an introvert. This is the woman, after all, who admits that as a child, she hid under a table at her own birthday party.

She was, in her younger political days, and by her own admission, a “bit po-faced” and if there is one bit of advice she would give her younger self, it would be to smile more. And despite much commentary to the contrary, there was never any one big makeover, just a simple evolution over time and with maturity. She reflects on the person that was dubbed the ‘nippy sweetie’ as “probably not being the real me” but the persona that at the time she believed fitted better into the political arena.

As I sit down with Sturgeon to talk about her time as an MSP and she speeds through the 20-year history of the parliament, punctuating it by a commentary on particular election performances and with a rider that each parliamentary term has been different in terms of challenges and opportunities, for both the SNP as well as for her personally, it’s fair to say the early days posed a steep learning curve.

“For those of us who hadn’t been MPs, and in my case, never been in elected office in my life, there was a sense of you didn’t really know how you were meant to act, so you were learning very much on the job. There was a danger, I think, for all of us that we looked to Westminster as the model and you know, I think even today there is still a need for the Scottish Parliament not to emulate some of the bad practices of Westminster.

“The vast majority of the 129 of us were inexperienced, new to politics, new to elected politics, and certainly new to parliamentary elected politics, and probably that inexperience was the reason for some of the ups and downs that the parliament had in its early years, but there was a huge strength as well, of learning on the job and developing as individuals in parallel to the development of the new institution.

“I think there was in those early days a sort of camaraderie. I mean, I wouldn’t say I developed close friendships, but I think there was a sense that we were all kind of in the same boat. There were also some sharp divisions as well.

“There’s no disguising that the 1999-2003 parliament was really tough for the SNP. I think partly because the parliament inevitably didn’t immediately live up to everybody’s expectations. It had some tough moments and the SNP, I think, suffered more than any other party from that.”

Indeed, in that first term, Alex Salmond, one of the few MSPs elected to have any real wider recognition, having already been a high-profile MP, may have stamped his own gradualist trademark on the party’s ambitions but perhaps found himself less able to adjust to life outside Westminster, where he was still an MP. In 2000, he unexpectedly resigned as leader of the SNP following a dispute over the party’s finances and was replaced by his then deputy, John Swinney. Salmond then left the Scottish Parliament the following year to focus on the House of Commons, where he led the SNP group.

Swinney, despite his popularity, did not manage to get cohesion among the various wings of the party and following poor election results in the European elections and a disastrous showing in the 2003 Holyrood election, where the party lost eight seats, he stood down in 2004.

With Labour looking unassailable, the SNP embarked on a bitter leadership contest, pitting friends Roseanna Cunningham and Nicola Sturgeon against each other. The battle ended with the unexpected development of Salmond’s return when he threw his hat in the ring with Sturgeon as his deputy. And with that dream ticket the party’s journey to power began, but in so doing, it ended a close friendship between two of its highest-profile women.

Salmond and Sturgeon were subsequently elected as leader and depute leader, but with Salmond still an MP in the House of Commons, Sturgeon led the party in Holyrood until 2007, when Salmond was again elected as an MSP.

In Salmond’s absence, Sturgeon was a formidable opponent to then first minister Jack McConnell, and he now credits that time in opposition for Sturgeon as the period that helped her understand the need to form coalitions and work across parties to get results. He believes it was this experience that stood her in good stead for government when the SNP won the 2007 election by just one seat and formed a minority administration.

With Salmond back as leader, the party took a long, hard look at itself and in the run-up to the 2007 election presented a more positive vision for the future. They won by just one seat, and despite early coalition talks with the Lib Dems and a confidence and supply arrangement with the Greens, Salmond announced the SNP would go it alone.

“It was bold,” agrees Sturgeon. “But it was inevitable, because we weren’t going to get anyone to go into a coalition with us, so in a sense, what was a bold move actually was making a virtue out of a necessity.

“There was no way the Liberals were going to go into coalition with us or the price they would have tried to get for that would have been a price that we weren’t willing to pay. I think that it was an inevitable move, but it was absolutely the right one.

“The best thing that ever happened to us was having nobody willing to go into coalition with us, because we then were able to just do things the way we wanted to do them. We didn’t have to have another party sitting round the cabinet table, bartering decisions at that level, we could set the direction of travel, and I think it brought a breath of fresh air to politics.

“You can never say this for sure, but if we had ended up in coalition, I think the development of our government and what happened after in terms of that journey to the independence referendum would probably have been very different.

“We won power narrowly, but we then demonstrated, as a new inexperienced government, a sort of ability and competence that impressed people and at the same time continuing to offer a bigger vision for the future of the country.

“And here we are 12 years in and we are still, by some considerable distance, the choice of most people in Scotland and actually recent election results, local by-elections, have suggested that that’s probably on a slight uptick again rather than the reverse.

“In democratic terms, it is probably something of a phenomenon that we have managed to retain that degree of trust through the ups and downs and the things that people will agree with us on and the things that they won’t agree with us on and even on the things we get wrong. There is a sense that we are still the people best placed to take the country forward and that’s quite remarkable.”

Sturgeon would point to that 2007 to 2011 parliament as the one where the SNP learnt to work across the parties to build coalitions which set the foundations for how they continued to operate in subsequent parliaments, even when they won a majority in 2011.

But in previous parliaments, Sturgeon had been a rabid attack dog from the opposition benches, taking no prisoners in her wake, and it was therefore viewed with a degree of satisfaction by some in 2010 when 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 judgement. But Sturgeon managed to silence them all with a full, complete and humbling apology to the chamber.

The incident seemed to indicate a change in manner for Sturgeon, which she claims was shaped by her time as Scotland’s health secretary from 2007, when she realised people appreciated action more than politics.

In the Scottish Parliament election of May 2011, the SNP ran on a campaign based on ‘team, record, vision’. Sturgeon’s personal record as health secretary was pivotal to that and her high profile was key. She made big-ticket pledges over free prescription charges and, on what became a very personal quest, to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol. The result was that the SNP won a historic majority in a parliamentary system designed to not let that happen. Sturgeon had, as ever, given it her all and, as usual, had taken nothing for granted. 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 put Sturgeon at the forefront of that independence campaign during a reshuffle in 2012. It was an astute move by the first minister. His deputy already had a formidable reputation at home in Scotland but had also been very positively exposed to the much wider UK stage in 2009 for her capable handling of the swine-flu outbreak. 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.

For a woman that joined the SNP while at school because she believed ‘heart and soul’ that independence was the only way Scotland could fulfil its potential, this was a dream, albeit one that ended in a nightmare for the nationalists, who saw a ‘yes’ vote narrowly defeated in September 2014.

Salmond stood down as leader within hours of the ‘no’ vote, saying it was time for a new generation, but instead of the SNP looking like losers, Sturgeon unexpectedly took the party to a whole new level. After losing the referendum, the SNP rose in popularity to become the third largest party in Britain. And in the 2015 Westminster general election campaign that would normally pay scant attention to the SNP, the party was at the centre of every other party’s rhetoric. Sturgeon herself became the favourite in the UK leaders televised debates, with viewers across the country asking why they couldn’t vote for the SNP and her name was the most Googled during the broadcasts. 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 seats at Westminster.

“I actually kind of struggle to clearly remember the weeks and months in the parliament after the independence referendum because it was such a whirlwind, for me, personally. I became first minister in that period, I was adapting to that, you know, finding my feet in that, and so the parliament felt different to me anyway. I suppose, taking a step back from it, the SNP, in the traditional sense, who were the losers in that referendum, were suddenly the ones on the up, not just electorally but in terms of the kind of vision and ideas for the future of the country. The other parties appeared lost and didn’t really know how to respond and again, that is something that, I think, in the run-up to the independence referendum, very few people, if any, would have predicted.”

However, the 2016 Scottish Parliament election saw the SNP lose its historic majority, and even though it was by just two seats, this was seen as a reflection on Sturgeon.

“I know from the outside that change seems big, but it didn’t really make that much difference from the inside,” she says. “I can’t exactly remember the numbers, but we probably, in reality, had almost lost our majority over the course of that previous parliament because of different changes [e.g. three MSPs left the party to sit as independents following a debate over NATO] so we were on the cusp of losing that majority before the election and after it, we were just two seats short of a majority. The reality was that in 2011 we broke the system, there was never a sense on our part that a repeat of that could be taken for granted. So, we just picked up and we got on with it and there was never a sense of that being as big a thing for us as I think other people might have thought it was.

“This 2016 term is interesting, because it’s almost as if we have gone through a complete generational cycle. I think if you look back at the 2007-2011 term, and maybe to a lesser extent the 2011-16 as well, there was a sense of that original 1999 intake having kind of matured and developed and that we were now actually sort of experienced politicians. I think in this parliament, because at the last election there was a large number of people who retired or stood down, it’s felt younger and newer again, which is good, but because it’s full again of people who are not as experienced and it’s felt, in a sense, that we are going back a bit in that way, but that’s a good thing, because that’s almost like a generational renewal with new politicians coming through.

“The parliament has changed Scotland irrevocably. One of the things that is most remarkable when you take a step back from it all, 20 years in the sweep of history is nothing and yet within that 20 years, the parliament has become this accepted, established part of Scottish life, and I am never reminded of that more strongly than when I talk to school kids. People of our generation, we still talk about the pre-parliament days as if they were really recent; you talk to a group of school pupils about the days before the Scottish Parliament and they look at you blankly.

“I think the Scottish Parliament has changed Scotland in the sense of who we are and how we carry ourselves and how we see ourselves as a country. Would tuition fees have ever been abolished without the Scottish Parliament, would free personal care ever have happened without the Scottish Parliament, would prescription charges have been abolished, would we be taking forward innovative policy ideas like minimum pricing without the Scottish Parliament? It’s changed Scotland in so many ways, but above all, I think it’s given the country a sense of self-confidence to do things differently that it didn’t have before we had our own parliament.

“Am I going to be in it for another 20 years? Well, I’m not going to sit here and say I am going to be around for the next 20 years, but I am certainly loving what I am doing, and I will take the SNP into the 2021 election. If we win the 2021 election, I will do another term as first minister, party and electorate willing and all the usual caveats you put on that. But, you know, I’ll be, and I can’t believe I am about to utter this next sentence, I will be 51 in 2021. I will be at that point where it’s not old, but it’s not the first flush of youth anymore, so am I committing myself to another 20 years of politics – that would be a 40-year period in the frontline of politics which would be quite extraordinary, so I wouldn’t go that far…I’m not ruling it out, mind, but we will see…”

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