Exclusive: Interview with Nicola Sturgeon on turning 50
Nicola Sturgeon celebrates her 10th wedding anniversary next month, just days before she hits her big five-oh, and that seeming clash of big dates is no simple coincidence. Back in 2010, her wedding to SNP chief executive Peter Murrell was timed precisely to stop her thinking about turning 40, a landmark birthday she had no wish to mark.
Ten years on, she was dreading yet another big birthday, and in October told me she was struggling with the whole concept of ageing and couldn’t quite accept the idea that she was nearly 50.
Today, with her July 19th birthday just weeks away, her days and nights are instead consumed by thoughts of COVID-19 and if ever there was any silver lining to be found in this tragedy, it has meant she has had no time to indulge in concerns about her age, which she now says seem so trivial.
“I haven’t really thought about it very much to be honest, but I think my perspective on it has completely changed. To be frank, I entered this year thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m about to be 50, how did it get to this, how did I become so old?’ But I see now that 50 is not that old, and actually the last few months have changed my perspective on all sorts of things.
“So, I’m totally approaching my birthday in a different frame of mind where, without being sort of too sentimental and clichéd about it, I am probably like lots of people right now, just more likely to count my blessings and focus on the things around me that I should be grateful for, like, you know, my family, my husband and having good health. I undoubtedly feel different about turning 50 than I would have felt without the experience of the last three months. I would say that I now feel less bothered about turning 50 than I felt about turning 40.
“I have had a conversation with you before where you gave me the choice to kind of turn back the clock and have a particular decade of my life turn out differently and I guess, given the choice, it would be my 30s, but if the price of doing that was not to get to where I am right now, I wouldn’t take it. So, I’m quite happy where I am. I’m obviously not going to describe myself as deliriously happy at the moment because of what we’re going through, but you know, I’m comfortable, I think, in my own skin.
“I loved being 30, I hated the idea of being 40 and 50 is different again. I think that’s partly to do with coming to terms with what it means to be getting older, but also getting my head round the fact that being 50 now is very different to how it was, for instance, for my gran. I can remember my gran being 50 and she was an old lady, but my mum was very young when I was born, so when she was 50, I was already 32, and I don’t think my mum felt like an old lady to me. But I certainly remember my gran and this sense of her at 50 being quite old. But it is different now and part of this is reminding ourselves of that.
“I definitely don’t want to slow down and, to be clear, I’m not talking about changing direction either! That speculation [about standing down as first minister] will always go on because people like you will always continue to speculate about it. You can always create speculation if you decide to speculate, but it’s not anything I’m saying or doing that feeds that.
“But you know, I suppose one of the nice things about having been first minister for five and a half years by the time I turn 50 is that while I’m not planning for it to be imminent, whenever I do stop being first minister – because every first minister has a shelf life – I will still be young enough, and hopefully healthy enough, to go in a different direction and do other things, and I find that is something that is quite uplifting.
“I think I’ve probably been dealing with enough tough stuff recently to not allow myself to dwell too much on me getting older, and actually without all of this going on, I may have been a bit more morose about turning 50 and thinking ‘Oh my God, I’m getting old’. I don’t want to sound at all twee here, but this virus and the tragedy of it all has made me think about life and, you know, how much you’ve got to value life and make the most of it.
“So yeah, in a strange sort of way, and there’s no silver linings to the coronavirus cloud, but in a strange sort of way it has absolutely changed my approach and mindset to turning 50 and in a way that makes me much more, if not positive about it, then just less depressed about it, because I think it’s more important that we concentrate on the things we have got as opposed to the things we don’t.
“I wouldn’t be human though if I hadn’t at times over the past few months felt pretty overwhelmed by the magnitude of this, but I’ve forced myself to keep very focused on it and just get through every decision, every step, every day, every week, and you know, we’re still in it, we’re not out of it yet, so that’s still very much my mindset.
“But at a practical level, as we go through it the nature and the type of decision-making changes as we go from one phase to the other, but you know, there have been periods in this when just the sheer number of decisions that have had to be taken every single day, that yeah, it has felt overwhelming. But you know, sometimes you just have to take a step back, breathe and work your way through it.
“I’m sure that I am no different from other people in sometimes thinking a) how did I get to be 50 – almost – and b) how did I get to be here in this position [the adult in the room that has to make the decisions]. And maybe I’ve got that good old-fashioned female thing going on, probably a little bit about being Scottish too, of a sort of imposter syndrome feeling that sometimes I think, ‘Am I really up to all of this?’ But in a situation like the one we’ve been living through, and I’ve never been through anything as serious or as difficult as this before, it would not be helpful to anybody for me to spend too much time thinking like that.
“I think what’s been different about this compared to some of the other situations I have had to deal with is the emotional impact. It has, at times, felt quite emotionally overwhelming, particularly at the point when we were at the peak of people dying. That’s been very difficult.
“I am blessed and always have been, I think, with quite deep reserves of energy, physical energy, so I can function on not that much sleep and so that always helps, although it’s not very healthy for long periods of time. Beyond that, I’ve tried to remind myself every day that however hard it’s been in my position to do this, it is nowhere near as hard as it has been for people who’ve been directly affected by death or illness or for people working directly caring for those with the virus. I mean, my sister works in the health service. She’s a phlebotomist that has throughout these three months been, you know, taking blood from patients with coronavirus. She’s spent long shifts fully kitted out in PPE. So I’ve seen what it’s like through her eyes to actually be on the frontline of this, and I know that, however tough my job is, it is nothing compared to that. So reminding myself of that constantly, even on the days when I’m finding it difficult, maybe has helped.
“I’ve not been able to see my sister obviously, or my family, throughout this, so Peter has been hugely important, as he always is, in my life, and I’ve really valued having him over the past three months just to give me that emotional support and help me at the moments when it’s all felt most difficult. And of course, he has worried about me. I think, like me, a lot of people, if not the majority of people, have just learned to value those around them that bit more and maybe think a bit more about what actually matters in life.
“There’s so much to process about the last three months, but I suppose the one thing I think I know beyond any doubt now is that I will not be the same coming out of this crisis as I was going into it. I don’t mean fundamentally changed as a person, but my perspective and what I value in life and what is important and what’s not important and the things that I get worked up about or used to get worked up about. I just think I will have a completely different perspective coming out of this. I haven’t had time to properly process all of that yet and it might be some time before I fully understand what I mean by saying I will be different coming out of it, but I feel sure that will be the case.
“Do I feel sadder? In a way, but I’ll preface my answer here by saying, I’ve not lost a loved one to this virus and I’ve not had somebody close to me be seriously ill with it. I thankfully haven’t had that burden of grief and sadness that more than 4,000 families across the country have had, so nothing I have experienced will come remotely close to that, but yes, I feel a sense of sorrow as to what the country has gone through, is going through, and is hopefully now starting to come out the other side of.
“In a strange sort of way, and I don’t know if I would have understood this thinking about it intellectually in advance, standing up every day reading out a figure for the number of people who have died has resulted in a sense of sadness. I remember very early on thinking, as that number was rising, I need to consciously make sure when I’m doing that that I don’t see just the number, and I went through this thinking almost literally as I was standing up there, as I read out the numbers, of forcing myself to think about people I knew, people I loved, just to make sure that I never lost sight of the fact that I was talking about people, not statistics. And yes, there’s a sense of acute sadness about what we’ve gone through and I’m pretty sure that the experience of this will never, ever leave me and as I say, I don’t fully yet understand what I mean by all of that…it’s still to be processed.
“I wasn’t thinking about one person in particular as I read out the numbers, but I was just trying to make sure that I had people in my life kind of running through my head to try to imagine what I would feel like if I was the one that had been bereaved, and just make a point of emphasising every day that these are not numbers, these are people, and I still think that’s really important.
“It’s been grim. There were periods where I genuinely wondered if we would get through this without literally everybody knowing somebody who had died from it, and that’s what we were trying to avoid. And unfortunately, we didn’t avoid that for more than 4,000 people and that will always live with me.
“I probably would have more optimism now about the future than I did six weeks, two months ago, but even when there is a vaccine, you’ll never be able to get to a point where we will never have COVID cases again, but I do think we can get to a point where we have suppressed it sufficiently so that you can deal with outbreaks or clusters in a very targeted way, which means the population at large can go about their business pretty much as normal and if you then get a cluster in Glasgow, for example, you deal with that. You might have people living in a part of Glasgow who have to be restricted for a few days, but you don’t have overall restrictions on the population. So I have a much greater level of confidence than I did a few weeks ago that we can get to that kind of situation, but it will involve ongoing vigilance, ongoing surveillance, ongoing action on the part of the public to do all the right things, wash their hands properly, you know, not increase the risk, but I do think something that feels much, much more normal is within our grasp if we keep driving it down now.
“We will see some sense of normality return. I think the election will happen next year, in fact I’m pretty sure the election will happen next year, and debates about the country’s future will restart too and we will go back to normal politics but hopefully thinking a bit more about how we conduct our politics. But I don’t think the country is quite there yet. We still have work to do to get there, but of course all of that will start up again.
“I am talking to you now about all of this stuff while we are still in it, and I have not had time to really be introspective and think about it all, and hopefully I’ll get to a point where I can do that soon, but I think I have probably learned already that I’ve got an even deeper resilience than I might have ever thought possible, and I think I will also come out of this with a much lower tolerance for some of the crap of politics.
“I think it’s making me think about what politics should really be for, what it’s about, and how to do it, perhaps, in a way that is different from before. I suppose, the game of politics, which has been absent or less present for much of this, I think we could probably all benefit from just maybe thinking about how much of that we want to allow to creep back in.
“Politics is a battle of ideas, and sometimes you have to have that battle of ideas in a really vigorous and adversarial way, but I think focusing on the substance, as opposed to the frippery, is something that I think all of us should try to do as a result of what we have gone though.
“I don’t know whether a year from now, we will still feel some of what we have felt over the past three months, but there’s been a sense of doing things for each other and not just for ourselves and that, I think, has been really good. None of us would have chosen to have these circumstances, but I hope there is some of that collective concern that lasts long after the virus has disappeared.”