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Fully charged

Fully charged

It’s just after 9am on a Friday morning and Nicola Sturgeon is in the SNP’s HQ in Edinburgh. It’s been a long week for the Deputy First Minister and you get the impression this is the one chance her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, is guaranteed to at least brush past his wife as she charges around the country trying to secure a vote for Yes.

She is just back from Shetland where she did a whistle-stop tour of the islands and has already this morning been on breakfast television, conducted a couple of radio interviews, got into a Twitter spat with Labour leader Johann Lamont, who has cheekily tweeted that she is campaigning for No in Sturgeon’s constituency – Sturgeon responds by advising Lamont she will be as popular there as she is in her own which is, according to Sturgeon, not very – and is now waiting to meet with a variety of interested press, including me, before travelling through to Glasgow for a full day of canvassing then taking part in yet another public referendum debate in the evening.

Sturgeon, like all involved in the two referendum campaigns, has spent the whole summer out on the stump, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland preaching the message of Yes, if not always that of the SNP. After all, this was the SNP deputy leader who had the temerity to stand up at her own party conference and urge Labour voters to vote for independence to reclaim their party and get back into power, a move that Labour’s Scottish leader described as “bizarre” but one that seems to have worked as polls show Labour voters moving to Yes.

It’s an exhausting schedule and one that hasn’t really let up during the two years that Alex Salmond put her firmly at the head of the SNP’s efforts to secure independence as Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, with additional responsibility for the constitution. She may have had regrets about giving up her beloved role as Health Secretary but she kicked up the dust on the referendum process by getting the Edinburgh Agreement quickly in place and has since been one of the lead figures in Yes.

It might be a bruising timetable and she can’t see an end to it regardless of the result, but she looks good on it. Her already tiny frame has, like all the other party leaders, shrunk in the last few months, although, unlike her boss’s 5:2 or Johann Lamont’s punishing exercise and diet regime, there is no particular secret to her weight loss, just sheer hard work and forgetting to eat.

She admits the campaign has been challenging, not least because she says people are just so engaged. They want to talk in great detail about all manner of things and she says that that has kept her on her toes and made her challenge and test her own arguments and theories along the way. 

But despite the shoe leather, the passion and the arguments, support for Yes remains stubbornly behind [although that was all to change 48 hours after our interview] and yet she seems remarkably relaxed. A quiet confidence and a knowing smile which, in retrospect, had me wondering about the reliability of the SNP’s famously rigorous doorstep polling.

As we sit down to discuss her referendum journey – Sturgeon dressed in her now trademark red which, mischievously, she admits she knows upsets her Labour counterparts – there are just 14 days to go until we’ll know finally which way Scotland has swung. The sense of history is palpable and yet I tell her she appears remarkably relaxed for someone who has taken her country this far.

How does she do it? She fixes those chocolate-drop eyes on me and sips from a glass of orange coloured liquid. “This,” she says, holding up the drink and pointing to a canister nearby, “is my miracle fuel”. It turns out that this is what the actress and fellow Yes-er, Elaine C Smith has recommend to the DFM to keep her going and it’s what Sturgeon evangelically enthuses is keeping her fully charged and buzzing with confidence.

The campaigning rocket fuel proves to be a highly legal, cheeky wee cocktail of vitamins, minerals and guarana, a natural source of caffeine, which its packaging says will ‘give you a little kick when you need it’. “Berocca,” she says. “But you want the Berocca Boost, it’s the boost that’s important.” No irony there, then.

I ask her how she feels about the possibility of a No.

“To be perfectly honest, I’ve not spent a lot of time thinking about defeat; in fact, I’ve spent virtually no time thinking about that. It’s not as if I am blinding myself to that possibility but I think when you are involved in a campaign as intense as this one and requiring 100 per cent of your energy, then it’s a waste of energy even thinking about a result that you don’t want, so I’m focused on getting a Yes and if it isn’t, then we’ll deal with that.

“Obviously, I don’t want to lose and it’s not because of what it means to me, the SNP or to Alex but I will be devastated if we lose because Scotland will have failed to take a fantastic opportunity and I don’t want that to happen. The world will move on, life will move on but I want us to grasp this opportunity. Not that I think it will be instant, or that the streets will be paved with gold, or it will always be perfect because that doesn’t happen in any country, anywhere. But the idea that we will be in charge of this country, we, the Scottish people, not we, the SNP, is just such a fantastic prospect I don’t want us to pass it up.

“It’s exciting, slightly scary but overwhelmingly exciting. It’s been a long campaign and been a great campaign and I’m enjoying it much much more than I thought would be possible and I’ve got to a stage, bizarre though this might sound, where I’m relaxed, enjoying it and I think it is going in our direction. More and more people are coming over to Yes and where we’ll end up, I think, will be a Yes and I guess by the time this magazine comes out, I’ll be proved either right or wrong,” she laughs.

Despite her reputation as being a bit frosty, Sturgeon is a quick wit and she laughs a lot more than she ever gets credit for. One profile described her as someone that you wouldn’t see on a girls’ night out but I can testify that is just not true. In fact, she is very much a woman’s woman – depending on the woman – and can talk as eloquently about shoes and fashion as she can about macroeconomics and fighting inequality.

The past and, to be fair, Scotland, can be pretty unforgiving. For someone who joined the SNP when she was a gauche and perhaps precociously serious 16-year-old, who quickly became involved in frontline politics, she has grown up in the full glare of the media spotlight, which hasn’t always been kind as it quickly dubbed her a ‘nippy sweetie’. But watching her on the campaign trail now, you see a warm woman very much at ease with herself and others. And one that, as she told Holyrood previously, wished she had told her 16-year-old self to smile a lot more, has taken her own advice.

It was clearly an astute move on many levels for Salmond to put Sturgeon at the forefront of the independence campaign two years ago when she replaced Bruce Crawford in the negotiations which led to the Edinburgh Agreement. As a woman, it was not an unreasonable proposition to believe she might reach out to other women who were seen not only as a sticking point towards independence but who also might have a problem with Salmond.

She already had an enviable reputation on the political home front as a more than competent Health Secretary but had also been exposed very positively to the much wider UK stage in 2009 when she capably handled the swine flu outbreak. London broadcasters were falling over themselves in describing her cool, calm and collected manner in the face of a potential national crisis.

To some extent, she is a perfect foil to her larger-than-life boss who can engender a bit of a Marmite reaction. For while Salmond is no doubt a great leader, a clever strategist and with popularity ratings that most political leaders would bite your right arm off for, she is viewed as more measured, serious and less prone to the odd gaffe. Although one of her deepest regrets was when she was exposed as having lobbied the courts for a constituent charged with fraud not to be given a custodial sentence; a major incident which, in the end, she defused by throwing up her hands and giving parliament a quick and heartfelt apology.

In contrast to Salmond, she is also perceived as being more of a left-winger with a keen sense of social justice. She has a common touch that he doesn’t always display and she is gifted with perhaps more emotional intelligence than him, particularly when it comes to dealing with their opponents. Although, again, she admits to falling well below her own standards of engagement when a televised debate between her and Johann Lamont descended into a screaming match that was more befitting a common stairwell than a TV studio.

But like Lamont, an occasional po-faced exterior hides a keen sense of humour – albeit one they rarely would share with each other – and with her tongue firmly in her cheek, she told delegates at the SNP conference last year that when she had gone in for the first meeting about the referendum process with David Mundell, the only Conservative MP in Scotland and a junior minister in the Scotland Office, his mobile had rung and it was his mother just checking that he was alright.

While she might laugh at the perception of her being a bit too feisty, most of us can probably appreciate Mundell’s discomfiture, for by any measure, Sturgeon is a formidable woman. She is intelligent – a lawyer – a veteran politician while still only in her early 40s, and given she is literally wedded to the party, having married SNP chief executive Murrell, she knows her stuff inside out. And 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, to now be on the brink of fulfilling that ambition must feel pretty terrifying even for her.

“No, not terrifying,” she says. “It is so exciting and it’s a big opportunity and of course there are challenges in that but overwhelmingly, I think when I wake up on the 19th… that assumes of course, that I go to bed on the 18th… and the reality is I probably won’t but when we win, it will just be like, ‘wow, we’ve done this, wow’. The future for Scotland will now be what we want to make it and there will be an enormous sense of responsibility and I think it is that responsibility rather than terror which will kick in very quickly because the government, although it will be wider than that, will have a big job of work to do to get the negotiations under way and get the best deal for Scotland.”

Will she be leading those negotiations or will Salmond, as usual, be leading the charge?

“I’m pretty sure I’ll be very involved in that negotiating team,” she smiles. “We are doing a lot of private thinking and talking about how that gets taken forward, as you would expect us to do, but principally, we are focused on the campaign for now but yes, I would expect to be central to that negotiating team.”

I say to Sturgeon that the nature of the debate has been keenly criticised. Only that week, Jim Murphy, the Labour MP, had abandoned his high-profile tour of 100 towns and cities canvassing for No following abuse, threats and finally being pelted with eggs. Many have blamed the Yes side for the animus. Does she regret that?

“Look, if Jim feels that he was being subject to unacceptable behaviour then it’s unacceptable and it should be condemned but I do think it is very important that none of us engages in language that exaggerates or, however unintentionally, inflames any of this. I was talking to somebody the other day who made the point that if you talk about divisions, you create divisions even if they are not there, so it’s not that we should accept behaviour that is unacceptable but equally, we should not try and pretend that that is what the debate is generally like because it is not and I think anybody, including Jim, and I hope that Jim would agree with this, anybody that has been out campaigning as he has, knows that the kind of abuse that is being talked about is not the way the majority are approaching this debate.

“To suggest that this is [in] any way co-ordinated by the Yes campaign is just wrong and goes back to some of the discussion about why the No campaign is getting certain things wrong, it is a complete misunderstanding of how the Yes campaign has evolved and developed. You know, the Yes campaign is this amazing diverse movement and there is no central command and control in the Yes campaign. Yes, Yes Scotland has a central strategy and a press campaign and such like but the idea that we press a button and armies of activists around the country do what they’re told is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Yes campaign is. It is about grassroots.

“One of the things I have enjoyed most about the campaign is being challenged, not by politicians because that’s just part of the day job, but by members of the public who themselves have become much more and better informed as this campaign has progressed and they can hold very detailed political discussions about some very intricate matters of policy and such like. I have found that really challenging and positive because it has made me think deeply about things that I’ve always believed and made me consider views I have always held but the need to be able to answer questions to some considerable depth has made me think much more deeply and be more informed than I might have had to be in the past.

“Politicians are just one part of this debate and, in some respects, quite a small part of it and what we are seeing in Scotland just now is an incredible grassroots movement on the Yes side but, on both sides, an incredible public conversation.

"That’s why I think – although again by the time anybody gets to read this we’ll know whether I am right or wrong – I increasingly think the No campaign, and Labour in particular in the No campaign, are getting it fundamentally wrong because they are trying to fight it as they would an election, Labour versus the SNP. So much of what they say is ‘don’t vote Yes because we don’t like the SNP’s policy on corporation tax’ and people out there have got beyond that. People know that it is not actually about the SNP if you vote Yes and if you don’t like the SNP’s policy on x, y or z, you don’t have to vote SNP in an independent Scotland and I think Labour in particular are really behind the public curve on that.”

Well of course, the same accusation could be levelled at Yes – they have made this a campaign about the Tories.

“Yes, it is true that it becomes personalised in terms of the Tories for obvious reasons but the argument about the Tories is more fundamental, it’s about voting Yes to put us in the position where we never again have to get governments that we don’t vote for. Now the governments which we don’t vote for tend to be Tory governments so it always sounds like an anti-Tory point and, as you know, I’m anti-Tory and I don’t make any bones about that but it’s actually a pro-democracy point. So the identity of the party, in a sense, is secondary to the fact it is wrong for Scotland to have to put up with governments made up of parties that have comprehensively lost the election in Scotland.

“I don’t vote Labour – there’s your front page exclusive – but the big flaw in their argument, though, is that Ed Miliband can’t guarantee to people in Scotland that if they vote No and then vote Labour that they’ll get a Labour government. Scotland has on so many occasions voted Labour to still end up with a Tory government. Every single one of us in the General Election next year could vote Labour and still end up with a Tory government.

"So there is no guarantee there and I would also say the same about this vote No to get some undefined, vague more powers is asking people to vote No and just put their faith in the Westminster establishment delivering. And the beauty of this campaign has been about the people taking control away from the political establishment, and all of this vote No and then vote for x, y, or z, is asking people to just give up that control again and fundamentally, it is just the wrong thing to do.

“Putting aside the Tories, I don’t think people should be or are particularly happy with Labour’s record in government so you know, I’m kind of putting that to one side and saying, fundamentally, this is not about parties and policies.”

And yet Sturgeon’s boldest move in this campaign has been to appeal to Labour supporters to vote Yes.

“I think standing up at an SNP conference and saying to an SNP audience that independence might be the best thing to ever happen to the Scottish Labour Party was clearly a message that might not go down well but I represent a constituency that used to be a Labour constituency so I think I’ve got a reasonably good understanding of Labour supporters, and I think about where they come from and what they want, and I share a lot of that because when you take the constitution out of the discussion, me and a lot of Labour politicians and Labour supporters will find it very difficult to have much which we disagree on.

"So it’s putting myself in their shoes and saying if I was a Labour supporter, I would see this massive opportunity to take my party back. I know that Labour supporters in Scotland have, in many respects, been broken hearted to watch what’s happened to their party as Tony Blair, Ed Miliband and others have turned it into something they don’t recognise and they don’t feel represents their views anymore so if we are independent and Scottish Labour becomes independent as a result of that then suddenly they can decide what it is that matters to them and reclaim your party is, I think, for Labour supporters, one of the motivations for voting Yes.”

So in the event of a Yes and with the constitutional question removed would she then gravitate towards a new Labour Party?

“No, I wouldn’t because I’m in the SNP. People ask me and it’s been asked of me a lot on this campaign trail, what happens to the SNP, does it cease to exist after the Yes vote and the honest answer to that is no. There might have been a time, it’s before my time in the SNP, where if you had taken independence away there would have been nothing to hold the party together but that’s not the case now and it has not been the case through all of the years I’ve been in the SNP.

"We are a social democratic party, we’ve got a distinctive policy platform, and a good record of delivery in government so no, my message to the Labour Party is not trying to insult their intelligence by pretending anything other than that in 2016, I’ll be out there campaigning for an SNP government in an independent Scotland. But if we don’t get an SNP government, if there is a Labour government elected in the first election in an independent Scotland, I will still be quite happy that we have taken the decision to be independent so that we decide who our governments are.”

This campaign has been particularly acrimonious between Labour and the SNP. How will they come together after the vote?

“I think we will all have to make an effort. The SNP and Labour have a robust relationship; I’ve always thought that partly that is because we actually agree on more than we disagree on, certainly that is true of a lot of the Labour voters and supporters and probably Labour members but maybe not so much in terms of the leadership. I don’t have any personal animus against people in different parties. You know, there are people in different parties I like and people I don’t like, that’s human nature. I don’t have animus to people who disagree with me, so I personally won’t find it difficult to go back and shake their hand, whatever the result. I think it’s really important and this is a big responsibility for all of us that whatever the result, we’ve got a job to do, to unite people and focus on the future.

“But this is not a divided nation, it’s a nation engaged in a fantastic debate about its future. There’s passionate differences of opinion about it but having fought several election campaigns where the biggest challenge you face is to get people interested at all, it has been a joy to be part of this campaign and I don’t want to sound too, you know…[soppy]… but it’s beautiful what’s happening in Scotland right now.

“This energy won’t be put back in its box, that’s for sure. I’m obviously going to say this but I actually one hundred per cent believe it, I think if there is a Yes vote what we’ll see is a further flowering of that. Suddenly, here we are, we have the chance to build a new country and what’s impressed me is it’s not just the engagement, it’s how informed the people are.

“I told you before of stopping in the street in my constituency to speak to an elderly gentleman and he started the conversation with, as many people still do, ‘ach, I don’t know enough about this, I’ve not got enough information’ and within five minutes, we were having a very in-depth discussion about the lender of last resort. Two years ago, no disrespect to this guy, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have known what that was and those conversations will have been replicated a million times across this country and it’s amazing, absolutely amazing.”

Clearly, Sturgeon is buzzing with it all and I wonder how she switches off, if at all.

“Obviously, it helps hugely that Peter and I are married to each other so he understands but it does mean there is very little scope for either of us to switch off because even when we get home, we are talking about it and such like.

“I am much calmer at the moment though, more relaxed. If you’d asked me six months ago how I’d feel two weeks out from the referendum, I’d be saying, a nervous wreck, but I seem to have hit a Zen-like state [she laughs at herself saying words like Zen]. I’m enjoying it, I’m thriving on it. It helps the fact that I think that at this stage we are on the right track to winning and course, I have my moments of fear, of losing, and then that is just taken over by the ‘oh my God, imagine winning’. It would be incredible but now it is about trying to stay focused and fit and healthy and get through it in one piece, with my miracle vitamin cure.”

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