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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon on the last year in Scottish politics

Interview: Nicola Sturgeon on the last year in Scottish politics

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 a year on from a decisive independence referendum that saw the Labour Party campaign shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories to save the Union, 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. 

The Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle had previously described the Labour leadership race as an oasis of boredom: that Cooper and Burnham talked like hostages, that Liz Kendall had the air of an Apprentice candidate, and Jeremy Corbyn was like an old pub drinker in a revamped bar.


Nicola Sturgeon says claim SNP cost Labour the election is "bollocks"

Mandy Rhodes: What did we learn from the last year in Scottish politics?

But when studio audience member, Monique Morris, provocatively applied the Sturgeon test, that oasis gently rippled. 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 – as if that was a qualification for being able to walk in her shoes. 

It was left to veteran left-winger Corbyn, and at that point a rank outsider, to point out that what he shared with Sturgeon was opposing Trident and the Iraq War.

The audience clapped enthusiastically.

He added that Scotland’s First Minister had been “very effective in putting forward a message that resonated with people”.

And with the SNP leader firmly setting the bar for the UK Labour leadership contest, it was only Corbyn that had the good grace to recognise Sturgeon’s skills as a politician and maybe that is why he then raced into the lead.

Like that infamous third person in the Royal marriage, Sturgeon mischievously admits to me that while she may not have actually been part of the broadcast, she recognised that she was the fifth politician in the debate.

But then 2015 has been the year that Scottish politics defined UK politics. And it has been the Sturgeon factor that has been the surprise behind that surge in party popularity. Until Sturgeon’s coronation as leader of the SNP in October last year, there were many political commentators who believed the SNP was a one-man band. And that man was Alex Salmond.

There was a feeling that if he fell under a bus – as Margaret Curran once indelicately put it to me – the SNP would just wither on the vine. But when he stood down as leader within hours of the No vote, saying it was time for a new generation, Sturgeon was waiting in the wings and has unexpectedly taken the party to a whole new level.

She has commanded the airwaves across the UK, has sold out venues in a meet-the-members tour around Scotland, has given lectures, hosted receptions, appeared on prime-time American television, met with Christine Lagarde at the IMF and there have been selfies galore. 

And when she took to the stage at her party’s spring conference, six months after the No vote, it wasn’t just the 3,000 plus devotees in the audience at the Glasgow Exhibition Centre, slavishly hanging onto her every word, the world’s media was also firmly focused on her.

The SNP’s newly elected deputy leader, Stewart Hosie, introduced her as “the only party leader in the UK who people actually like ...” The crowd roared and a constantly changing screen behind him showed that the number of SNP members stood at over 100,000 and still counting – a fourfold increase since the referendum.

After losing the referendum, the SNP has risen, ironically, to heights it could hardly have dreamt of just this time last year. Sturgeon urged her new party faithful at conference to make their voice heard. “Let us put the normal divisions of politics aside, let us come together as one country, let us seize this historic moment to shift the balance of power from the corridors of Westminster to the streets and communities of Scotland,” she said. “Let us this time vote SNP and make this nation’s voice heard like never before.”

Today, under her watch, the SNP is now the third largest party in Britain. And in a 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 and the subject of much media commentary and debate. It was variously blamed for trying to get into No 10 on Ed Miliband’s coattails, to making a Tory win inevitable.

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 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 Sturgeon’s party taking 56 of the 59 seats at Westminster. Her predecessor, Alex Salmond and one of the newly elected MPs at Westminster, said it was time for the Scottish lion to roar in the House of Commons.

It was a quote typical of the Salmond ebullience. He was, and is, undoubtedly a giant of a politician. But he also has a Marmite factor that Sturgeon does not. She is seen as more natural, more authentic and she has a natural charm that he does not and during the last few months she has even managed to transcend his economic USP by making a simple case to end austerity.

And while her economics could bear more scrutiny, it was a message that resonated with a wider UK audience who had yet to be as exposed to the SNP’s message of positivity and hope. Salmond may have been the necessary force to take the party into the mainstream and into government in Scotland but it has been Sturgeon that has taken the SNP’s fight to the UK, ironically via Westminster which is Salmond’s natural habitat, not hers. Has she done it by clearly defining herself as different to Salmond?

What has happened since the referendum is a phenomenon that is difficult to explain. There was no real party strategy that directed what happened post a No vote. No one within the SNP foresaw it because no one could have predicted that a No vote would help create a chain reaction of events that led to the monumental result in May.

But it has been the general-election outcome rather than the referendum outcome – although both obviously related – that has resulted in pushing the SNP and Sturgeon to the fore of UK and global politics.

“In a campaign sense, in a strange sort of way, it has just been a kind of continuation from the referendum. Obviously, the general-election campaign wasn’t just a continuation of the referendum campaign, but in terms of momentum and the SNP’s campaign operation, that really has just continued.

"Obviously, within that I have also become First Minister so that was a massive change of focus for me and a massive increase in responsibility and my role was very different campaigning in the general election to campaigning in the referendum but altogether, the past year has been just a non-stop period of constant activity.

“The general election was a strange one for me because usually, or for a large part of my time in the SNP, it’s been about saying you’re going to win and talking up your chances but deep down, it’s knowing you weren’t. It was the reverse this time. 

“Deep down, I’m a pessimist and as you know, in 2011, I had a wobble three days before the election and I thought we were going to lose. It probably comes from losing so many elections, your natural tendency is  to be very cautious, to the point of pessimistic sometimes, but I just deep down inside knew we were going to do really, really well in the general election but I had to constantly be talking that down.

"Partly because there’s nothing worse in politics than a politician taking people for granted or sounding arrogant but by the last couple of weeks of the campaign, I was pretty sure we would be hitting the 50 per cent mark in the popular vote – could be a couple of percentage points lower or a couple higher but that was the ballpark I was convinced we were going to end up in. What I was less sure about was what that would translate to in terms of seats; would it be patchy or would it just deliver the avalanche that turned out to be the case. 

“It was weird for someone who has lost more elections than I’ve won in politics to almost have to be convincing myself to be pessimistic as opposed to optimistic given it’s usually the reverse I have to do.”

I ask her how conscious a decision it was to put her squarely at the front of the general-election campaign given she was not a contender.

“Was it a conscious decision to do that…yes and no. We didn’t sit down and say was I going to be leader of the campaign but I was party leader so I guess it was the reverse of that in that it was never contemplated that I would do anything other than front the campaign.

But then the leaders’ debates were probably a factor as well because it was never an option of me" not doing the debates so that all led to me becoming the focal point of our campaign but as you know very well, no campaign is entirely built around one person. The SNP campaign had strength and depth. Our candidates, our campaign teams, everybody in every part of the country all added up to that eventual outcome.”

I suggest that it was the post-referendum effect and the omnipresent ‘Scottish Question’ that almost subconsciously placed the SNP as the party to beat in what was a UK-wide election.

“I think it was more simple than that. Certainly the response after the first leaders’ debate showed that, yes, there was more of an interest in Scotland – a curiosity about what’s going on in Scotland – but it seemed to me to be much more straightforward in England, they suddenly saw that a politician didn’t have to talk in clichés all the time, that it was possible for a politician to stand and talk from a sense of belief and principle and conviction in quite a straight way. 

“We talk about, or at least we like to think, that our politics are different to England but what that general election taught me is, and this is only my impression, that there is an appetite for progressive change and straight talking politicians in England, as much as there is in Scotland. Maybe that’s why Jeremy Corbyn is doing so well in the Labour leadership.”

However, I suggest, that is not how England voted and without wishing to intrude on the Labour Party’s grief, I ask her what she makes of Labour’s narrative that the SNP played into the Tories’ hands and yet again let them in to power – an argument Labour has well rehearsed since the 1970s when they say the SNP helped bring the minority Callaghan government down which then saw Margaret Thatcher’s party win at a general election.

“I’m not sure this a word I should use in an interview but it’s bollocks. Even if you try to unpack that argument, what’s the logical conclusion – that we shouldn’t have stood? That Labour should have been given a free run? I’m assuming that’s not what their arguing.

"Labour failed to win the election because they failed to beat the Tories in England and it might comfort them to say that was somehow the fault of the SNP because the Tories tried to use the SNP to scaremonger but if that’s true, and I’m not convinced that was actually as big a factor in England as some would say, but let’s assume it’s true, that would only ever have worked if people had started out being scared of Labour.

"If Labour had been perfectly credible then the idea of Labour and the SNP in coalition wouldn’t have been a scare tactic that Labour tried to say it was. I think Ed Miliband got it completely wrong in how to handle that. Instead of standing up when the Tories started this and saying, ‘do you know what, I’m trying to win a majority here but if people choose a hung parliament, that’s what the people have chosen and we have to work with that and if people in Scotland choose the SNP, we have to respect that, because the voters are in charge’.

"Instead, of doing that, he entered the Tory frame by ruling out working with the SNP and almost legitimizing that a Labour/SNP coalition was something that people should be scared of and saying that it would be simply a reflection of how people voted, live with it. It was bad intelligence.

“There is a spectrum of opinion that Labour holds about the SNP which starts with an inability to fundamentally understand anything about the SNP and Tony Blair was at it again with his talk recently about us being cavemen but I say, carry on completely misunderstanding, be my guest, because as long as you do, Labour is dead in the water in Scotland. There’s that ignorance of us and an inability to get us so they then mostly mischaracterise us, therefore, it’s easy to believe the worst of us because it plays into their misconception about us.

"That’s one end of the spectrum and it carries on through to people knowingly and deliberately misrepresenting what we stand for and I think a lot of the people that jumped on the so-called Frenchgate story [where the Daily Telegraph wrongly reported Nicola Sturgeon as having told the French Ambassador that she wanted David Cameron, not Ed Miliband, to be the next PM] did so deliberately because they assumed we’re all driven by the same Machiavellian tendencies in politics as they might be and they wanted everyone to think that we are as disreputable and dishonest and so they just latched onto that story to try to convince them of that.”

Of course, in the end, the election was won by a majority Tory vote and so all the predictions, machinations and combinations of a Labour government supported by the SNP were wrong. What did that mean for Sturgeon?

“Well, obviously, we had contemplated all the scenarios and had planned to the extent that you can plan. We contemplated that if there was a hung parliament that nobody after that first period would want to talk to us because they would all be desperate to show that they could do it without us and we’d sit there waiting for them to realize that actually, the political reality was different. 

“We had thought through all of these scenarios and in truth, I was going to London on the Friday after the election anyway for the VE Day commemorations, but I had an open-ended ticket. I didn’t know when I would come back that weekend but as it turned out, I came back up on the Friday night and went back down later on. 

“I remember leaving the house on polling day to go and vote and Peter [Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband] was coming through to Edinburgh and I was like, ‘I don’t know when I’m gonna see you again because I don’t know when I’ll be back from London’. That seems strange now but nobody really had seriously contemplated the Tory majority – that’s not to say we hadn’t gone there in one of the scenarios but it was one of the outside possibilities.

"When that majority became obvious on Friday morning, we had to rethink it all or at least think through a scenario that hadn’t seemed that likely which then quickly became a conversation about how to maximize the influence we’ve got and that’s been, and will continue to be, a developing picture as we pick our moments to make our mark. 

“I think the last few weeks have been interesting, and this is maybe what took us a few days to really realise because everybody was so shocked at a Tory majority – that it’s not a very big majority. And what happens with majorities as you go through a parliament is they get stretched and they get strained so were going to have opportunities if we play our cards right. So that’s the territory we’re in now and I think the group of SNP MPs down there are playing a blinder at the moment.

“There’s no doubt about it, that as party leader I am having a more direct role with the Westminster group than previously but it’s not a direct role in a sense that I’m issuing instructions or diktats but we’re having to make a very conscious effort to make sure everything is aligned and integrated. We know what each of us is doing and what we’re doing here and what they’re doing down there is part of the overall agreed strategy.

"So they, led by Angus [Robertson, Westminster group leader] will be taking decisions down there that I’m not directing, but they’ll be doing that within the strategic framework that we’ve set so they’ll know where we’re to go and it just so happened and it was happenstance, that I was down there on the night of the fox-hunting decision so was able to very directly take part in that discussion at the group meeting but that won’t happen with every big decision and there will be occasions where it doesn’t work well and things will go wrong but so far, it’s working pretty well.

“On the SNP convention to vote or not vote on English matters, there’s always been a wilful misunderstanding of our position; we’ve always said that where we think there is a Scottish interest we’ll vote and there was a Scottish interest in that even if it was a wider interest because when you are in a situation, as we had been over the few weeks before that, of seeing the way the Tories were approaching the Scotland Bill where the English majority were being marshalled, night after night after night, to vote down the Scottish majority then frankly, there is a wider Scottish interest to say to David Cameron, ‘remember how slender your majority is here and if you behave arrogantly and high highhandedly then there will be implications of that’, so that was part of the consideration.

“You know, that sort of hand-wringing and outrage from certain commentators and Tory MPs around all of this that wanted people to believe that the SNP somehow frustrated English public opinion – English public opinion wasn’t in favour of overturning the fox-hunting ban so we weren’t frustrating English opinion, we were supporting it.

But look, when you’re in a situation like we are in the Commons, there to make our mark for Scotland and to make Scotland’s voice heard, you have to be prepared to use your influence and use it cleverly and at times, to use it tactically and we’ll be prepared to do that.

“I read somewhere that suddenly there are a lot more Scottish MPs in the House of Commons, no, there are not, it’s just they are SNP MPs and that is what makes the difference. I’ve been really proud of the way they’ve been behaving. They’ve been a breath of fresh air.

"Even things that certain quarters of public opinion wanted to write off as disrespect or rowdy behaviour, like the clapping, that’s been quite endearing to people. Who’s meant to know they’re not meant to clap in a parliament when it feels like it’s second nature? Watching them, they’re all sitting in the chamber supporting each other. There’s a sense of solidarity and of teamwork. That’s me now attended two of the group meetings since the election and that’s what strikes you as soon as you walk in the room, that here’s a team of people and they are pulling together for each other. I’ve been really proud of them.”

While her 56 MPs bed down and make their voice heard, Sturgeon has to prepare for another election in May of next year. With a fractured opposition and Scottish Labour in the midst of yet another leadership contest, some say the SNP has had it too easy and that Sturgeon has taken her foot off the peddle of government. With the media reporting crisis after crisis in the NHS, in education and in Police Scotland, is she presiding over a picture of decline?

“Let’s take those in turn. On the health service; there is not a picture of decline. On almost all waiting times – and this is a territory I know very well – the performance of the health service is better and the waiting times are tougher. So it’s performing better against tougher targets than in 2007 when we were first in government. It might not always be meeting those targets consistently but the targets are tougher and it’s closer to meeting them than it was to meeting weaker targets eight years’ ago. That’s true across most of the waiting-time targets. We have taken the level of performance up. And I say we, but it’s down to the folk working in the health service who have done it, and we need to strive to do even better. 

“On education, we’ve got a good education system. We’ve just undertaken the biggest reform in Scottish education in a long time with Curriculum for Excellence. We now need to make sure we go into the next phase of that to make sure we’re really honing in on the basics and on quality and on being able to measure that performance so that if there are areas that are not doing as well as they should be, then we can take action.

"So that’s what the attainment challenge is all about. It’s what we’re currently working on around a national performance framework with a very clear focus on literacy and numeracy so, you know, I don’t accept that across any of these areas, [there’s] a narrative of decline but nor will I say there’s no further improvement we can make as there is, so we can always get better.”

What about the party’s position on private schools? Kezia Dugdale has said as leader of Scottish Labour she will campaign to remove the charitable status of private schools.

“Well, we are where we are. If you’re serious about improving or continuing to improve the quality of state education that’s what you should focus on. There is a diversity of opinion on private schools and charitable status for private schools and that is something that is determined by OSCR so private schools or any charity need to fufill those conditions to obtain charity status. It’s not an automatic status.

"But we can have a debate about that and I am totally up for that but what Labour shouldn’t do is suggest if we take away the charitable status of private schools it will make one iota of difference to the performance in state schools. By all means have that debate and I’m not shying away from it but I’d rather we focus on the attainment challenge and the work we’re doing around the performance framework on improving the picture in state schools.”

And Police Scotland – does she still have confidence in it?

“I do, which is not say I don’t recognize the challenges it’s had and the mistakes it has made. But again, we’ve undertaken a very big and very complex reform. We’ve done it for good reasons. The opposition like to gloss over the fact we’ve had significant cuts to our budget so we’ve had to make reforms to protect front-line services. That was the whole drive behind the creation of Police Scotland.

"It’s gone through that difficult reform and it’s got issues that we still have to grapple with and address. I think there are obviously performance issues around the car crash incident and it is the subject of two reviews so we will await the outcome of those and there are issues that we still have to get right in terms of transparency and accountability so that the public have got complete confidence in the police but none of this is easy. Trying to protect public services in a time of shrinking budgets is not easy but if you stand still and don’t make these difficult changes that’s when the real problems kick in.”

Clearly not being held to full account is not helped by not having an effective opposition?

“Any healthy democracy benefits from having a healthy opposition and I can’t create one but I think our democracy is functioning well and I don’t feel we’re a party without scrutiny on our ability. We’re a party in a government that still has few friends in the media so it’s not as if we’re lacking in scrutiny, some of it fair, some unfair, but I don’t feel we get an easy ride, as a party or as a government.

“We’re about to get into the Scottish election where I hope there’s a focus on our record. I’m proud of our record on health and education but I’m not the kind of person or politician that is very comfortable resting on laurels. There is work to do. The health service is not perfect but it’s not perfect at a much higher level of performance than it was when we took office so there’s been a vast improvement but good government should always look to be better.”

And it is that test of good government that brings the interview back to how this political whirlwind began and September 18th. The SNP always argued that they would win a referendum by proving their capability in government. 

And yet they still lost. Has she thought about that?

“I’ve not had a lot of time to sit and contemplate my own navel but for me, individually, and for the SNP collectively, we have thought a lot about that. We’ve done it privately, we’ve done it internally and personally, I think a lot about it, partly because that’s just in my nature.

After every election I’ve fought, indeed after everything I do, I analyse and re-analyse and obviously the referendum was such a big and important thing, it would be unthinkable not to contemplate that very, very seriously because we did lose it and one of the dangers would be to forget that in light of what happened afterwards, but we didn’t win and it’s important that we develop an understanding of why we didn’t win. So of course, we contemplate that for the future if we ever find ourselves fighting another one. I would say though, that it’s the kind of thing that maybe six months, a year, two years from now, I’ll still be thinking about it and probably still developing and revising some of my opinions on why we lost.”

So why did they lose?

“For a variety of reasons but if you boil it all down, we lost, and this will sound a pretty obvious thing to say, because we couldn’t convince quite enough people to be confident enough in Scotland as a country and in the economic ability of Scotland to be an independent country.

"I also think, and I don’t have the evidence of this, this is just a feeling, and I’m not trying to negate the opinions of those who voted No because probably, the majority of those who voted No voted with their head and their heart and were absolutely convinced that that was what they wanted to do, but I think there were some people who voted No – and I’ve spoken to a lot of people in this category – who wanted to vote Yes but in their hearts they were convinced but they just couldn’t quite get there in their heads. So I guess, and it is a guess and it’s not based on any hard evidence, but I guess in terms of the heart, we won a majority but it’s not enough to win a majority in people’s hearts, you’ve got to get the head and the heart aligned.”

So when will there be a next referendum?

“Ha, Mandy, the answer to that question for the time being will remain the same; I’m not planning another one just now but am I gonna rule it out forever and a day, no, because I’ve no right to do that.

"I will have a judgement to make in the run-up to next year’s Scottish elections in terms of our manifesto and possibly in the next election after that and the next one after that as to whether we commit to a referendum in our manifesto and that’s a judgement we’ll make based on our consideration of what is in the best interests of the people but it will be up to people across the country as to whether they think that’s the right thing or not.

"And remember, there are other parties, across Scotland, albeit smaller ones than the SNP, that might propose that there should be another referendum – it’s not only the SNP, in a party-political sense, that supports independence, you know.” 

Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - There's a terrifying pattern of mendacity to Boris Johnson's government

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