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Nicola Sturgeon: Mandy Rhodes reflects on her relationship with the outgoing SNP leader

Nicola Sturgeon and Mandy Rhodes at Bute House

Nicola Sturgeon: Mandy Rhodes reflects on her relationship with the outgoing SNP leader

One of the most intimate profiles I have ever written, and I have written a few, was shaped by a photograph that I Blu-Tacked to my computer screen to remind me that politicians, no matter who they are or what they have done, are also human.

It’s a picture of Nicola Sturgeon taken on 3 January 2011, when the then deputy first minister was attending the 40th anniversary of the Ibrox stadium disaster. 

In the picture Sturgeon looks tired and pale, tiny, and she has her eyes tightly shut. And while the occasion was undoubtedly a sad one, she looks in real pain. Something beyond the gravity of the moment. 

In fact, as she sat on the terraces that day, Sturgeon was miscarrying her baby. 

She had found out she was pregnant in late 2010 and had already calculated that she would be 41 and six months pregnant going into the formal 2011 election campaign. She was defending a marginal seat and, in December 2010, Labour was polling way ahead of her own party and there were serious questions about whether the SNP could hang on to power.

Sturgeon knew she had a fight on her hands and the next few months would be a struggle. So, when she discovered that she was pregnant, she had some mixed feelings about what this could mean for the election campaign, and for how she might be viewed in any future Cabinet. And while these are normal feelings for any woman with a career to think about, for someone as politically programmed as Sturgeon, who also never wanted a pregnancy to see her accused of exploiting a personal situation for political gain during an election, they were paramount.

The day before Hogmanay, Sturgeon was at her GP to get her flu jab and she mentioned she had had some light bleeding. She hadn’t been concerned but was immediately booked for a scan at the Princess Royal Maternity Hospital in Glasgow the next day. Devastatingly, it showed there was no longer a heartbeat. 

It made me reflect on how much female political leaders wrestle with what they expose of themselves and why

The miscarriage itself was physically hard. She describes it as the most “excruciating pain” she had ever experienced, lasting over four days during which time she attended the Ibrox commemoration and then onto a scheduled visit to NHS24 to thank staff for all that they had been doing over the Christmas holiday. 

She took a few days off work as parliament returned after the Christmas break, but she admits to then entirely focusing on the forthcoming election which all the polls suggested the SNP would lose and that Labour’s Iain Gray would oust Alex Salmond from Bute House. That didn’t happen. The SNP won a massive majority, and the rest is history.

Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, did continue to try for a baby, but it just never happened, and she told me that one of the more painful things about getting older was that journalists who would previously always ask when she might have a family, simply stopped asking. 

Why does any of this matter now, in the context of her resignation? It matters because the relationship that Sturgeon and I forged during her time in opposition, into government, and then into Bute House, gave me a unique insight which allowed her to firstly entrust me with that very personal story, but to then also allow me to tell it.

That time came in 2016. 

Over the years there had been much speculation about the fact that Sturgeon, then 46, had not had children. In interviews she had been constantly asked when she would be starting a family, questions that she deftly deflected and moved on. Nevertheless, assumptions were made, and opinions formed. I knew only by accident – a slip of words over lunch – that being childless had not been an entirely conscious choice and it made me reflect on how much female political leaders wrestle with what they expose of themselves and why.

I felt the weight of the responsibility to tell her story with respect, with dignity and with purpose

Sturgeon is, despite outward appearances, an intensely private person and our relationship was a slow burn. But not long after the 2011 election, in which the SNP won that historic majority, we were having lunch, going over the politics. The conversation turned to a mutual friend who had lost a baby, when intuitively I realised that Sturgeon was also talking about herself.

She chose, as is her prerogative, not to talk about the miscarriage publicly, and I respected her need for privacy in an increasingly public world, but with the passage of time she eventually allowed me to tell the story, having been persuaded by me that it could make a difference to other women.

She understood the power she had to influence. She did not want young women to look at her and think that you had to sacrifice that part of your life to climb the career ladder or that being childless had been a conscious choice. She also had the power to confront the perception that women in politics shouldn’t show vulnerability because it can wrongly be seen as a weakness that would then reflect negatively on their ability to lead. 

She knew all these things when I persuaded her to go public. And I felt the weight of the responsibility to tell her story with respect, with dignity and with purpose. 

That journey in our relationship as a politician and a journalist – ultimately just two professional women in a male-dominated world who had some shared experiences and were of a similar age (although she frequently reminded me that I was “much older” than her) – taught me many things but vitally for now, it revealed the delicate balancing act politicians must enact every day as they juggle the personal with an overwhelming sense of public duty.

Kate Forbes is currently discovering just how difficult that can be.

Sturgeon does not like to be crossed

It also gave me a unique insight into a politician whose skills as a communicator and a campaigner are second to none, but for whom being human in public meant she had to lose something of herself in the process. And over the subsequent years, and in what can best be described as a gradually deteriorating professional relationship, it also taught me that Sturgeon does not like to be crossed, does not want her own world view compromised, and that remarkably for an avowed bookworm, can have a very closed mind. All these things have both surprised, disappointed, and made me sad.

There are a series of individual events and issues that coalesced into what I would now identify as collectively the moment that Sturgeon and I stopped having that trusted and convivial relationship.

Firstly, there was the Salmond trial, during which I did not take a position; the proposed gender recognition reforms, of which I was quizzical and saw the risks in self-ID; there was the treatment of Joanna Cherry because of her gender critical views, which I found incomprehensible; and then the parliamentary inquiry into how the government handled the harassment complaints made against Salmond, which I thought did no one any favours, not least the women at the centre of it all.

Basically, those issues became so interlinked in the minds of Sturgeon supporters, and likely by Sturgeon herself, that if you fell into one camp on any, then you were deemed partisan on them all. And later, as previously favoured commentators like me also started to look more critically at the record in government, then our opinions were easily invalidated in the context of our apparent position on any of the other issues. That helped create a toxicity, putting targets on our backs for social media hits, and it was in no way calmed by the influence that the First Minister could have wielded.

Two things that were instructive during that unravelling of a relationship. Firstly, one of Sturgeon’s closest advisors suggested I had had an interview with the first minister pulled in reaction to one sentence in a column I had written ahead of the Salmond trial which basically said that Nicola Sturgeon should be mindful that she would not be in the position she was today were it not for Alex Salmond. A point of fact to me. A bone of fierce contention for her. Secondly, in one of a series of columns written in and around the gender recognition reforms, the same advisor messaged me to suggest it was inappropriate to use the line “is this a hill the first minister really wants to die on?” when so many transgender people committed suicide. When I responded by asking for her empirical evidence for that, she stopped following me on Twitter. The first minister did the same sometime later. And thus, the tone was being set for the last couple of years.

Ironically, as Sturgeon’s public appeal has grown exponentially, her closest relationships have diminished to a handful

I look back on texts between Nicola Sturgeon and I from over the years and they basically catalogue a deteriorating professional ‘friendship’ that went from one of trust and a healthy exchange of views – and even tips on the menopause and favourite wines – to one that became brittle and closed. That’s a shame and it is a sadness to me to think that we had a first minister so fragile in her own views that to not agree with everything was an anathema; to challenge, was a slight; and to simply do your job, was seen as a treacherous. 

Ironically, as Sturgeon’s public appeal has grown exponentially, her closest relationships have diminished to a handful. And I’m not saying that mine with her was of any more import than that of any other journalist, but if you adhere to the reductive view that ‘if you’re not with us, then you’re against us’, life loses the enrichment of plurality and nuance. As she resigned, the FM said: “I have been Nicola Sturgeon, the politician, all my adult life. I want to spend some time now on Nicola Sturgeon, the human being.” I hope she allows that to be a less solitary experience.

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Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - Fiona Hyslop: The feeling of unity is already palpable in the SNP.

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