Nicola Sturgeon looks to Scotland’s future

Nicola Sturgeon speaks at the Corn Exchange. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Nicola Sturgeon speaks at the Corn Exchange. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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SHE thought she would win. There was no doubt in her mind. No reason to allow the idea of defeat creep into her thoughts in the wee small hours.

High on believing and possibly even hooked on a feeling, Nicola Sturgeon was convinced that by now she would be the Deputy First Minister of a new country; a Scotland in the process of becoming independent.

Except it didn’t work out quite like that. The majority of Scots voted No rather than Yes, and so instead she is about to become the first female First Minister of a different country; a Scotland revitalised politically by the constitutional debate, but one in which the majority believe the independence question is settled.

Without doubt it’s a massive achievement for the Ayrshire lawyer who has slowly and steadily become one of the most impressive politicians Scotland has produced in Holyrood.

Whether you support the SNP or not, Sturgeon’s rise to the top has been one of total determination in the face of much mockery – for her youth, for her gender (her voice, her clothes, her hair, the fact that she has no children), for not being Salmond. She has risen above it all.

“It’s not that I never contemplated the possibility of one day becoming leader, it was just that it didn’t cross my mind during the referendum campaign. I didn’t think about the referendum not going the way I wanted it to. I was so engaged and involved and determined that we would win and in the last few days absolutely convinced that we would . . . I wasn’t thinking at all about what might happen if we didn’t.

“Alex’s resignation came as a surprise. But when you’ve worked with him as long as I have you know he does things on his own terms. That night and day is in some ways very clear, in other ways a blur.”

She adds: “I was at the count in Glasgow and that was a bittersweet experience because we won Glasgow, my home city. It was a personal high point, tempered by the fact we hadn’t won across the country. I spoke to Alex on the way to Dynamic Earth that night by phone. He was already in Edinburgh and at that point he told me what was in his mind.

“I cried. I tried to talk him out of it, but it was clear that he’d made up his mind. I saw him again in the morning and watched his press conference from St Andrew’s House and shed a few more tears. It was a very emotional day.

“I was exhausted after the most intense campaign of my career. But I knew absolutely that I would put myself forward. That weekend I tried to relax with my family, to just be normal, but of course it was on my mind.”

It was only ever her name that was mentioned as his replacement and later this month she will became the new SNP leader by near divine right. And when she also gets the keys to Bute House in Charlotte Square, she will be as close to becoming her fictional favourite, Danish PM Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen, as she is probably ever going to get.

In her navy dress suit, a sparkling poppy pinned to her lapel, not a blonde hair out of place, the exhaustion post-September 18 has gone. Her eyes are alive with the prospect of what awaits – and she admits she’s been further buoyed by the national tour on which she’s embarked.

We are meeting a day after her roof-lifting speech at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange. “What I’m on the verge of doing is a big responsibility and I’m very conscious of that,” she says. “Not just leading the SNP but leading the country.

“I’m also very excited about it. I love more than anything to be engaging with people directly. It’s what I really enjoyed about the referendum campaign. I got a real buzz from hearing directly what people were thinking. That’s why the tour is important, to keep that going.”

She relates a story of how a first-time voter, a man in his 50s, gave her a box of teacakes at a Govan polling station to “say thank you for giving me hope”.

“Then the Sunday after the referendum we were clearing out the campaign office and I came across the box – now empty – and I was very close to being in floods of tears. I felt I had let him down.

“But I hope that how he felt, why he voted, is something we can hold on to now. Part of the reason for doing these meetings around the country is to meet the new people in the SNP but to continue that way of doing politics. We didn’t win the referendum but we can still take something from it – of keeping people, communities, engaged with politics.”

Now 44, she has been engaged politically from a young age, joining first CND as a teenager, then at 16, the SNP. Twenty-eight years on she’s set to become Scotland’s fifth FM – and the first woman to hold that post.

“I really hope it sends a positive message to young women and girls, that if you work hard enough and are good enough, there shouldn’t be a glass ceiling. We [women] should take every opportunity to smash the glass ceiling, there’s no reason not to get to the top.

“Where I have a slight problem with the focus on this though is the idea that because one woman becomes FM that we’ve solved the country’s problem with gender equality. Thatcher was prime minister and made no difference to gender equality. There’s a lot of work to do – not just in 
parliament but in every sector of Scottish life.”

So will she sign up to the new Women 50:50 campaign which aims to get gender balance in publicly funded bodies? She refuses to commit. “I am a believer in gender balance and positive action. I have argued strongly within my party for positive action and been on the losing side. That’s democracy. The SNP has found ways to promote women but as a party we have a lot of work to do.”

She admits to having experienced sexism in her career, though says it’s not been the kind which has held her back – “more the everyday kind, how I look, what I wore, talking about me in a way they never would about a man”.

“In the early stages of my career I’ve been the most senior person in the room, but it would be a man’s view which would be taken more seriously. There’s not a single woman in the country who’s probably not experienced that. Which is why it’s important not just to have a female FM but to develop a critical mass of women in politics.”

While she says she’s no longer affected by catty remarks on her appearance, what does bother her is the implied criticism she’s received for not being a mother – something which became an issue when the White Paper’s childcare policies were being criticised as neither she, nor Salmond, is a parent.

Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive have been married for four years. Their days begin at 5am, finish somewhere close to midnight, and she admits that it can be hard not to talk shop all the time, which is why their family is important. It’s not been a conscious decision, she says, but having children just hasn’t happened.

“I find it so offensive to suggest that I can’t be a politician who cares about children and their life opportunities because I don’t have children myself,” she says, anger flickering. “I’m an aunt and I have a big part in the lives of my nieces and nephews. Johann Lamont [former Scottish Labour leader] used to pepper her speeches with reference to being a mother as if that qualified her, gave her some insight that I didn’t have.

“It’s the SNP which has put the whole childcare debate on the agenda, put it central to the referendum campaign, and it will continue to be a central policy plank for us. It’s so 
important on many 
different levels, the development of children, it allows parents to work, a rise in educational attainment, and of course deals with inequality. It’s vital and you don’t have to be a mother to know that.”

She has many plans, she says, for manifesto policies for the 2016 Holyrood elections, but isn’t prepared to reveal them yet. As to the Smith Commission, she’s hoping for “extensive new powers” for Holyrood, though it won’t “deliver what I think is the best option, which is independence”.

And what of her party’s rivals, Scottish Labour? Is she rubbing her hands in delight at its internal battles? “I don’t take any glee in the travails of our political opponents,” she says. “I feel sorry for the people I know and like in Labour, it’s never pleasant when your party goes through tough times.

“I think Labour is in deep trouble – if a Scottish political leader is told not to speak out about the bedroom tax something is badly wrong.”

There’s a general election next year of course, and she is hoping that “governing well” will see the number of SNP MPs increase. Right now though, her focus is on taking over the reins from Salmond.

“Becoming First Minister is mixed with a degree of trepidation but I’m really looking forward to it. I will obviously have to make a speech – I have a number to make before then – and I have some ideas but haven’t written it yet.”

She adds: “I love politics. It’s not about becoming FM and holding office, though that’s where you can make the most difference, but I’ve wanted to be a politician as long as I can remember and I will do it as long as I have something to offer.”

Determination took Nicola to the top

BORN in 1970 in Irvine, Nicola Sturgeon is the eldest of two sisters, and grew up in Prestwick and Dreghorn in North Ayrshire. She joined the SNP when she was just 16, though previously was a member of CND.

She studied law at Glasgow University where she became active in the student wing of the SNP. She joined the university’s debating society where it’s been said determination rather than talent was her forte.

On graduating she worked for a Stirling law firm and then the Drumchapel Law Centre in Glasgow.

She was 22, and then Scotland’s youngest parliamentary candidate when she stood in Glasgow Shettleston in the 1992 general election. She lost. She lost again in 1997 in the Govan seat.

However the proportional representation system for Holyrood worked in her favour. She failed to win the constituency vote in 1999 and 2003, but was elected as an MSP in Glasgow’s regional list, becoming SNP spokeswoman on health, then education and justice.

She threw her hat into the ring as leader of the SNP in 2004 when John Swinney resigned, although it was Roseanna Cunningham who was favourite to win. However when Alex Salmond was convinced to take the job once more, she withdrew her leadership bid and a Salmond-Sturgeon ticket was agreed.

Three years ago, she won Glasgow Govan constituency as the SNP swept to power. She became Deputy First Minister and Health Secretary, winning the Scottish Politician of the Year Award in 2008.

This year she was put in charge of the SNP’s referendum campaign. As well as DFM she is currently Cabinet Secretary for Investment, Infrastructure and Cities. This month she will officially become leader of the SNP after Alex Salmond’s resignation and will be the first female First Minister of Scotland.