Interview: Nicola Sturgeon on the next five years

Nicola Sturgeon is seated in the library of an Edinburgh hotel talking about her hopes for this week's election, her plans for the next five years and the likelihood of a second referendum.

Sunday, 1st May 2016, 9:41 am
Updated Sunday, 1st May 2016, 11:42 am
The First Minister is at pains to counter any suggestion that victory in the election will mark her coronation. Photograph: John Devlin

As she holds forth, the Scotland on Sunday photographer suggests the elegant chair she is sitting on resembles a throne. It’s a remark that draws a nervous laugh from the SNP leader.

“Don’t believe everything they say about me,” says Sturgeon, anxious not to throw more fuel on the fire of the Queen Nicola mythology that has taken hold around her. Even so, it is difficult to escape the idea that Thursday’s poll will be more akin to a coronation than a political scrap, given the SNP’s current dominance of Scottish politics.

Although an SNP victory may be a foregone conclusion, Sturgeon speaks of the importance of receiving the public’s backing given that her promotion to First Minister following Alex Salmond’s departure has yet to be formally approved by the electorate.

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“I am the leader of the SNP. I am also a First Minister who is for the first time contesting an election as a candidate for First Minister,” says Sturgeon. “So it matters to me to put myself on the line and tell people why I want the job and hopefully get that personal mandate. I am backed with the policy programme and the people, who, if we are re-elected, will enable us to get on and deliver for the country over the next five years.”

Outlining her vision for the next parliament, Sturgeon’s focus is on the next generation, saying that education will be the “central defining mission” of a re-elected SNP government.

With the Scottish Government facing criticism for the failure of poor children to perform as well as those from richer backgrounds in the classroom, Sturgeon has staked her reputation on closing the attainment gap.

Her willingness to be judged on the performance of schools has inevitably led to questions about the future of her friend the Education Secretary Angela Constance, a minister who has conspicuously failed to shine.

When asked if one of her first acts as a newly elected First Minister will be to move Constance in a cabinet reshuffle, Sturgeon chooses to skirt round the question.

“I am not sitting here – and don’t take this as a comment about the Education Secretary – I am not going to sit here days before an election and start to appoint my cabinet,” she says.

Instead, she chooses to concentrate on the progress a newly elected Scottish Government hopes to make when it comes to giving children a good start in life.

“That ranges from the baby box idea for every newborn through to the new maternity and early years allowance, doubling child care, investing in closing the attainment gap, the jobs grant for young unemployed people, protecting free access to university,” she says. “If we are re-elected, the government will be one with the next generation in mind every single day.”

But amid her ambitions in terms of domestic policy, it is impossible to escape the talk of a re-match on independence. With her most ardent supporters clamouring for a second referendum and her pro-Union opponents deeply opposed to the question being raised again, Sturgeon has a fine line to tread.

She throws down the gauntlet to her independence supporters saying they have to earn the right to pose the question again by persuading more people of the merits of their arguments.

So how will she know when she has enough support to go for another independence poll and win it?

“I think we will know from a range of different sources – opinion polls, our own campaigning, the various different ways we assess public opinion,” says Sturgeon. “I think we will know if opinion has shifted and there’s a majority support for independence. I think we will have a good sense of that. But what I have said is that the ball is in the court of those who believe Scotland should be independent. If we can’t succeed in persuading more people, we won’t have earned the right to ask the questions again. But on the other hand, if we do, I don’t think it would be right or democratic for anyone to stand in the way of it.”

Some within the SNP have suggested that it will be time to go for it when opinion polls are consistently putting the Yes vote at 60 per cent. Sturgeon, however, declines to pin down a figure.

“I will always try to take decisions that are in the best interests of Scotland,” she says. “But even if I am looking at it from the interests of the SNP, it is not in our interests to have a second referendum too soon before we think a majority of people in Scotland have been persuaded of our case.”

As she discusses the prospect of another potentially fractious vote, Sturgeon suggests she does not feel the preoccupation with the constitution has been unhealthy.

“I don’t think Scotland is a divided nation,” she said. “There are people who have different opinions on independence. That’s democracy. It is not my experience of Scotland. There are people who want a second referendum tomorrow. There are people who hate the thought of ever having another referendum and both are legitimate opinions. But, you know, we are also getting on with trying to make the country the best it can be in the circumstances we are in just now. I didn’t during the referendum and I don’t now buy this idea that Scotland is this deeply divided country. We are not.

“I have absolute respect for people who feel the referendum wasn’t the wonderful, uplifting, engaging experience that I thought it was. In my experience, most people – not everybody – but most people Yes and No actually enjoyed the referendum, because we all got the chance to think about what country we really wanted to live in.”

It was undeniable, though, that arguments over independence generated abuse. “A tiny minority on both sides,” Sturgeon chips in, keen to emphasise that unpleasantness was not the preserve of the cybernats.

“I don’t let it affect me,” says Sturgeon. “Most of that abuse is stuff on social media. These people have always been there. It is just they have never really had the ability to get to you before. I tweet a lot. But I tend not to spend a lot of time reading things on social media. Because the vast majority of people out there are lovely, nice, engaging. We have all got different opinions on a range of things from independence onwards. But we treat each other with respect and that’s how it should be.”

The personal abuse, of course, has been tempered by the adoring supporters who have thronged in their thousands to hear her speak at SNP rallies and who have joined the SNP in their droves.

After the years in the political wilderness, the long stint coming to prominence in opposition and her apprenticeship under Salmond, what does she make of the unqualified adulation now she receives?

“People keep saying that and it is not the right way to describe it.”

So, how would she describe an enthusiasm for her and the SNP that seems to verge on hero worship?

“Erm, I don’t know. I’m not going to try,” she says. “Usually politicians are criticised for people not liking them. I now tend to be criticised because some people seem to like me. I don’t know. I just try to be me.”

Despite the adulation, Sturgeon’s campaign has not all been plain sailing. With new tax powers coming to Holyrood, her economic policy has been criticised from the left for being too timid and from the right for penalising the hard-working middle class.

Unlike Labour, the SNP has said it is not ready to impose a 50 pence tax rate on the highest earners. Sturgeon has also shied away from Labour and Lib Dem plans to put an extra penny on income tax.

Instead, she has limited herself to not passing on George Osborne’s tax breaks for higher earners.

“I have been criticised for my tax plans being that [too timid]. I have also been criticised for taxing people more than in England,” she says. “I think we are in the right progressive, fair place on tax. We are asking those who are in the higher rate tax band to bear more of the burden. But we are not going to increase tax for low and middle income earners because transferring the burden of austerity on to their shoulders is not the right thing to do.”

There has also been the furore over the SNP’s highly controversial child protection plan to give all Scottish children a “named person”, who would be a single point of contact as agencies share information about them.

Its critics claim the scheme is too intrusive and will undermine family life. But when asked if she would consider rethinking the plan, Sturgeon is unequivocal.

“I have no intentions of that,” she says.“I absolutely accept that I have got a job to do and a duty to address concerns people have. I think it is the right thing to do. It is not about interfering in family life. It is not about snooping on family life. It is about trying as best as any government in any country ever can to have a system in place that stops vulnerable children falling through the net. The reason it has to be universal is that we don’t always know in advance which children are vulnerable and are at risk and which are not.”

At Westminster, the party has been criticised for its candidate vetting procedures following the suspension of two of its new MPs – Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry – amid allegations over their financial dealings.

There has also been the collapse of the oil price, which has come as a huge blow to the economic argument for Scottish independence.

On the former, Sturgeon guarantees that if any issues arise over new SNP MSPs expected to come to Holyrood they will be dealt with “swiftly and appropriately” by the party.

On the economic conundrum posed by the latter, Sturgeon says work will be done as the SNP steps up its independence drive in the summer.

But at the moment, she is devoting “all of my waking hours – and most of my sleeping hours” to success next Thursday.

But no matter how tricky the problems she faces are, the collapse of the Labour Party has ensured that she is still a shoo-in for First Minister.

“The fact that we have Labour often, seemingly by its own admission, battling for second place with the Tories is a sad indictment of what the party in Scotland has become. If Labour cannae even see off the Tories then what are they for?”

Come the early hours of Friday morning, Sturgeon’s place as First Minister will have been reaffirmed by the voters in overwhelming fashion. So perhaps it is slightly premature to start asking her about potential successors.

Nevertheless, she takes the question. After beginning by saying it would be “invidious” to single out individuals, she goes back on her word and mentions the 21-year-old left-wing MP Mhairi Black, the Transport Minister Derek Black and the External Affairs Minister Humza Yousaf.

They are people of “immense talent and ability”. “I could reel off several names of people who would have the ability to do the job, but I hope they don’t get the chance for a wee while,” she concludes.