Can Nicola Sturgeon deliver Scottish independence?

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By James Cook


It is spring in the old mining village and a shy teenager stands in a quiet cul-de-sac, steadying her nerve. The pebbledash bungalow in front of her is unremarkable but for one thing. This is the west of Scotland in 1987, a place cast from coal and iron, the heartland of the Labour Party, and yet the posters in this house are not scarlet red but canary yellow.

It is home to the local candidate for the Scottish National Party. At the last general election, Kay Ullrich had finished a distant and dismal fourth, winning less than a third as many votes as the supposedly hated Tories.

Yet the 16-year-old Nicola Sturgeon has walked half a mile or so from her council estate in Dreghorn to offer to help Ullrich - and the SNP - try again.

It was the first step in a political journey that would transform both the young woman and the fortunes of the party she supports.

More than three decades on and her home village is represented by SNP politicians in London and Edinburgh. Sturgeon leads the party of government in Scotland and the third largest party at Westminster, although her record is under scrutiny like never before, and the political goal she values above all - independence for Scotland - remains stubbornly out of her reach.

Many have tried to define that young woman from Ayrshire. She has appeared in the pages of Vogue and on American chat shows. The Sun photoshopped her face on to Miley Cyrus’s body riding a wrecking ball, while a Daily Mail front page screamed that she was the “Most Dangerous Woman in Britain”. 

So who is Nicola Sturgeon and what drives her?

Maggie
and the teenager

I once asked Nicola Sturgeon what got her into politics. We were strolling along the beach at Irvine, a couple of miles from the village where she grew up. She had just become Scotland’s first minister, the first woman to hold that office.

However, she told me it was in the shadow of another groundbreaking female leader that she became politically active. 

Between 1983 and 1986, more than three million people in the UK languished on the dole as Margaret Thatcher sought to fashion a more competitive economy, while taming inflation, shrinking the state and vanquishing the unions.

Without government support, the heavy industries - coal, steel, shipbuilding and so on - which had been the bedrock of employment, pride and identity for 20th Century Scotland, were dying. The mines, which had been a significant source of employment in Ayrshire, were almost all gone.

For the shy, studious daughter of a young electrician and an even younger dental nurse (Robin Sturgeon was 21 when he wed; his bride Joan Ferguson just 17), life felt precarious. Families were one step away from the dole, Sturgeon told me. There was a feeling that if your dad lost his job he might never work again.

There was also a sense of hopelessness, she said, of despair even. “You had the prospect of leaving school and maybe never getting a job.”

The blame, she felt, lay in London where Thatcher’s Conservative Party had embraced what came to be called neo-liberal economics - a belief in the primacy of the market and a disdain for state intervention.

The Sturgeons were SNP voters but politics was not a hot topic in their household, and it wasn’t a grim childhood by any means. The young Nicola and her friends spent Saturday nights whizzing around Frosty’s ice disco at Irvine’s Magnum Leisure Centre to the sounds of Wham!

The Proclaimers, 1986

“Bathgate no more, Linwood no more, Methil no more, Irvine no more”

“Bathgate no more, Linwood no more, Methil no more, Irvine no more”

At home, she drove her parents mad by endlessly playing Letter from America by Scottish duo The Proclaimers. With its description of hardships in both rural and urban Scotland, and even a reference to her hometown (“Irvine no more”) it was, Sturgeon once told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, the “soundtrack to my political awakening”.

She had been an avid reader from a young age, devouring newspapers and novels alike, and her interest in politics at home and abroad, and in particular her commitment to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), had been nurtured by an encouraging modern studies teacher at Irvine’s Greenwood Academy.

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But why the SNP and not Labour?

“I think even back then it just seemed to me that Labour wasn't able to offer real protection against the Tories,” Sturgeon told me.

“For me it was, ‘What's the point of voting Labour?’ I think in those days it was 50 Labour MPs but they could do nothing to stop what Mrs Thatcher was doing.

“And that very directly is what led me to think, ‘Well why should we have governments that we don't vote for? Surely it would be better if Scotland was independent, choosing our own governments.’”

That thought would come to define her but, leaving school as the 80s came to a close, a full-time career as an SNP politician was not yet a realistic option. Instead, further study beckoned, and she graduated in 1993 from the University of Glasgow with a 2:1 in law.

Nicola Sturgeon in 2000

Nicola Sturgeon in 2000

Nicola Sturgeon in 2000

As a trainee solicitor in Glasgow, she worked with a law firm specialising in contracts and property, before moving on to Drumchapel Law and Money Advice Centre in one of the poorest suburbs of one of the UK’s poorest cities. She is said to have been more at home here.

By now a political path was opening up. In 1997, in a referendum granted by Tony Blair’s Labour Party, Scots overwhelming voted for a devolved parliament sitting in Edinburgh. Sturgeon had already stood unsuccessfully for the Westminster parliament twice. In 1999 she ran for Holyrood and became an inaugural Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Glasgow thanks to its system of proportional representation.

Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon was 29 years old, and her career was about to blossom.

‘Project Nicola’

Nicola Sturgeon illustration

“Utter and total commitment to the party and the role,” is how one well-known political rival described Nicola Sturgeon to me.

It was a reputation she began to establish the moment she entered parliament and became shadow education secretary. The health brief followed, then justice. She became known as a competent and combative - if rather serious, even dour - parliamentarian.

Commentators wrote about her clothes and hairstyles in unflattering terms. They used the pejorative Scots nickname “nippy sweetie” - suggesting an unlikeable and sharp-tongued woman - to describe her approach in debate.

“Here’s the trap for women,” said Sturgeon years later at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

“You find yourself emulating the traits that in men are seen as strengths. Then you quickly realise that in women they are not seen as strengths. So the male politician who’s very assertive, aggressive and adversarial is a great, strong leader. A woman is bossy and strident - a ‘nippy sweetie’ as they used to call me.”

Speaking up for women, promoting gender equality, and criticising misogynistic attitudes have been hallmarks of Sturgeon’s political career, particularly in later years.

Posting a photograph of herself as first minister meeting Prime Minister Theresa May for the first time in Edinburgh, she wrote: “Politics aside - I hope girls everywhere look at this photograph and believe nothing should be off limits for them.”

The Daily Mail’s decision to summarise another meeting between the two leaders with the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it,” was greeted with widespread scorn.

“It’s a vivid illustration of how much more we have to achieve,” said Sturgeon.

After marrying the SNP’s chief executive Peter Murrell in 2010, Sturgeon endured years of speculation and questions about why the couple did not have children - questions that were not, she noted during an interview with journalist and author Tina Brown, asked of Alex Salmond, whom she would eventually succeed as leader.

The distressing truth - and it was five years before Sturgeon decided to make it public - was that she had suffered a miscarriage in 2011. Strikingly, she had fulfilled a public engagement during that ordeal, attending a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Ibrox stadium disaster in Glasgow.

Sturgeon had shared the “painful experience”, she tweeted, “in the hope that it might challenge some of the assumptions and judgements that are still made about women - especially in politics - who don’t have children.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell wedding at the Oran Mor, Glasgow, Scotland on 16 July 2010

Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell's wedding, Glasgow, July 2010

Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell's wedding, Glasgow, July 2010

Sturgeon met Murrell when she was a teenager, but it would be some 15 years before they stepped out as a couple. By then, she was fast approaching the biggest moment of her career - running for leadership of the party.

It was the summer of 2004 and SNP leader John Swinney had resigned following a poor performance in the European parliamentary elections. His woes were exacerbated by internal division about the best way to advance the cause of independence, an old debate that continues to bedevil the party.

At first the SNP's biggest star, Alex Salmond, who had led the party from 1990 to 2000, ruled out standing again, declaring in typically grand style: “If nominated I'll decline. If drafted I'll defer. And if elected I'll resign.”

Instead, he supported Sturgeon’s campaign. It quickly ran into trouble and by the time nominations were about to close, the SNP’s private polling suggested she would be thumped by her rival, Roseanna Cunningham.

Concerned about that outcome, Salmond announced that he would stand after all, with Sturgeon joining him on the ticket as deputy.

They swept to victory together and an extraordinarily successful political partnership began, although the two made an odd couple.

One senior SNP insider who knows them both well says Sturgeon “is a very private person” to whom the showmanship of politics did not come easily. It was an obvious contrast with Salmond.

“I think she is somebody who has worked really hard at learning the skills of being a politician,” they said.

This included self-consciously remaking her image in a transition named “Project Nicola”.

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP Deputy Leader joins Yes campaigners in Bathgate as they aim to achieve backing from Labour voters in the referendum campaign on September 3,2014 in Bathgate,Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon in Bathgate during the 2014 referendum campaign

Nicola Sturgeon in Bathgate during the 2014 referendum campaign

The newspapers noted that she had both smartened up her look and softened her edges. But this was tricky terrain because the feminist in her had long resisted the kind of lifestyle interviews where she talked about hairstyles and high heels.

Having previously professed a total lack of interest in fashion, suddenly the public was hearing all about her shoe collection and her fondness for colourful outfits. Her home life also went on public display. She talked about how she loved to relax by reading fiction and watching television and revealed that she rarely entered the kitchen, which was her husband’s domain.

“She still irons my shirts,” the wry Murrell told me once. “Only domestic thing I do,” she replied in a flash, adding: “I think in my head as long as I do that I'm off the hook for everything else.”

Project Nicola resulted in a lot of positive coverage. The Times’ fashion writer Anna Murphy, for example, praised the first minister's “sharply tailored skirt suits and dresses in even sharper colours” as she awarded her the title of Best Makeover 2015.

When Murrell tweeted a link to the article, his wife replied “Dear @PeterMurrell - I'm sure what you meant to say was that no makeover was necessary… best wishes, your wife!”

To me, that droll tweet illustrated the transformation from private to public politician, and the ease with which Sturgeon had embraced social media - particularly Twitter - both as a campaigning tool and to project herself to the public.

Perhaps she had to - Scottish politics was about to pick up pace.

Road to referendum

Thursday 3 May 2007 was a particularly sweet night for Nicola Sturgeon. 

The SNP had won 47 out of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, one more than Labour, and for the first time in its history it had a taste of national power.

Salmond became first minister in a minority government with Sturgeon as his deputy as well as health secretary, a role in which she quickly won a reputation as a capable and well-informed administrator, despite her lack of ministerial or managerial experience.

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon in 2007

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon in 2007

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon in 2007

Her philosophy in the health department was rooted in the socialist values of the west of Scotland of her youth. She opposed the centralisation of hospital services, even when it meant prioritising the concerns of local communities over the expert advice of clinicians; she was hostile to the involvement of private contractors in the NHS, and she repeatedly expressed her determination to tackle poverty and inequality.

In policy terms, this health secretary scrapped charges for prescriptions and hospital parking - a boon for the middle classes as much as the poor. She also began a long, difficult but ultimately successful attempt to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Her aim was to try to push up the cost of booze and bring down sales to tackle social ills.

On both prescriptions and minimum alcohol pricing Sturgeon was accused of abandoning her avowed commitment to prioritise the poorest in society. Critics also charged her with failing to tackle the twin deadly scourges of illegal drug consumption and hospital-acquired infections.

On the other hand, waiting times and bed-blocking fell during her tenure as health secretary and she earned plaudits, and attracted attention beyond Scotland, for her handling of a deadly swine flu outbreak.

She also had her first taste of political scandal. 

Sturgeon had tried to persuade a sheriff in Glasgow to consider alternatives to sending a constituent of hers to jail for benefit fraud. This intervention in the judicial process on behalf of a twice-convicted fraudster immediately led to calls for her resignation as deputy first minister. But rather than brazening it out, Sturgeon was frank, acknowledging that she had made a mistake and apologising.

By the time of the Holyrood elections in 2011, Sturgeon was a seasoned campaigner both online and off, at the forefront of the SNP’s historic victory. The party took 69 seats to Labour’s 37, securing an overall majority and setting Scotland on the path towards an independence referendum. The Labour Party, which had bestrode Scottish politics for decades, was fading and the SNP was on the rise.

A year later, Salmond handed Sturgeon the task of overseeing the referendum, a role which instantly saw her dubbed the “Yes Minister” by the press.

Her appointment was “a game-changer” in referendum negotiations between the UK and Scottish governments, according to her interlocutor at the Scotland Office, Michael Moore.

The two sides quickly got down to business and agreed a deal for the poll. Sturgeon traded a potential second question on the ballot - regarding the transfer of considerable powers short of full independence from London to Edinburgh - in favour of control over the date, the wording and the franchise which would be extended to include 16 and 17-year-olds.

The campaign itself would see her role blossom further. She was a key figure for the SNP and the wider Yes movement, whether taking selfies with voters on the streets or debating with her opponents in the television studios.

In both arenas, Sturgeon generally sketched a positive vision of an independent Scotland, predicting a “second oil boom” and denying that voting “Yes” would lead to economic disaster and international isolation.

Within months of the final vote, the price of oil slumped, leading to thousands of job losses in the North Sea, and Scotland’s notional deficit soared (although it has since shown some improvement).

The most damning judgement of Salmond and Sturgeon’s campaign strategy came from a former SNP leader, Gordon Wilson (now deceased), who said they had “failed to present a case on the currency, a central bank and fiscal policy that was credible”.

Voting in the Scottish referendum 2014

Voting in the Scottish referendum

Voting in the Scottish referendum

When it came down to it, on 18 September 2014, voters had to answer a single question: Should Scotland be an independent country?

Sturgeon has described herself as a pessimist by nature but when I bumped into her near the Scottish Parliament on the night before the poll she was bubbling with energy and anticipation.

To me she looked and sounded far more like a woman who believed she was standing on the verge of historic victory than a politician exhausted by the rigours of a losing campaign.

She was wrong.  

On tour

Nicola Sturgeon illustration
Nicola Sturgeon, at the SSE Hydro, Glasgow, 2014

Resplendent in their Sunday best and sporting broad smiles, members of the SNP posed for the camera at their party’s annual conference.

The venue was a hotel in Bridge of Allan, in the shadow of the monument to William Wallace.

SNP members in 1956

SNP members in 1956

SNP members in 1956

It was 1956 and party historians record that all but a handful of the delegates attending the SNP’s conference that year were present for the picture.

Now rush forward through nearly 60 years of Scottish history until you arrive on the north bank of Glasgow's River Clyde, the cranes strangely still and the shipyards silent, and you will see what appears to be a pulsating, abandoned spaceship which is actually an enormous concert hall.

The woman on the stage being feted by 12,000 fans is not a rock star but a politician, the leader of the SNP, no less. 

It is just weeks since she was left “totally and utterly devastated” by the Yes campaign's failure to seize the “once-in-a-generation” opportunity of independence, which had been rejected at the ballot box by 55.3% to 44.7%.

Nicola Sturgeon had no time to wallow in despair.

Arriving in Portree, 2015

Arriving in Portree, 2015

Arriving in Portree, 2015

Within hours of the formal result being announced, Salmond - who had failed to win over voters in his own backyard of Aberdeenshire and Moray - announced he was leaving the stage.

There was never any serious question about the identity of his successor. Sturgeon immediately began preparing to succeed Salmond by issuing effusive tributes about the “outstanding record and achievements of the finest first minister Scotland has had”.

“The personal debt of gratitude I owe Alex is immeasurable,” she said. “He has been my friend, mentor and colleague for more than 20 years. Quite simply, I would not have been able to do what I have in politics without his constant advice, guidance and support through all these years.”

It was Sturgeon’s party now, and her personal popularity was seen as a key electoral asset. “I’m with Nicola” merchandise flew off the stalls at party conferences. But hitching the fortunes of a party, let alone a movement, to one person is a risk.

Party insiders say Sturgeon is not at all collegiate, relying on a very tight circle of advisers, including her husband. If she were to face a political scandal which threatened her career, she might find herself isolated, the SNP would lack an obvious, experienced successor, and the path to independence would probably be obstructed.

None of that mattered in 2015 when Sturgeon led the SNP to an astonishing landslide victory in the general election in Scotland, crushing her opponents, taking 56 of the 59 Westminster seats, and sending shockwaves through British politics.

The following year the party added another victory in the Holyrood elections while campaigning heavily on its leader’s popularity. The cover of their manifesto simply bore a picture of the leader and the single word “re-elect”.

Around this time I found myself standing beside two famous newspaper columnists who had alighted from London to watch Sturgeon address her party conference. I asked for their verdict. The man from the Guardian replied that he loved her, while the Daily Mail man’s opinion was that we were now screwed - although to be honest, he used a stronger verb. 

This sense that Sturgeon was a champion of social democracy with the power to end the United Kingdom was common at that time. What was missing was a powerful reason for the SNP to revisit the issue.

Dear Theresa...

Nicola Sturgeon illustration

Brexit changed everything.

While the UK voted to leave by 52% to 48%, Scotland’s vote was 62% to 38% for Remain. This, in the SNP’s view, was a “material change” in circumstances mentioned in their manifesto as a trigger for a second independence referendum - or indyref2 as it was quickly dubbed. 

Sturgeon sought and won the backing of Holyrood and fired off a formal request for the power to hold a referendum. A photograph of her writing that letter to Theresa May, feet up on the sofa, was no doubt intended to project  a relaxed air of confidence. In truth she was under pressure.

May’s reply was simple: “Now is not the time” for indyref2, she said. And then, in April 2017, the prime minister surprised everyone by calling a snap general election.

The result changed the dynamics. The Scottish electorate, it seemed, had wearied of constitutional politics and the SNP lost a third of their seats, while the Tories doubled their share of the vote, surging from one to 13 seats north of the border. 

“Jumping too far ahead of public opinion on this issue cost us a lot of votes,” was the judgement of former SNP minister Alex Neil, who voted for Brexit.

Since then, Sturgeon has been treading water on the subject of a second independence referendum to the irritation of many in the wider independence movement.

“Losing half a million votes and 21 seats has utterly scarred her,” one senior Holyrood insider told me.

Her party was changing, too. The SNP, which had numbered 25,000 before the referendum, now boasted more than 125,000 members. Their views about the direction of travel do not always match those of their leader.

The movement is restless, urgent and specific in its demands and Sturgeon’s leadership has been characterised by caution, compromise and, arguably, a certain amorphousness.

For example, the woman who once remarked, “I was in the CND before I was in the SNP,” now appears content to shelter under Nato's nuclear umbrella.

Far from seeking the socialist Scotland of which some independence supporters dream, she has expressed admiration for different flavours of capitalism, such as the Nordic model with its high quality of life (and taxation to match), and Rhine capitalism which combines competitive markets with a collegiate approach to labour relations and a strong social safety net.

How exactly Sturgeon would guide an independent Scotland to these destinations remains rather vague, as does her vision for balancing the nation’s books without tax hikes, more austerity or higher borrowing.

True, she has used the Scottish Parliament’s new fiscal powers to raise some taxes and has approved state intervention to save a shipyard and an airport, but she still insists that “pursuing greater equality and tackling social justice” is only possible with a “vibrant business base earning the wealth”, leaving some critics to wonder whether the SNP is really New Labour in a kilt.

Arguments among supporters of independence now range from that central topic to transgender rights and much in between, with some criticising what they perceive as a lack of radical ambition from the Sturgeon government. 

Meanwhile, the attack line from her opponents is to “get back to the day job”. 

On taking office, Sturgeon promised to prioritise education and, while schools have been refurbished and access to nursery extended, critics still describe a litany of problems.

In the Scottish NHS, meanwhile, the government watchdog Audit Scotland says more people are being seen and treated on time, and patient safety is improving. But just two out of eight key waiting time standards were met last year and the service is facing a funding crisis if it does not speed up the integration of health and social care. On top of that, flagship hospital projects in Glasgow and Edinburgh have run into serious trouble.

Famously disciplined in recent years, the SNP now seems more fractious with reports - denied - about divisions between the Westminster and Holyrood groups. Then there is the looming shadow of Sturgeon’s predecessor. 

Alex Salmond is due to stand trial early in 2020 accused of serious sexual offences, which he denies. Separately, in January this year, Salmond won a civil case against Sturgeon’s government when it admitted acting unlawfully in investigating harassment claims against him.  Legal restrictions mean there is not much that can be written at this stage. However, Scottish law and political circles are abuzz with talk about it. There is a feeling of anxiety among senior figures in the SNP about what the trial will mean for the SNP and for Nicola Sturgeon.

And, for the first time, some in the SNP are beginning to look beyond her leadership.

The case against Brexit has been fought in the courts by the SNP MP Joanna Cherry and in the Commons by the party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford. At Holyrood, the name of Finance Secretary Derek Mackay is sometimes raised as a potential future leader. Some have demanded a “plan B” if there is no agreement from the UK on indyref2.

Sturgeon, on the more careful wing of the independence movement, is having none of it, perhaps wary of the Catalonia example. Until very recently, she had been notably absent from the large independence rallies which regularly take place in Scotland’s towns and cities.

“An impatient gradualist,” is how one well-informed insider describes her.

“I think she feels obliged to speak the language of the Yes movement,” adds the SNP source, but “I'm not sure that comes naturally from what she really thinks.”

Having said that, the insider argues that she is by some distance the “most experienced leader” in UK politics and “her remaining in post is, I think, crucial. It's necessary in order to take independence forward”.

Sturgeon’s hopes for independence now appear to rest on surviving as leader; gaining a renewed mandate at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021 and persuading a UK Labour government to agree to another independence referendum.

Not only that but she would probably then have to convince voters that the economic uncertainty of leaving a 46-year-old union would not be eclipsed by the economic uncertainty of leaving a 312-year-old one. 

That is a very long list of ifs and buts without even mentioning the possibility of a second Brexit referendum removing the “material change” reason for holding another vote on Scotland’s future within the UK.

On 20 November, 2019, it is exactly five years since Nicola Sturgeon became first minister of Scotland. She is spending that day in the same way she began all those years ago in that Ayrshire street, knocking doors, meeting voters, campaigning for Scottish independence. 

Her journey has taken many turns but it is hard to avoid the idea that time is no longer on her side. We are nearing a decisive stage in Nicola Sturgeon’s story, a story which could yet determine the future of the entire United Kingdom. 

Brexit changed everything.

While the UK voted to leave by 52% to 48%, Scotland’s vote was 62% to 38% for Remain. This, in the SNP’s view, was a “material change” in circumstances mentioned in their manifesto as a trigger for a second independence referendum - or indyref2 as it was quickly dubbed. 

Sturgeon sought and won the backing of Holyrood and fired off a formal request for the power to hold a referendum. A photograph of her writing that letter to Theresa May, feet up on the sofa, was no doubt intended to project  a relaxed air of confidence. In truth she was under pressure.

May’s reply was simple. “Now is not the time” for indyref2, she said. And then, in April 2017, the prime minister surprised everyone by calling a snap general election.

The result changed the dynamics. The Scottish electorate, it seemed, had wearied of constitutional politics and the SNP lost a third of their seats, while the Tories doubled their share of the vote, surging from one to 13 seats north of the border. 

“Jumping too far ahead of public opinion on this issue cost us a lot of votes,” was the judgement of former SNP minister Alex Neil, who voted for Brexit.

Since then, Sturgeon has been treading water on the subject of a second independence referendum to the irritation of many in the wider independence movement.

“Losing half a million votes and 21 seats has utterly scarred her,” one senior Holyrood insider told me.

Her party was changing, too. The SNP, which had numbered 25,000 before the referendum, now boasted more than 125,000 members. Their views about the direction of travel do not always match those of their leader.

The movement is restless, urgent and specific in its demands and Sturgeon’s leadership has been characterised by caution, compromise and, arguably, a certain amorphousness.

For example, the woman who once remarked, “I was in the CND before I was in the SNP,” now appears content to shelter under Nato's nuclear umbrella.

Far from seeking the socialist Scotland of which some independence supporters dream, she has expressed admiration for different flavours of capitalism, such as the Nordic model with its high quality of life (and taxation to match), and Rhine capitalism which combines competitive markets with a collegiate approach to labour relations and a strong social safety net.

How exactly Sturgeon would guide an independent Scotland to these destinations remains rather vague, as does her vision for balancing the nation’s books without tax hikes, more austerity or higher borrowing.

True, she has used the Scottish Parliament’s new fiscal powers to raise some taxes and has approved state intervention to save a shipyard and an airport, but she still insists that “pursuing greater equality and tackling social justice” is only possible with a “vibrant business base earning the wealth”, leaving some critics to wonder whether the SNP is really New Labour in a kilt.

Arguments among supporters of independence now range from that central topic to transgender rights and much in between, with some criticising what they perceive as a lack of radical ambition from the Sturgeon government. 

Meanwhile, the attack line from her opponents is to “get back to the day job”. 

On taking office, Sturgeon promised to prioritise education and, while schools have been refurbished and access to nursery extended, critics still describe a litany of problems.

In the Scottish NHS, meanwhile, the government watchdog Audit Scotland says more people are being seen and treated on time, and patient safety is improving. But just two out of eight key waiting time standards were met last year and the service is facing a funding crisis if it does not speed up the integration of health and social care. On top of that, flagship hospital projects in Glasgow and Edinburgh have run into serious trouble.

Famously disciplined in recent years, the SNP now seems more fractious with reports - denied - about divisions between the Westminster and Holyrood groups. Then there is the looming shadow of Sturgeon’s predecessor. 

Alex Salmond is due to stand trial early in 2020 accused of serious sexual offences, which he denies. Separately, in January this year, Salmond won a civil case against Sturgeon’s government when it admitted acting unlawfully in investigating harassment claims against him.  Legal restrictions mean there is not much that can be written at this stage. However, Scottish law and political circles are abuzz with talk about it. There is a feeling of anxiety among senior figures in the SNP about what the trial will mean for the SNP and for Nicola Sturgeon.

And, for the first time, some in the SNP are beginning to look beyond her leadership.

The case against Brexit has been fought in the courts by the SNP MP Joanna Cherry and in the Commons by the party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford. At Holyrood, the name of Finance Secretary Derek Mackay is sometimes raised as a potential future leader. Some have demanded a “plan B” if there is no agreement from the UK on indyref2. Sturgeon, on the more careful wing of the independence movement, is having none of it, perhaps wary of the Catalonia example. Until very recently she  had been notably absent from the large independence rallies which regularly take place in Scotland’s towns and cities.

“An impatient gradualist,” is how one well-informed insider describes her.

“I think she feels obliged to speak the language of the Yes movement,” adds the SNP source, but “I'm not sure that comes naturally from what she really thinks.”

Having said that, the insider argues that she is by some distance the “most experienced leader” in UK politics and “her remaining in post is, I think, crucial. It's necessary in order to take independence forward”.

Sturgeon’s hopes for independence now appear to rest on surviving as leader; gaining a renewed mandate at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021 and persuading a UK government to agree to another independence referendum.

Not only that but she would probably then have to convince voters that the economic uncertainty of leaving a 46-year-old union would not be eclipsed by the economic uncertainty of leaving a 312-year-old one. 

That is a very long list of ifs and buts without even mentioning the possibility of a second Brexit referendum removing the “material change” reason for holding another vote on Scotland’s future within the UK.

On 20 November 2019, it is exactly five years since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister of Scotland. She is spending that day in the same way she began all those years ago in that Ayrshire street, knocking doors, meeting voters, campaigning for Scottish independence. 

Her journey has taken many turns but it is hard to avoid the idea that time is no longer on her side. We are nearing a decisive stage in Nicola Sturgeon’s story, a story which could yet determine the future of the entire United Kingdom. 

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Credits

Author: James Cook, Chief News Correspondent for BBC Scotland’s The Nine

Graphic art: Emma Lynch

Photography: Getty Images, Alamy, PA Media, Shutterstock, Scottish Political Archive at the University of Stirling

Editor: Matt Roper & Kathryn Westcott


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Nicola Sturgeon

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