In the best sales pitch for Scotland yet made by a First Minister, the SNP leader’s wit and charm may also have succeeded in easing the United States’ fears of independence, writes David Torrance
Just as a European tour is considered a rite of passage for American presidential hopefuls – most recently Jeb Bush – a week of engagements in the United States is now a fixture for Scotland’s most senior politician.
Back in 2001, Henry McLeish secured a meeting with the then president George W Bush, and thereafter Jack McConnell donned a pinstripe kilt in New York City and Alex Salmond engineered a photo call with Hillary Clinton in Washington DC.
On every occasion these visits attracted far more attention at home than they did in the US. Sure, the Americans were characteristically polite to their visitors from “Scot-land”, but devolved politics meant little to those on Capitol Hill, while the SNP’s longed-for “Scottish lobby” never grew large enough to compete with its Irish equivalent.
Last week it was First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s turn to win over America, and in keeping with her prolonged honeymoon of popularity, she found a receptive audience in its two most important cities. The New York Times hailed her as the “Star of Scottish Politics”, while MSNBC’s Morning Joe called her “the most powerful female politician in the United Kingdom since Margaret Thatcher”.
But beyond admiring media plaudits, what purpose did Sturgeon’s tour serve? Some politicians simply enjoy being taken seriously by the US political establishment, but like the meticulous operator she is, the First Minister would have set out with several clear goals.
‘She could become a pre-eminent politician, moving in Scandinavian circles, Germany – even the US’
First, the SNP leader wanted to meet key opinion formers; not least to reassure them she wasn’t some swivel-eyed nationalist. Second was the sales pitch – encouraging Americans to visit, and invest, in Scotland; third was diplomatic, soothing tensions created by the release of the Lockerbie bomber and the recent referendum; and finally a political aim, attempting to alter US perceptions of the independence project.
So how did she do? On the first, Sturgeon undoubtedly made an impact, easily attracting more attention and praise than any of her First Ministerial predecessors (including Salmond), none of whom possessed the high-profile backdrop of a stunning election win and recent, internationally followed, referendum.
But even without that advantage it was evident over four action-packed days that something of the star quality “the Sturgeonator” had brought to the recent UK general election had travelled well across the Pond. The First Minister’s relaxed demeanour helped, not least her sense of humour, which immediately punctured any perception of her as another stuffy, stuck-up Brit. And where Salmond would have relied on couthy Scottishness, his successor produced genuinely witty wisecracks.
A case in point was her appearance on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, required viewing for young metropolitan liberals on both sides of the Atlantic and therefore an important appearance. As a result, both the First Minister and her “people” were nervous, but armed with a good opening line (the show’s website described her as a “comedian”) she quickly relaxed. Sturgeon also displayed her talent for ad-libbing, throwing the host with her retort when he asked for permission to invade Scotland. “Jon has just asked… permission to invade an oil-producing country,” she joked. “It usually doesn’t happen that way.” Risky, but Sturgeon pulled it off. And if Stewart finds you funny, you’re doing something right.
Afterwards, according to one of two Scottish broadcasters on the trip, Sturgeon was “buzzing… smiling from ear to ear”, no doubt relieved she hadn’t bombed, and instead had revealed herself – as during the general election – to be funny, confident and self-deprecating. Salmond made a similar appearance on Craig Ferguson’s The Late, Late Show a few years ago, but his response to the wisecracks had been to lapse into uncharacteristic silence.
As the journalist David Cowan put it in his report for STV, if someone had suggested a few years ago that Nicola Sturgeon would go on a late-night satirical comedy show in New York and, as the kids say, “own it”, most political observers would have been incredulous. She was similarly engaging on the Morning Joe breakfast show, talking breezily with her hosts about dying her hair.
Sturgeon’s schedule was formidable and not a minute was wasted, every day filled with meetings or photo-calls and most evenings with receptions (on a previous trip to New York she had at least managed some downtime at a downtown bookstore). Typically, the First Minister shrugged off her jet lag and seamlessly changed gear, signing autographs for schoolchildren one minute and meeting high-ranking officials the next.
For although the photo-calls made for good television, Sturgeon also managed to get “face time” with a pretty impressive roll call of the great and the good. She addressed a patrician DC crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations, and also met Christine Lagarde at the IMF, turning up untypically late (Sturgeon had come straight from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum).
Shrewdly, the First Minister’s schedule included meetings that reflected domestic concerns: discussing the attainment gap with deputy education secretary John B King Jr and Dr Katie Wilson, deputy under secretary for food; while in a speech at the World Bank, Sturgeon spoke about inequality, although she also continued a bad SNP habit of continually grasping around for an economic model Scotland might emulate. In the past it’s been Ireland and Norway, but in Washington the First Minister settled on Germany, speaking admiringly of “Rhine capitalism”, a means by which to reconcile – Tony Blair-like – “competitiveness and equality”.
But then as an adviser to president Bill Clinton once remarked, “it’s the economy, stupid”, and indeed that formed the second part of the First Minister’s US mission – a sales pitch. “Scotland has so much to offer,” she enthused to Jon Stewart, “we’ve got Scotch whisky, we’ve got haggis, we’ve got great scenery, we’ve got wonderful cities”. On MSNBC Sturgeon was even more explicit, sounding the “open for business” claxon and describing Scotland as “a successful modern democracy”. And if people watching “want to visit or to invest there then they’re more than welcome,” she added.
Indeed, the First Minister’s four-day trip had kicked off with an announcement that the electronics manufacturer Jabil planned to invest £12.5 million in its Livingston plant, resulting in an additional 212 jobs (with a helping hand from Scottish Enterprise, which contributed a £450,000 sweetener). Sturgeon made a point of referencing Ernst and Young’s latest Attractiveness Survey, which showed that 2014 was Scotland’s most successful year in the past decade for attracting US investment. Thus the economic relationship between the two countries was, she made clear on MSNBC, a “very important” one.
There was also a diplomatic dimension to the First Minister’s whirlwind tour, although her take on the so-called “special relationship” didn’t really progress beyond the platitudes beloved of most UK politicians. Asked at one point how she viewed relations between Scotland and the US, Sturgeon replied, blandly: “Scotland and United States have a long history of a very good and very positive relationship.”
In reality, however, there must have been at least a subconscious effort to rebuild relations following the Scottish Government’s release in 2009 of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi (a move personally condemned by President Barack Obama) and, more recently, the White House’s intervention in aid of the Unionist cause during the independence referendum.
The First Minister was aware that her stances on austerity and particularly Trident wouldn’t exactly endear her to die-hard Republicans, but at the same time she emphasised that this did not mean she was anti-American. And even if some in the US did not agree with her opposition to nuclear weapons, she added, she hoped they would respect it.
Strictly speaking, of course, foreign affairs and defence are reserved issues and leaders of devolved parliaments should stick to building international relationships – as the First Minister did last week – on devolved issues. But at the same time, as one foreign policy insider put it, “how can you stop them?” Last week Sturgeon was supported by the Scottish Government liaison office at the British Embassy in Washington rather than the Foreign Office in London.
Most significant, therefore, was the First Minister’s meeting (as revealed by the BBC) with an official in Obama’s national security team (which apparently covered defence and security) and also with the US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken, during which they stuck to politics, the economy and the European Union. A spokesman described it as a “warm, friendly and constructive meeting”, and indeed it was the highest-level contact between a Scottish minister and the US government since Salmond met Hillary Clinton (then secretary of state) six years ago. Sturgeon’s new status as leader of the third largest party in the House of Commons also ensured the British Embassy rolled out the red carpet.
The First Minister’s final goal, however, was also the hardest: persuading the US to stop worrying and learn to love the prospect of Scottish independence. Her only direct reference to this (beyond what one might expect from a visiting Scottish Nationalist) was her argument that Obama’s intervention last year had, if anything, actually increased the Yes vote by giving the impression that Scotland was “much more important” as a result of the referendum. She also denied bearing a grudge: “I wasn’t sore about it then and I’m not sore about it now.”
But simply by being in the US and appearing engaging and articulate Sturgeon had done her cause a great service. Nationalism remains to most Americans a bad thing (except of course the American sort), and it will take a lot to shift that mind set. But the First Minister made a start, and in the process further enhanced her international credentials having delivered a speech in Brussels earlier this month.
The SNP leader also told the New York Times she was rooting for Hillary Clinton as the next president, adding that it would be a “very significant moment for women worldwide”, and indeed, one Nationalist insider has high hopes for the First Minister. “She could easily become a pre-eminent European politician,” he predicted, “moving in Scandinavian circles, Germany – even the US, should Clinton become president.”
There was predictable criticism that Sturgeon was gallivanting abroad when the heat was on her party over full fiscal autonomy, missed climate change targets, education, and even a sexist remark from her predecessor. Indeed, “Scotland’s feminist First Minister” (as the New York Times dubbed her) protested that Alex (“behave yourself, woman”) Salmond didn’t have “a sexist bone in his body”.
But once again, the First Minister highlighted her strengths: a constructive tone, wit and the ability to articulate a very modern sort of Scottish Nationalism. Somehow she seemed busier, more productive and – whisper it – more adept at opening doors than her predecessor. Of course, Sturgeon was never going to be scrutinised on points of policy detail or her government’s record (although the New York Times did note the gap between rhetoric and reality), but then good presentation on an overseas trip is half the battle.
First Sturgeon took Scotland, then the UK and now the United States. Can it possibly last? With the SNP sitting at 60 per cent in the polls it’s not impossible, and even if it doesn’t, for the moment at least, the First Minister, as the Washington Post rightly put it, “is on a roll”.