In the latest of a new series in the run-up to the general election, First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon
With days to go, it seems safe to say Sturgeon is having a blinder of a campaign. SNP membership is sky-rocketing, recent polls have suggested the party may take all 59 seats in Scotland and Sturgeon is the most popular political leader, not just here, but across the UK. “I’ve stopped paying too much attention to polls,” is her response when I inquire as to the significance of such predictions. “It’s not opinion polls that determine the outcome of elections, it’s votes in ballot boxes.”
It’s classic Sturgeon – straightforward, self-deprecating, sensible. In the past, she’s been accused of lacking warmth and spontaneity. But that’s not how she comes across in person and it’s not how she’s appeared in the televised leaders’ debates or the one to one interviews or on the streets with voters. Serious, certainly. Committed, undoubtedly. But with the stakes feeling unusually high, suddenly Sturgeon’s style has never seemed to fit the public mood better.
Defined largely in contrast to the bombast of Alex Salmond, his one-time deputy has long been portrayed as quiet, earnest, introverted even. There have been rumours of steely ambition and tight control. But whether it’s been in front of 12,000 of the party faithful in the Hydro, standing on stage alongside the other party leaders, or posing for a seemingly endless stream of selfies with adoring supporters, this campaign has shown a different side of Sturgeon. Apart from the odd frown, usually brought on by mention of Full Fiscal Autonomy and the IFS, and the occasional, almost imperceptible whiff of weariness as she yet again makes the point that this is not an election about independence, Sturgeon has looked like a woman in her element. So was she pegged wrongly or has she changed?
“Maybe a bit of both,” she says. “I’m naturally quite a shy person. I always was when I was growing up and that’s still the case, so putting myself out there is not the most instinctively natural thing to do. But I’ve been doing it now for 20-odd years. I feel comfortable in a position of leadership, but that’s not to say I feel complacent about it, I take it incredibly seriously. At these big set-piece events like the leaders’ debates, that exterior of calm and serenity is nothing compared to what’s going on inside most of the time.”
Where Sturgeon has come into her own is on the campaign trail. Speaking to “Joe Public” is, she says, her natural environment. Certainly her ease, her willingness to talk to voters not just supporters, couldn’t be further from the impeccably choreographed events at which most of the other party leaders have appeared. “They’re not meeting the public,” she says sharply. “They’re creating the impression of meeting the public, which is a very different thing. That would drive me potty. I couldn’t live my life even for the relatively short duration of an election campaign in that kind of sanitised, cordoned-off environment. I just couldn’t hack that. I love talking to the public, I love hearing what people have got to say.”
‘This is a watershed election for the whole of the UK. And in a positive way’
That brings her on to her second point, which is that this safe distance approach is “a huge mistake”. A position backed up by the grilling that Cameron, Miliband and Clegg received at the hands of the fine people of Leeds on the BBC’s Question Time special the other night. Paraded one after another in front of an audience who took no prisoners, each politician was scrutinised. Whether the topic was welfare cuts or the economy, tuition fees or the NHS, the question was: why should we trust you?
“It’s the interactions with the public that more than anything else gets you to have an understanding of what folk are actually thinking and how the campaign is really going,” Sturgeon says. “If you want a summary of why modern day politicians seem so out of touch it’s because they are out of touch. They’ve allowed themselves to become completely divorced from where people are and what people are saying.
“The most uplifting thing about being a politician in Scotland right now is the number of young people, young women in particular, who are so interested and engaged and enthused about politics. It’s amazing. I’ve never known anything like it.”
Sturgeon’s made no secret of the fact that gender equality is a priority for her. She was “very struck” in the days and weeks after becoming First Minister by the number of women, old and young, not all SNP supporters, who said that it meant something to them to see a woman in that job. She feels too that the women party leaders in the campaign, have had an impact as well as giving the campaign one of its most striking images – Ed Miliband looking wistful as Sturgeon, the Greens’ Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood embraced after the leaders’ debate. She smiles. “My biggest regret of this election campaign is that I didn’t turn around and say, ‘come on’, just to see if he would’ve joined us in the group hug. I suspect he might’ve done actually.”
She may not be taking every poll as gospel, she’s not convinced the turnout will be anywhere near as high as for the referendum as some have speculated (“although I’d be happy to be proved wrong”) but for all her measured delivery and self-deprecation, surely she couldn’t have predicted that her party would be looking at 50 plus seats and the question of whether Labour will or won’t do a deal with her party a key issue of the debate. Who’d have thought it?
“I think it reflects where the public mood is in Scotland,” she says, citing the legacy of the referendum campaign as having created a feeling of empowerment amongst voters. “I think this is a watershed election for the whole of the UK. And in a positive way. It’s a chance for people right across the UK to break this sterile two-party system and get more representative politics that might actually serve people better. It’s a huge opportunity. And although we are first and foremost about representing Scotland’s interests, I’m very excited about the potential for the SNP to work with others in other parts of the UK to try to deliver that different style of politics.”
This baldly stated intention to shake things up is what delights some and appalls others. It’s presumably what has given rise to some of the more hysterical reactions – the “most dangerous woman in Britain” soubriquet, the talk of her party as a “creepily craven cult”.
“I think it’s a sign that the vested interests in Westminster don’t quite know how to deal with the SNP because we’re there to try to shake it up for the benefit of ordinary folk. They’re lashing out. I suspect though it’s having the opposite effect to the one they’re hoping it has and I suspect that’s true in England as well.”
If, at moments, there has been a sense that both politicians and the media have been caught on the back foot in terms of how this election campaign is playing out – the rise of social media, the disillusionment with the main parties, the lack of deference to both the personalities and the process – Sturgeon has often stood apart. Westminster politicians may be “way, way behind” but she is clear that what we’re experiencing is something new. “I think there is something fundamental changing. It’s not just in terms of how people vote, it’s their whole engagement with politics. In Scotland it’s very much a referendum inspired thing but I suspect it wouldn’t take much to reveal the same appetite in England. If there were just some politicians who were prepared to tap into it.”
Sturgeon looks determined and sounds ambitious. There is, she argues, a “huge premium” available to politicians willing to really engage with the public. It’s interesting that it’s a woman who’s often been accused of lacking the human touch who appears to setting the benchmark. It’s not that she’s suddenly become an open book, far from it, but she seems sure of her tactics, clear in her intentions.
The night before we met, I watched Sturgeon spar with Bernard Ponsonby. It was a fairly rambunctious encounter – lots of interruptions, plenty of opportunities to slip up for Sturgeon. “On my way there I was dog tired,” she says, “but the moment it starts, something kicks in and you overcome the tiredness. Then you can’t sleep for hours after.”
So what do you do – a pile of ironing, make a pot of soup?
“Pacing,” she says, shifting in her seat. “As Peter [Murrell, her husband and chief executive of the SNP] was trying to get to sleep and saying, ‘shut up’. And I go on Twitter to look at the front pages of the papers.” She hesitates, something that only happens when she’s talking about this, nearly personal stuff. “My mum phoned me after it to say you need to get something for your throat.” She shakes her head. “There’s nothing wrong with my throat.” ‘Ah well, it sounded rough on the telly’, came the reply. She smiles and rolls her eyes.