Book review: Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life

DAVID Torrance’s biography of the First Minister lacks fireworks but still reveals vital spark, writes Tom Peterkin

Nicola Sturgeon at the Scottish Womens Aid conference. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nicola Sturgeon at the Scottish Womens Aid conference. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life

David Torrance

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Birlinn, £9.99

This biography could not be more aptly titled. David Torrance tells the story of an individual whose whole life appears to have been defined by the activities of the Scottish National Party. Having joined the party aged 16, Nicola Sturgeon – “a working class girl from Ayrshire” – has been totally devoted to politics and, more specifically, the cause of Scottish independence. The paradox of Sturgeon’s life appears to be that it has been remarkable but at the same time strangely one-dimensional. Those seeking juicy gossip or even details of a hitherto undisclosed passion for stamp collecting are likely to be disappointed by Torrance’s biography. Mouth-watering revelations about Scotland’s first female First Minister are few and far between – omissions that can be put down to the fact that there almost certainly aren’t any.

The strength of this book lies elsewhere. As the author of several books about politics – including a biography of Alex Salmond – Torrance has an excellent eye for political detail as well as a formidable understanding of life at Holyrood and these attributes are put to good use here. It is, as Torrance declares in the book’s preface, an “unauthorised” biography. Without Sturgeon’s co-operation, Torrance relies on secondary sources and quotes extensively from the acres of newsprint that have been devoted to her. He outlines his approach in his preface, admitting to readers that he doesn’t claim to “know” his subject in the sense that they are in any way close. “Rather I have done what biographers do: reached conclusions based on having observed Sturgeon as a politician for around 15 years, numerous conversations with acquaintances (some closer than others) and what I hope is a judicious interpretation of her public utterances covering an even longer period,” he writes.

This approach succeeds in painting a convincing portrait of Sturgeon, from her days as a teenage activist under the guidance of the former SNP MSP Kay Ullrich, through her involvement in SNP politics as a law student at Glasgow University and her rise through the SNP ranks to her elevated position today. There is a consistency about the cast of characters. Her contemporaries at Glasgow University included her friends and fellow Cabinet ministers Shona Robison and Angela Constance. That’s without mentioning the SNP MPs Eilidh Whiteford and Alasdair Allan, and Pat Kane, the Hue and Cry singer, Yes activist and then rector of Glasgow University. Indeed, the lack of a hinterland beyond the political sphere is striking. Even her fledgling law career was always going to take second place to the SNP and the fight for independence.

Torrance offers some insight into her personal life and reflects on the stability and happiness brought by her marriage to the SNP chief executive, Peter Murrell. Two previous boyfriends are mentioned in passing. It should come as little surprise that both were SNP activists.

Torrance provides insights into Sturgeon’s well-developed sense of humour – something to which most Holyrood journalists can attest. Her relationship with Salmond is explored, as is her “Project Nicola” makeover that, according to Torrance, attempted to “humanise” her when she stood for the leadership in tandem with Salmond.

Torrance’s biography succeeds because it mirrors its subject. The biographer has worked hard to capture the politician who now leads Scotland at this crucial time in its history. But as Sturgeon stands at the start of new chapter in her life, one can’t help feel that if in years to come Torrance decides to write a sequel, it may have more in the way of fireworks.