Nicola Sturgeon’s Quest for Scottish Independence

On a sharp morning on the southern edge of Glasgow, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish National Party, arrived at a dentist’s office for a photo opportunity. Scotland has had its own government since the late nineties, when certain powers were devolved to the country, almost three hundred years after it formed a political union with England. The S.N.P., which has run Scotland since 2007, wants the country to secede from the United Kingdom altogether. On May 6th, Scottish voters will decide whether to reëlect the Party and back Sturgeon’s demand for the second independence referendum in a decade, which polls suggest that she might win. The previous day, announcing her party’s election manifesto, Sturgeon had promised to abolish the dentistry fees charged by the Scottish National Health Service. This was a typical S.N.P. policy: populist yet incremental, hinting at the broader, egalitarian future that awaits the country once it is fully free. The photo opportunity, at a clinic in the suburb of Thornliebank, involved the First Minister dangling some dental tools into the mouth of a child-size cuddly green dinosaur.

Sturgeon, who is fifty, is a political prodigy who made it all the way. In 1992, at the age of twenty-one, she was thought to be the youngest candidate to stand in Britain’s general election. She became known as a “nippy sweetie,” Glaswegian slang for a woman who is overly assertive. But now, among her many supporters (the S.N.P. is routinely twenty-five points ahead of its rival parties in Scotland), Sturgeon is “our Nicola.” In normal times, wherever she goes, she is rapidly surrounded by fans expecting selfies, encounters that she professes to enjoy. But, during the recent campaign, Scotland’s tight COVID restrictions made that impossible. Aides kept her movements secret, to prevent crowds from forming. During public engagements, Sturgeon moves with a certain diffidence, letting others go through doors first. When she stepped out of her government car at the dental clinic, wearing an overcoat of lipstick red, she made way for a pedestrian, who didn’t seem to notice her.

Inside, the First Minister posed gamely with the dinosaur, which reclined in a dentist’s chair. A few minutes later, she emerged to give an interview for a morning news show. Sturgeon is a perfectionist, a character trait that she ascribes to growing up as a very shy, working-class girl and then spending thirty years in the adversarial, male, and often privileged habitat of British politics. She compares her own inferiority complex, which she has largely conquered, to her country’s, which she has yet to overcome. “I’m always kind of thinking, I’ve got to prove myself,” she told me recently. “I’ve got to, you know, over and over again, demonstrate that I deserve to be doing what I’m doing. And that’s a very personal thing, but I think it’s mirrored to some extent in the national psyche of Scotland.”

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Sturgeon crossed the street. Trash lay scattered in the grass. Above her head were plastic bags caught in the branches of a tree that was yet to bud. A construction truck went past. The subject was dentistry. Sturgeon took off her dark-blue tartan face mask. In the seconds before the camera went live, she bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, like a gymnast preparing to vault.

On September 18, 2014, the people of Scotland voted no to independence by fifty-five per cent to forty-five per cent, a margin of slightly less than four hundred thousand votes. The front man for the yes campaign, Alex Salmond, who had led the S.N.P. for twenty of the preceding twenty-four years, resigned. Both sides had agreed that the vote would be historic; Salmond called it a “once in a generation” event. But the defeat didn’t manifest as a defeat. Support for Scottish independence rose by fifteen points during the campaign. Young people flocked to the polls. S.N.P. membership surged. “The majority of people in Scotland were not yet ready, in 2014, to give up on the U.K.,” Blair Jenkins, who ran the yes campaign, recalled. “But we certainly got them a lot closer to that point than anyone could have imagined.”

Sturgeon, who had been Salmond’s deputy, succeeded him both as First Minister and as the leader of the Party. In the 2015 general election, the S.N.P. won all but three of Scotland’s fifty-nine parliamentary seats. (Under Britain’s devolved constitution, the S.N.P. fields candidates in both the U.K. Parliament, in Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament, in Edinburgh.)

The following year, in the Brexit referendum, sixty-two per cent of Scottish voters opted to remain in the European Union. The S.N.P. sees an independent Scotland taking its rightful place alongside other small states, such as Ireland, Denmark, and Finland, secure within the broader architecture of the E.U. In 2017, Sturgeon wrote to the Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, asking for a Section 30 order, which, under Britain’s devolution legislation, would enable a second independence referendum—a request that still stands.

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Sturgeon’s opponents acknowledge that she is probably Britain’s most talented politician. “God, she winds me up,” a former Conservative Cabinet minister told me. Sturgeon embodies an apparent oxymoron: a left-of-center nationalist. The S.N.P. is explicitly pro-immigration—it wants Scotland’s population to increase—and attentive to the rights of children, refugees, and trans people. Since the mid-nineties, the S.N.P. has tacked carefully to the left of Labour, opposing the Iraq War, in 2003, and displacing the Party from its historic dominance north of the English border. Scotland’s government controls about sixty per cent of spending in the country—the rest is overseen by London—and the S.N.P. has made the country’s tax code more progressive while also funding free university tuition and personal care for the elderly, and reducing the voting age to sixteen.

Sturgeon implores Scots “to work as if we are indeed living in the early days of a better nation,” a quote attributed to the Canadian poet Dennis Lee, but she complains that she must govern with one hand behind her back. Sturgeon would like to introduce a universal basic income, and wants Scotland to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, five years ahead of the rest of the U.K. She invites comparisons to other female leaders of beautiful, small, forward-thinking countries, such as Jacinda Ardern, of New Zealand, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir, of Iceland. Sturgeon has described Birgitte Nyborg, the fictional Prime Minister of Denmark in the TV show “Borgen,” as her favorite onscreen politician. In 2019, she gave a TED talk about the importance of placing measures of a country’s well-being ahead of its G.D.P.

At the same time, she is an absolutist, who yearns to break apart one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies. “I think she is profoundly impressive,” the former Cabinet minister said. “But she is bad. . . . In the end, there is nothing that matters for her other than this dream of creating an independent Scotland, which, remember—if she won by one vote, she would prefer to split the country irrevocably.”

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Defenders of the U.K.’s political union—a family of four nations and richly intermingled identities—point out the irony of using Brexit, a nationalist project that Sturgeon abhors, as a pretext for completing her own. But the S.N.P. has skillfully shifted the debate over Scottish independence away from history and constitutional arcana and toward the more pressing question of which kind of society voters would prefer to live in: Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain or Nicola Sturgeon’s social-democratic Scotland. “It is a values proposition,” Will Tanner, a former Downing Street official, who now runs Onward, a center-right think tank, told me. “Really, it’s about, Who do you side with?”

The pandemic has increased the strains among the nations of the U.K. Many vital decisions concerning border controls and economic stimulus have been controlled by Johnson’s government, but health care is a devolved responsibility. Sturgeon was Scotland’s health secretary between 2007 and 2012, and she has taken personal charge of the coronavirus crisis. In the past year, Scotland’s public-health authorities have issued regulations that are subtly different, and generally more cautious, from those in England. Sturgeon herself has given more than two hundred televised briefings.

Although the effects of Scotland’s approach have not been striking (more than ten thousand people have died of Covid, and the country’s mortality rate has been in line with the rates of other regions of the U.K.), a poll found that seventy-eight per cent of voters approved of Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic, compared with thirty-four per cent for Johnson. Last fall, support for Scottish independence reached fifty-eight per cent, the highest level on record.

I asked Sturgeon how Covid and the independence question were related. “What is independence?” she replied. “It’s self-government, and self-governance. And here we were, in the face of the biggest crisis that anybody can recall. Uncertain, scary, unpredictable. And people found that they were looking to their own government.”

“This song is going to be stuck in your heads for the rest of your lives.”
Cartoon by Liana Finck

The past year has accentuated Sturgeon’s leadership qualities. But it has also been politically traumatic. In 2018, Salmond, her predecessor and mentor, was accused of sexually harassing staff while he was in office. An investigation by Sturgeon’s government into the allegations was mishandled, and a subsequent criminal prosecution, in which Salmond was tried for attempted rape, ended in his acquittal.

The scandal ruined one of the most important relationships of Sturgeon’s life and came close to removing her from office. Earlier this year, two separate inquiries into the Salmond case explored whether Sturgeon had lied to the Scottish Parliament. She narrowly survived. “I think my political opponents—I don’t know, maybe Alex himself . . . There was an element of ‘We can break her,’ you know? Almost kind of personally as well as politically. That was how it felt,” Sturgeon told me. “And, you know, there were days when they might have come closer than they knew. But they didn’t.”

Glasgow Southside, the constituency that Sturgeon represents in the Scottish Parliament, stretches for some four miles along the River Clyde. For much of the twentieth century, its neighborhoods were a sulfurous mixture of tenements, engineering workshops, and heavy industry. In Govanhill, the sky glowed red from the ironworks. The Fairfield shipyard, in Govan, had the largest crane in the world: twelve vessels, from yachts to ocean liners and submarines, could be under construction at the same time. In 1880, the yard launched the Livadia, a steam yacht in the shape of a turbot, for the tsar of Russia. Clydeside became a laboratory for left-wing activism. During the First World War, Mary Barbour, a housing campaigner, whom Sturgeon says is one of her heroes, led a rent strike in Govan which spread across the city. In 1922, the Times of London complained that the district was rife with “socialist study circles, socialist economics classes, socialist music festivals, socialist athletics competitions, socialist choirs, socialist dramatic societies, socialist plays.” From the twenties until the aftermath of the financial crisis, “Red Clydeside,” like the rest of the city, elected an almost unbroken stream of Labour Members of Parliament. In 2010, all seven of Glasgow’s constituencies were held by Labour. By 2015, all seven had flipped to the S.N.P.

Sturgeon ran for office six times in Glasgow before winning her constituency, in 2007. (The Scottish Parliament has a hybrid electoral system: seventy-three members represent constituencies, and fifty-six are elected from regional lists.) During one campaign, to become a Westminster M.P., Sturgeon lived across the street from the writer Andrew O’Hagan. He put a note through her door, asking to meet. She was twenty-six, and practicing as a lawyer. O’Hagan was struck by her gift for language. Sturgeon is an avid reader. (At quiet moments, she tweets about what she is reading; last month, it was “The High House,” by Jessie Greengrass, a post-climate-change novel, set in East Anglia.) “She wasn’t hectoring, and she wasn’t even particularly campaigning,” O’Hagan recalled. “She had a way of speaking to people, as if she was actually just offering them a piece of local wisdom. . . . I remember thinking, If the weather is favorable, she’ll make a deep connection with Scottish people. Just because of the way she spoke.”

O’Hagan and Sturgeon both grew up outside Irvine, once a medieval harbor, an hour’s drive southwest of Glasgow. In 1781, the poet Robert Burns moved there to work with flax. But, in 1966, Irvine was designated as a “new town,” and redeveloped to rehouse families from Glasgow’s slums and as a site for new industries. Sturgeon lived in Dreghorn, a village on the edge of Irvine with unionist tendencies. When I visited last month, a few houses were flying Union Jacks at half-mast, to mark the death of Prince Philip. Sturgeon’s father, Robin, was an electrician. Her mother, Joan, who worked as a dental nurse, gave birth to her at the age of seventeen. The family (Sturgeon has a younger sister) lived in a small house owned by the local council, like most Scots at the time. Sturgeon was a studious child; she liked to read books under the kitchen table.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and began restructuring the British economy. Scotland’s heavy industry, trade unions, and relatively high levels of public spending made it especially vulnerable to Thatcher’s reforms, which were driven by a belief in “monetarism”—limiting the money supply, in order to control inflation—and a loathing of anything that might resemble socialism. Between 1979 and 1981, twenty per cent of Scotland’s industrial workers lost their jobs. Factories and mines closed. During the winter of 1982, when Sturgeon was twelve, unemployment in Irvine reached twenty-five per cent. “I’ve got an overwhelming sort of memory from back then, of this sense that if your dad lost his job he would never get another one, because unemployment was almost kind of terminal,” she said. “The people I was at school with, their prospects were pretty grim.”

Thatcherism came from somewhere else. “There was always something completely alien,” Sturgeon said. “You would listen to this very posh voice, talking about communities like the one I was growing up in.” In the eighties, Scotland was overwhelmingly represented by Labour M.P.s, but they were powerless to stop the damage. Sturgeon’s parents voted for the S.N.P., and she joined the Party when she was sixteen. At her first meeting, in the Volunteer Rooms, a community hall in Irvine, local members celebrated a recent opinion poll, which had estimated the Party’s share of the vote in double digits. “The S.N.P. couldn’t win a raffle, never mind an election,” Ricky Bell, a Party official who met Sturgeon that night, said.

The Party, which was founded in 1934, was in need of reform. In the 1987 general election, it won just three seats in Westminster. (Sturgeon campaigned for the Party in Irvine; it came in fourth.) In 1990, a young economist named Alex Salmond ran for the leadership. Sturgeon met Salmond, who is sixteen years her senior, when she was active in the Party’s youth wing. Historically, the S.N.P. had been derided as “tartan Tories,” but Salmond developed a coherent, center-left message. He made overtures to Catholic voters and helped reform the Party’s positions on the European Union (it had previously opposed Britain’s membership) and devolution, arguing that the S.N.P. should run candidates for a long-promised Scottish Parliament. Salmond also nurtured Sturgeon’s talent. In her mid-twenties, she was chosen to represent the Party in TV debates and on news programs. “I thought, and still do, that she had remarkable presentational skills, that she had a good political brain, and that she would develop into a formidable politician,” Salmond told me.

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