Nicola
Sturgeon

On taking Scotland to the world.

Text by Ann Friedman
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Issue n° 15, Spring & Summer 2017

Every night Nicola Sturgeon reads at least a few pages of fiction – right now it’s Dirt Road by James Kelman, the Scottish author whose characters refuse to be cowed by poverty or oppression. Which sounds about right for a compassionate politician who’s always taken the harder path. When she joined the Scottish National Party, distributing leaflets during the 1987 election, they returned only three MPs.

Thirty years on, UK politics has been turned on its head, and as her nation’s first female first minister, Sturgeon, 46, is leading the charge on the international stage, representing Scots’ – and other UK citizens’ – desire to remain in Europe. It’s the challenge of a lifetime, she agrees, but battling for an ideal never put the wind up “Wee Nicola” from Dreghorn.

On a crisp, clear morning in late December, the press gathered at Bute House, the four-storey neoclassical townhouse in Edinburgh’s majestic Charlotte Square that is First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s official residence. It’s rare that a policy proposal from the first minister makes headlines across Europe. But this is no ordinary moment in European politics. And Sturgeon is no ordinary Scottish politician.

Almost every major detail of Sturgeon’s biography is unprecedented. She became the first woman to lead the Scottish National Party, and the first female first minister of Scotland in 2014. That year, her charismatic predecessor Alex Salmond stood down after the party lost the first-ever referendum for Scotland to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, the SNP swept the 2015 UK general election, gaining 56 out of 59 Scottish seats. Then last June, when a majority of British voters shocked the world with their decision to leave the European Union, she found herself on the international stage.

Sturgeon, who has long wanted Scotland to be independent, was strongly in favour of remaining in the European Union. This might seem like a paradox. But Sturgeon explains that she simply favours self-governance. Scots voted overwhelmingly (61.96 per cent) to stay in the EU. And Sturgeon, as she told the press who gathered that day at Bute House, intends to act on their wishes. Her plan for how a so-called “Brexit” – an exit from the European market – might be negotiated is the first such proposal put forth by any UK leader.

“Are you sure you don’t want some tea?” Nicola Sturgeon, 46, asks me later when we meet in her sparse modern office at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, an area of Edinburgh just east of the city centre. In stark contrast to the flourishes of Bute House, the furniture in this practical, day-to-day office looks like it was plucked from an Ikea showroom. We settle into a chair and sofa, and she requests coffee. Even though most Scots are commuting home at this hour, she still hasn’t eaten lunch, and she has several meetings to go. It’s been an unusually busy day, even for a woman who spends “99.9 per cent” of her time working.

In June, 51.89 per cent of British voters said they wanted the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, a political and economic partnership it joined in 1973 that has ensured free trade and free movement of people between countries, now numbering 28. Six months later, details on how the UK might actually extricate itself are scant, and Sturgeon sees it as her job to ensure that Scottish citizens aren’t hurt by a decision they didn’t make. “In Scotland, it’s going to hit jobs, it’s going to hit the economy, it’s going to hit living standards,” she says. “You know, 180,000 people who live here from other European countries, they’re going to have to leave. I’m not going to do nothing about it.”

Nicola Sturgeon was photographed in the drawing room of Bute House where she hosts dignitaries and the occasional journalist. Filled with Chippendale furniture, it also features a fabulous gilded rococo chimney glass. Sturgeon wears her own clothes, 7.5-centimetre heels and jewellery throughout.

In the aftermath of the vote, there was a period of stunned silence across the United Kingdom as fractures between north and south, rich and poor, young and old became evident. Voters on all sides of the issue struggled to find political leaders with a plan for closing these rifts, and Sturgeon stepped confidently (some would say conveniently) into the vacuum. She flew to Brussels and Berlin to make the case for Scotland to remain in the EU. She deftly fielded tough questions in a series of self-assured TV appearances, which gave rise to a sense that she was more transparent and trustworthy than Westminster. In September, during a meeting with the Holyrood committee investigating Brexit, when Sturgeon said she was “gobsmacked” by the lack of a plan for Britain’s EU exit, even many “leave” voters shared her dismay. On a list of world leaders deemed most influential in the Brexit negotiations, she was ranked third.

Sturgeon is as straightforward in person as she is on television, with an accent that’s been somewhat softened by her years in politics but is unmistakably west-coast Scottish, just thick enough that outsiders have to listen closely on occasion. She’s quick to laugh, and when she does, her mouth opens wide, her eyes squeeze shut, and her entire body leans forward. Her signature close-clipped bob with short fringe is so immobile that “Does Nicola Sturgeon wear a wig?” is one of the most-Googled questions about the first minister. (She does not.)

She does have a penchant for patterned scarves and fitted blazers over knee-skimming dresses, favouring bold jewel tones and the occasional flower or bow. She wears heels to add some height to her five foot four, and although she knows tabloid scrutiny is unavoidable, she often detects a sexist tone in the commentary on her appearance. When a Sky News journalist mocked her on Twitter for wearing the same suit as Arlene Foster, then first minister of Northern Ireland, Sturgeon replied with a photo of two men in identical suits: “Oh no, male journalist and male politician wear the same outfit!” Today she’s wearing a collarless tweed dress and jacket, with a floral-print pink scarf knotted loosely around her neck.

Sturgeon became known outside Scotland thanks to the televised general-election debates in 2015. To thunderous applause, she excoriated Tory leader David Cameron as unethical and Labour’s David Miliband as weak. Rather than speaking in political platitudes, she was direct. She called one policy proposal “one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard”. Her approval ratings soared. For months, she was the most popular politician in the United Kingdom – a distinction few Scots have enjoyed.

Sturgeon grew up in Dreghorn, a village on the edge of a coalfield in the staunchly Labour constituency of Central Ayrshire, about 30 miles from Glasgow. The elder of two daughters (her sister, Gillian, is 42 and runs a children’s party business in Ayrshire), Nicola was a quiet girl – “the sensible one”, her sister has said. She was so shy that she spent her fifth birthday under the table while everyone else played party games. “I lived in a house where I was surrounded by books, and I much preferred to sit with my head in a book than talking to people,” she says. When she was a guest on Desert Island Discs in 2015, the book she chose to take to her fictional island was the complete works of Jane Austen. She tells me she was an “austere” teen whose style veered towards goth. “If you see pictures of me back then, you would struggle to know whether I was a boy or a girl.” She was a devoted fan of Duran Duran and Wham! and on Saturday nights she could be found at Frosty’s Ice Disco at the Magnum Leisure Centre in the nearby town of Irvine.

“Every time a woman politician goes in front of a camera, there are 100 things she has to worry about that a man will never have cross his mind.”

The jobs Dreghorn relied on started to disappear in the 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government relentlessly pursued a programme of privatising nationalised industries and dismantling the unionised manufacturing, steel and coal industries. “Thatcher presided over the scaling down of substantial chunks of heavy industry, especially steel, that was disproportionately located in Scotland,” John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, tells me by email. “The closure of Ravenscraig steelworks near Motherwell became an icon of how Scottish manufacturing industry was allegedly being allowed to ‘go to the wall’.” The process had a devastating effect on northern England and on Scotland, which was thrown into its worst recession since the 1930s, along with unprecedented unemployment, which doubled between 1981 and 1983. In the Proclaimers’ 1987 hit “Letter from America”, which Sturgeon refers to as part of the soundtrack to her political awakening, Irvine was included in the furious refrain: “Bathgate no more, Linwood no more, Methil no more, Irvine no more.”

“One of my most abiding memories of childhood would be the fear of your father losing his job,” she says. Thankfully, her father, Robin, remained employed as an electrician, and her mother, Joan, kept her job as a dental nurse. But Sturgeon worried for her friends’ families: “There was a sense of hopelessness that if that happened to your father or your mother, they would never work again.” Sturgeon – like many others of her generation – cared. And she blamed Thatcher’s policies for the decline she saw around her.

Even though her family wasn’t one to talk politics at the dinner table, Sturgeon’s parents were SNP voters, and she remembers them discussing the 1979 devolution referendum in Scotland, which would have created a Scottish Assembly had it found sufficient support (51.6 per cent supported the proposal. This represented 32.9 per cent of the electorate; 40 per cent would have had to vote yes for it to pass). Nicola was nine years old. “And I remember them talking about that the morning after, and how disappointed they had been in the outcome,” she recalls.

Sturgeon has always been motivated by a sense of injustice at the fact that her country – and, indeed, her fate – was controlled by politicians with little connection to her. Curtice explains that Thatcher “failed to counter the impression that her government was reliant for being in office on votes in England (and thus could be portrayed as not having any mandate in Scotland), and she was intent on imposing English policy on Scotland.” He adds, “The poll tax, the single flat-rate per capita tax on every UK adult that was trialled in Scotland from 1989, became the most toxic issue on this score.” It was, of course, also the person of Margaret Thatcher that rankled. “The voice,” Curtice says, “very English, rather upper-class, not something you hear on a Glasgow omnibus.” Certainly for Sturgeon, “the fact that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, and nobody I knew in my community had parents who had ever voted for Margaret Thatcher or would ever dream of voting for Margaret Thatcher, and yet she was prime minister of my country… So out of that came, Yeah, I want to do something about that.”

Joining the SNP wasn’t the natural choice for a comprehensive-educated working-class girl growing up in a council house. In the 1983 general election, the SNP earned a minuscule 11.8 per cent of Scottish votes; most Scots who were anti-Thatcher ardently supported Labour. Sturgeon describes her decision to join the SNP as an act of rebellion. When she was 16, her English teacher at Greenwood Academy offered her the chance to sign up with a party. “He just assumed that that meant I would join the Labour Party,” she says, “and one day he brought me in the form I had to fill in to do it. And I was like, ‘I’m not going to join the Labour Party. I’m going to join the SNP.’” She has also cited a debating competition at her school, an SNP political broadcast, and a trip to the Houses of Parliament in London as having inspired her to turn to the SNP. The negative effects of Thatcherism had motivated Sturgeon to get involved in politics, but the underlying problem, as she saw it, was that her nation was subject to policies crafted elsewhere. And independence was the answer.

Of all the things that drew her to the party, though, career ambitions could not be counted among them. In the mid-1980s, the SNP was so marginalised that it rarely earned double figures in opinion polls. Indeed, Sturgeon’s early years in politics were marked by the sort of repeated losses only a true believer can survive. The hours she spent knocking on doors and passing out SNP leaflets during the 1987 general election did nothing to lessen her resolve. “I was convinced that obviously we were going to win,” she recalls, “and then was rather devastated when we came fourth.” The party returned just three MPs.

She was active in the Young Scottish Nationalists, an affiliated but separate wing of the party, earning a position on its national executive thanks to a policy paper she authored when she was just 17. Sturgeon continued her party involvement when she arrived at the University of Glasgow in 1989 to study law. She got to know her political mentor Alex Salmond in 1990. “I met Nicola when I was running for SNP leader,” Salmond tells me by email. “At that time, she was a precocious teenage prodigy as part of my campaign, bubbling with vitality and talent.” Sturgeon has said that Salmond “believed in me long before I believed in myself.”

She spent two years working as a solicitor in Drumchapel after graduating, and in 1992 she fought her first parliamentary election. At 21, she was the youngest candidate in Scottish history, and she lost by a huge margin. Looking back now, Sturgeon tells me her party affiliation played a bigger role in the defeat than her age or gender – the SNP wasn’t as popular as it is now. But, she adds, “I was a young woman in a sphere where pretty much everybody else was a middle-aged man.”

Like many women and minorities who must work harder than dominant groups to prove their qualification, Sturgeon was impeccably prepared and, she thinks in hindsight, perhaps overly serious because she was so worried about putting a foot wrong. “I’m naturally quite a shy person,” she says, “and I’ve had to overcome that. Because you are so surrounded by men, you feel as if you’ve got to behave like them in order to fit in.” At the time, the press said she never smiled – something rarely said of male politicians, as Sturgeon points out. She was also called “a nippy sweetie” – Glasgow slang for a sharp-mannered woman. One of her key staffers admits, “She wasn’t particularly open.” Sturgeon says, “I’m conscious of this when I’m talking to younger women in politics now, to try to encourage them not to do what I subconsciously did.”

Sturgeon has overcome that stoic image among the press. Later tonight, in fact, she’ll be entertaining reporters at Bute House with a comic turn at the first minister’s annual Christmas party for the press corps. “I take the piss out of them, and then somebody will reply and take the piss out of me, and then we’ll all have a drink and go home,” she says. “Or they’ll go home.” The party is, after all, at her official residence.

Sturgeon ran again for Parliament in 1997 and lost. But after Tony Blair was elected, he kept his party’s promise that there would be a referendum on devolution, and in September that same year Scotland voted in favour. In its first election in May 1999, Sturgeon was elected to the new Scottish Parliament as one of 35 SNP MSPs; Labour won 56 seats and formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. With the transfer of power on 1 July from Westminster, under the Scotland Act (amended in 2012) the new Parliament assumed responsibility for matters ranging from economic development to food standards – though certain areas, including all foreign policy and relations with Europe, remain with the UK Parliament in London – and set out to change the agenda from one set by Westminster to one that put Scottish priorities first. Sturgeon was appointed the SNP’s spokesperson for energy and education.

Over the next several years, she served as shadow minister on issues ranging from health and community to culture and sport. She pushed to ban tobacco advertising, freeze prescription drug charges, and provide free fresh fruit in primary schools. She won awards for her parliamentarian skills. Yet Sturgeon was still concerned about being taken seriously for her politics. “Every time a woman politician goes in front of a camera, there are maybe 100 things that she has to worry about, consciously or subconsciously, that a man will never have to have cross his mind,” she says. ( When she met Theresa May on 14 July 2016, the day after May had become prime minister, the first photo of their meeting Sturgeon saw on social media, taken on the steps of Bute House, only showed the two women below the knee. “They wanted to talk about the shoes we were wearing,” she says. )

Meanwhile, Sturgeon became more and more involved in high-level party politics. For the Scottish Parliament election in 2003, Salmond charged her with professionalising the entire campaign apparatus. On that election she worked with Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP who is now her husband. They’d met at an SNP youth weekend in Aberdeenshire when Sturgeon was 18 but had never worked so closely for such a sustained period of time. “The day after when, you know, we no longer had to be constantly together, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I quite liked it,’” Sturgeon says. That weekend, under the guise of talking about how the election had gone, they met for dinner, which turned into a series of dates. Though the couple are quite private, in 2004 the Sun reported that Sturgeon had found love with Murrell, six years her senior. He proposed on one knee on Hogmanay in 2009 at their home in the suburbs of Glasgow, and they married in Òran Mór, an arts venue in the city’s West End, in 2010.

Despite sharing her passion for politics, Peter, 51, is the ice to Nicola’s fire. “If I’m having a flap about something and he comes in the room, that in itself will often calm me down,” Sturgeon says. ( One of her advisors notes that sometimes, in the midst of a crisis, her team will ask him to stop by to defuse the tension. ) When it’s just the two of them at home, Peter – whom Sturgeon describes as “Mr Absolutely Calm and Collected” – occasionally physically removes her phone from her hand so she’ll unplug, stop working and read a book for a while. He’s also the supportive partner who keeps their home running while she devotes every waking moment to her job. They never sat down to discuss the division of household labour, because it was evident from the start. “I am useless on the domestic front,” Sturgeon says. “That probably became apparent the first time he tasted something I tried to cook.”

“I tried to work out if I was taking the job because everyone thought I would or if I wanted it and thought I was up to it.”

Sturgeon is a doting aunt, but she and Peter have no children. Like other female leaders without children – including Theresa May – Sturgeon has been accused of being overly career-oriented. In a 2015 interview for a book about SNP leaders, she was open about the fact that she’d had a miscarriage in 2011. Mandy Rhodes, a contributing journalist she was friendly with, had deduced the details in an interview done a few years earlier and “tentatively” asked Sturgeon if she could include them in the book.

“It was a really difficult decision because part of me was like, I don’t really want to talk about this, nobody has a right to know,” she says. “And then there was another part of me that thought, It could actually be quite powerful to talk about this. For years and years and years, in so many interviews, I’ve been asked, ‘Are you going to have children? Why do you not have children? Blah, blah, blah, blah.’ And you kind of dance around it.” She came to resent the implication that she’d made a cold, calculated decision for the sake of her career. “For many women, that’s not the case,” she continues. “It’s so complex. In my life, the not wanting to have kids, the not being able to have kids, having the miscarriage – these have all been true at different points.”

This Sturgeon – not the skilful parliamentarian or independence-minded leader but the woman talking openly about a painful moment in her personal life – is a far cry from her stoic younger self. These days she poses for Vogue and has become known as the “selfie queen”. (In 2015, members of the Scottish press corps gave her a selfie stick for Christmas, prompting Peter to tweet that he had been planning to get her the same gift.) It’s taken her a long time to find her way here. While she considers several male politicians her mentors, Sturgeon has never had many women to model herself on.

“I was, I suppose, trying to find a way of being myself that, maybe in those early days, didn’t quite come through,” she says. “I think you just feel more comfortable as you get older in being yourself.” In an unusual reversal of influence, Sturgeon’s political success encouraged her parents to become active in the SNP. Her mother was the provost of North Ayrshire Council until last November; she stepped down after Sturgeon’s father lost his bid to become a councillor in the Irvine West by-election.

The biggest breaks of Sturgeon’s career have often coincided with difficult political moments for her country and her party. By 2014, when Scotland voted against independence, she had been deputy first minister for seven years, and party deputy to Alex Salmond for longer. Salmond had promised to step down if voters rejected independence, and he was true to his word. Many took it for granted that Nicola would step up into the role of first minister. She, however, wasn’t so sure.

“It was never automatic in my mind,” she says. “It was the weekend straight after the independence referendum, so I was in the most exhausted state I’d been in for a long time. And I went home and kind of shut the door. I think I did put the phone away, saw all my family for the first time in months, and just thought it through. I tried to work out in my own head if I was doing it just because everybody assumed I would do it, or if I was doing it because I wanted to do it and thought I was up to and capable of it. I took a few days.” She decided she was up to the task.

As first minister, Sturgeon is not only accountable to the Scottish Parliament and a representative of her country on the world stage but also tasked with responding directly to the people. ( She’s still MSP for Glasgow Southside, a constituency she’s held since it was created in 2011, when Govan, where she’d been MSP since 2007, was divided in two. ) Yesterday she was at an aluminium smelter in the Highlands, today she’s presenting her Brexit proposal to the Scottish Parliament, and tomorrow she’ll stop by an animal shelter. In between it all, there’s social media. “I try to meet as many people as possible and be responsive in that way,” she says. “I do online Q&As and all the rest of it. But I do try to draw the line between that and getting dragged into the depths of social media.”

She’s also the head of her party – a role in which she has excelled. Salmond describes her chief strengths as a leader as being “an agile mind matched with a steely determination.” A poll in 2015 found that Sturgeon was the most popular person in Scotland. And although her approval numbers have slid somewhat, she can rattle off a list of her achievements since taking office: a more gender-balanced Parliament, an expanded childcare provision, a new climate-change plan, more students enrolled in higher education.

While Sturgeon is not unequivocally loved by Scots, she is a well-known and respected leader. “The country’s relationship with her is casual, familiar; we are on easy terms,” the Scottish journalist Peter Ross wrote in 2014. “She is seldom ‘Sturgeon’, usually ‘Nicola’, sometimes ‘Wee Nicola’.” While this term of endearment carries a whiff of sexism, the voters’ affection for her is noteworthy at a time when lifelong politicians are finding it difficult to win big elections in other Western democracies, often losing to populist outsiders. Sturgeon is in the position of simultaneously being part of the establishment and enjoying an oppositional role within UK politics. She was disappointed by Hillary Clinton’s loss in the US election last year. “I’ve identified with a lot of what she’s been through, and I admired a lot of how she has dealt with that,” Sturgeon says. “The resilience that woman has – everything she’s been through, and to still come back and do it again. I just… Wow. But anyway, we are where we are.”

When Sturgeon took up the role of first minister, she had no inkling that UK voters would vote to leave the European Union, placing her in a key role advocating for those who’d wished to remain. “UK politics has been so completely turned on its head,” she would tell me later, “and Scotland’s been central to that.” On the morning after the referendum, Sturgeon directed her staff to immediately begin researching how the result would affect Scotland, and what should be done about it. She also embarked on what she called “the biggest listening exercise in our party’s history”, consulting with more than two million Scots.

The proposal Sturgeon presented to the press in December called for keeping the UK in the European single market and maintaining the free movement of people and goods across UK borders. It also stated that if the UK were not willing or able to negotiate such a deal, Scotland would pursue those terms on its own. “Brexit was such a fundamental change for Scotland, and clearly, you know, the possibility of Scotland being independent as a result of that is there,” Sturgeon tells me after the media briefing. “But I was keen to try and find an option if we could of finding a way through it within the UK, so we’ve been working on that ever since, and today’s paper is the culmination of it.”

The reception was mixed. Many headlines interpreted it as a threat – Sturgeon’s way of setting the stage for another Scottish independence referendum. Labour and Tory leaders said she was crazy to think Scotland could get a “special” deal, separate from what the rest of the UK is able to negotiate. Days before Theresa May’s speech on 17 January setting out Britain’s broad objectives in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, Salmond told me that “the prime minister would be making a great mistake to underestimate Nicola’s resolve to fight for Scotland.” When May duly announced she would pursue a “hard Brexit”, Sturgeon responded by saying that May was ignoring Scotland’s wishes. “Decisions are being driven not by the rational best interests of the country,” she said, “but by the obsessions of the hard right of the Tory party.” She added that another Scottish independence referendum was now “more likely”. The following week, she again raised the subject of independence. “It is becoming ever clearer that this is a choice that Scotland must make.”

Whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations, it’s certain that Sturgeon will remain an important player on the international stage. It won’t be easy, though. She’s in the difficult position of advocating for Scotland within the UK and within the EU at a time when the two unions are at odds, all while respecting the wishes of her nation, which voted to remain in the EU in 2016 and to stay part of the UK in 2014. Her survival technique is to remind herself that she got interested in this line of work in the first place because she wanted to improve the lives of her fellow Scots.

“In politics you get these moments where you think, ‘Why am I doing all this? You know, there must be an easier way to live my life.’” Sturgeon laughs. “I suppose that’s what I try to take myself back to: what motivated me in the first place. Obviously 30 years have passed and the world is a different place, but that same motivation that I had back then is still ultimately what motivates me now.”