‘The world is my oyster’: Nicola Sturgeon on feminism, her last push for independence and life after politics

·20 min read

Nicola Sturgeon won’t take “no” for an answer. Standing at one end of the long table in the cabinet room at her official Edinburgh residence, Bute House, her white suit jacket is reflected in the glossy mahogany. Sturgeon is convinced that the final scene of Dirty Dancing includes a moment when Patrick Swayze leaps on to a table just like this. Two young women on her political staff disagree: Swayze was dancing down the aisle, they insist – correctly. How can she not remember this; how many times has she watched it? It’s the first rule of Scottish interaction that the more you like a person, the more you take the piss out of them. Perhaps it is the sunny afternoon or the slightly less punishing schedule of Holyrood in recess but, for now at least, Scotland’s longest-serving first minister is in a playful mood.

We are meeting two weeks after Sturgeon named the date for a second Scottish independence referendum as 19 October 2023, and revealed her plans to take the fight to the UK’s supreme court by asking judges to rule on the legality of holding the vote without Westminster’s permission. Earlier in the day, she held a press conference in the elegant first-floor drawing room, to launch the second in a series of Scottish government papers making the case for independence. Poised at the podium beneath a portrait of Robert Burns, she was on ebullient form as she condemned the Tory leadership contest’s “wholly manufactured culture war” and accused Keir Starmer of giving “the proverbial two fingers to Scotland”, an uncharacteristically coarse jibe for the usually lawyerly Sturgeon.

Whenever I do stop being first minister, I’m still going to be relatively young, but a life after politics doesn’t faze me

She seems noticeably upbeat, I tell her as we sit across from each other at the cabinet table. Does it feel as though the momentum is building now? “I’ve set out a clear path forward, so I’m feeling up for that,” she says, as she fiddles with the “first minister” place marker in front of her. Sturgeon loves a fidget – her clicky pen is notorious during briefings.

The first minister, who is 52, means she’s “up for” another campaign for independence – but she also has one eye on her own post-Holyrood future. While insisting that she has “certainly not ruled out standing again”, she is also clear that “whenever I do stop being first minister, I’m still going to be relatively young. This would not always have been true of me, but a life after politics doesn’t faze me.”

She is looking forward to some privacy – “just not feeling as if you’re on public display all the time” – but can’t imagine an international role that takes her too far from Scotland “because I’m a homely person”. With all the usual caveats and sub-clauses one expects from a political leader in interview mode, she concludes, “The world is my oyster,” which may at first seem jarring from the woman who has just placed the UK on red alert for a second referendum.

And it raises the question: is this the final lap for one of the most popular, trusted and capable politicians of her era, a woman who followed Lady Gaga in filling the 12,000-seat Hydro arena in Glasgow when she first took office in November 2014 and, eight years on, still enjoys healthy approval ratings? And could her record-breaking run of success in Holyrood and Westminster elections conclude with the end of the union?

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So, how likely is another referendum, given the significant doubts that any of the three routes she proposed will actually deliver. It’s a path “not without hurdles along the way”, she says with some understatement. The UK government has consistently refused plan A, the section 30 order that would grant Holyrood the powers to hold a legal vote, while constitutional experts are sceptical about plan B; that the supreme court will rule a referendum is legal without Westminster’s approval.

Is there time to fit all the moving parts, including Holyrood legislation and an expected 16-week campaign period, before the set date of October 2023? Sturgeon is sanguine: “Assuming there is a judgment round about the turn of the year, then we will be able to take legislation through on a timescale for [a vote on] 19 October.” Meanwhile, her plan C if all other routes are exhausted, to fight the next general election on the question of independence alone – a “de facto referendum” – is already mired in procedural confusion: would success mean a majority of votes just for the SNP, or would other pro-independence parties count towards the tally? How can one party dictate the terms of an election? And so forth.

For now, Sturgeon faces two related challenges: how to maintain momentum among her own activists as the courts and parliament go into summer hiatus; and the existential question of how she manages a campaign in a country that is split down the middle. Polling over the past 18 months shows support for both yes and no hovering around 50% on whether Scotland should end its 315-year-old union with the rest of Britain.

“I spend a lot of my time thinking about that, because I take very seriously the fact that I am first minister for all Scotland,” she begins, before insisting that “for the majority of people, not everybody, the point of unity is around democracy as the route to settle that”.

There’s no ounce of complacency on my part. This is not just picking up from the result in 2014. This is a fresh debate

She characterises a referendum as a hopeful alternative to multiple domestic and international crises, but some yes activists warn against complacency: the assumption that Brexit or the cost of living make independence an obvious alternative, when in truth voters who feel vulnerable are more likely to cling to the status quo.

“There’s no ounce of complacency on my part. I’ve spent the last few years with people within the yes movement saying, ‘Why don’t you go for it now, because obviously people are going to vote yes, given the state of the UK?’ I’ve never thought it is that straightforward.” She sounds mildly exasperated. “This is not just picking up from the result in 2014. This is a fresh debate.”

With the post-Johnson Tories in convenient chaos, today she reserves her fire power for Labour, whose electoral success is far more of a threat to independence support. After years of self-defeating equivocation on the constitution, Starmer and the new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar have presented a far more unified front. The council elections in May saw Scottish Labour re-emerging as the closest challenger to the SNP as the Scottish Conservatives plunged to their worst electoral result in a decade.

Like the Tories, Starmer has refused to countenance a section 30 order if Labour takes power, and in July he dismissed a Westminster deal with the SNP, telling the Scottish lobby: “There is no alliance to be forged with a party that wants to break up the United Kingdom.”

Senior Labour figures are known to be pushing Starmer to be strident on the SNP, in an effort to spike renewed Conservative attacks on a “coalition of chaos”, and Sturgeon is acute in her response: “It’s not about winning votes in Scotland; it’s about winning votes in England. I think they’d win more respect in England if they actually stood up to these Tory attacks, rather than crumble in the face of them.”

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For many progressive voters outside Scotland, the leader of the SNP can seem like the best leader they never had. When she appeared in her first leaders’ debate for the 2015 general election alongside David Cameron and Ed Miliband (just six months after her predecessor Alex Salmond stood aside having lost the first independence referendum), “Can I vote for the SNP if I live in England?” became one of Google’s top searches of the night.

This admiration at one remove peaked during the Covid crisis. While Johnson offered Churchillian bombast, Sturgeon pledged to treat the people of Scotland as grownups at her daily briefings, and spoke directly to anxious children in her national broadcasts. Her caution – imposing tighter local lockdowns than elsewhere in the UK – drew criticism from Scottish parents and businesses, but was praised by epidemiologists, and often England followed where Scotland (and Wales) led, for example on face masks in shops and schools.

Just like Boris Johnson, she is referred to across Scotland by her first name – “our Nicola”, or “bloody Nicola”. In an age of political hyper-management, evasion and misinformation, Sturgeon comes across as direct, considered and remarkably human.

There’s a flip side, of course. Her domestic opposition point out that grandstanding on the UK stage costs her nothing and offers an easy distraction from her party’s variable record on education, transport, hospital waiting times and drug deaths, and the fact that, after 15 years in government, many progressive pronouncements have yet to be delivered. She was called “Elsie McSelfie” on Twitter after posing with celebrities at last year’s Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow. Opponents depict a weary, opaque and complacent administration with only one idea left.

But still the SNP continues to dominate Scotland’s political landscape, thanks to Sturgeon’s success in harnessing yes voters behind her party after the disappointment of September 2014. Last May, the party won its fourth consecutive Holyrood victory.

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The first minster’s demeanour today is a world away from the winter of 2020-21, when Covid cases were surging again, just as Alex Salmond vented his fury for what he claimed was a “malicious plot” to destroy his reputation orchestrated by senior officials close to Sturgeon.

“There was a period where I was trying to lead the country through a global pandemic, and at the same time trying to withstand a full-frontal assault by my predecessor to bring me down,” she says, as though she still finds it hard to compute.

Sturgeon with Alex Salmond in 2012.
With Alex Salmond in 2012. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Coming through it “has shown me that I’m a bit more resilient than I thought”, she reflects; “more confident in my own skin”. “Having to deal with Covid also allowed me – even given the toxic horribleness of the Salmond stuff – to put it into perspective in a way that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do had it been on its own without that backdrop.”

That “toxic horribleness” began when details of sexual harassment complaints made against the former first minister by two female civil servants were leaked to the Daily Record in August 2018. Salmond immediately launched a court challenge and won a significant legal victory against the Scottish government after the civil service admitted its internal investigation had been mishandled.

But then, in a development that shocked the Holyrood establishment – including Sturgeon – Salmond was charged with multiple criminal counts of sexual assault, which included the two original complaints. He was acquitted of all charges at the high court in Edinburgh in 2020, but by then his sense of betrayal had a ferocity that those close to Sturgeon say she was not prepared for. The SNP is often described as more like a family, led by a tight-knit group who have kept faith together across decades of public unpopularity. At the heart of that family was the symbiotic relationship between Sturgeon and her mentor Salmond. As she told the Holyrood inquiry: “He was a really close friend of mine that I cared about.”

After two high-profile investigations last year into the Scottish government’s handling of the initial complaints, including Sturgeon’s own conduct, she was ultimately cleared of misleading parliament. But what the original two complainants called a “culture of complicity” was exposed around Salmond’s allegedly inappropriate behaviour during his time as first minister. This was “very difficult for anybody in government to read”, Sturgeon said soon after.

Early on, it seemed that the Salmond saga might prove to be Scotland’s #MeToo moment – it became instead a psychodrama about two titans of Scottish nationalism. As Sturgeon told me a few weeks after the inquiries concluded: “If you’re a woman in Scotland over the past year or so, what you’ve witnessed is an entire political class and an inquiry of the national parliament at times indulging and amplifying the subject of complaints, saying that it was all a conspiracy, questioning the motives of the women who came forward, effectively saying that because there was an acquittal in a criminal trial that was tantamount to them lying.”

The reports also revealed levels of government mishandling that tested credulity and the lingering suspicion that concerns were not pursued because of their likely impact on the paramount goal of independence. With that came legitimate questions and criticism of Sturgeon herself, but throughout there was also that queasy sense that a woman was being held accountable for a man’s inappropriate behaviour.

Yet a year on, the party is still facing questions about how it handles such complaints. In June, the Guardian revealed that a new system for dealing with sexual harassment complaints within the SNP is expected to finally become party policy this summer, after escalating frustration from activists about lack of accountability.

Sturgeon meets the criticism sideways. “I often feel frustrated about the length of time things take going through party processes, but particularly with policies around harassment or bullying, we need to make sure that we are doing things in a way that is legally robust as well.”

In June, she condemned the behaviour of her own MPs as “utterly unacceptable” after it appeared that some in the Westminster group were protecting their senior colleague and former chief whip Patrick Grady, who had been suspended for making an unwanted sexual advance to a teenage staff member. And two weeks after our interview, the SNP leader of one of Scotland’s largest councils, North Lanarkshire, resigned following allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

Does the SNP have a problem with sexual harassment? Sturgeon doesn’t hesitate: “I would not say that the SNP has no issues there, because I think literally every organisation, every political party has these issues. It’s very deeply embedded in society. It’s about men’s attitudes towards women; it’s about sex and power. Actually trying to deal with the fundamentals,” she adds, “is sometimes harder than just ‘something happens and somebody resigns’”.

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Scottish independence has been Sturgeon’s lodestar all her life. She grew up in the new town of Irvine on the North Ayrshire coast, with her younger sister and parents Robin, an electrician, and Joan, a lab technician. She remains especially close to her mother, who served as an SNP councillor for a decade. It was the devastation wreaked by Margaret Thatcher and the hopelessness she witnessed among her peers that spurred her to join the SNP as a serious-minded 16-year-old. In the 1980s, the party was on the margins and membership was not about forging a career in politics. She has said before: “My generation came into this purely out of conviction.”

The first in her family to attend university, she was the youngest ever parliamentary candidate in Scotland in the 1992 general election, at the age of 21, before completing her law finals at the University of Glasgow. She worked as a solicitor in her 20s, then entered the newly created Scottish parliament in 1999.

Sturgeon with her husband Peter Murrell as voting began in the local government elections in May this year
With husband Peter Murrell as voting began in the local government elections in May this year. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Sturgeon has married within the party: her husband, Peter Murrell, is the chief executive of the SNP, a concentration of power that has raised plenty of concerns about transparency over the years, and particularly among MSPs during the Salmond inquiry. They wed in 2010, and Sturgeon enjoys presenting herself as undomestic in contrast to Murrell, bantering with him on social media about her hopelessness in the kitchen.

Sturgeon is an inveterate Twitter user, managing her own account unlike many senior politicians, sharing swift rebuttals but also book recommendations: she is evangelical about reading, and tells me she is now enjoying International Booker winner Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree. During lockdown, the broadcasts from her constituency home in Glasgow revealed heaving shelves (alphabetised, then in chronological order by author).

Related: The United Kingdom is broken. It’s time for a new British federation | Simon Jenkins

Her public persona is often characterised as a “nippy sweetie”, a Scottish description – largely used by men, about women – for a sharp-tongued person. Undoubtedly she is not a glad sufferer of fools and sometimes finds it hard to conceal her irritation. Longtime observers suggest she is not a natural extrovert and has worked hard to develop a convincing and empathic public style.

But there are also the off-camera moments I’ve witnessed over eight years of reporting on her premiership: her capacity to make quick and genuine connections with young parents; her habit of acknowledging more junior women in the room at meetings to make them feel included; her ability to reassure an anxious elderly constituent who has waylaid her on the way in to a community centre, listening to him as though she has all the time in the world.

Though when the charm is absent it is arctic: she can be exceedingly short-tempered with journalists who don’t ask what she considers to be the right questions, and there were some excruciating moments during Covid briefings when Sturgeon would berate reporters, accusing them of trying to get an easy headline when they were simply trying to do their jobs.

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While Sturgeon describes herself as “naturally quite a reserved and shy person”, she has spoken candidly about personal challenges that many women will relate to. In 2016, she discussed having had a miscarriage aged 40 just as she was preparing to share the news of her pregnancy with friends and family. She did it to confront assumptions, she explains now, “because if you are a woman, particularly in a senior position without children, there is an assumption made that you’re a cold-hearted bitch that has decided to prioritise your career over having children”.

I’m curious to know if she has ever felt judged for not having children. “I have been subject to a lot of scrutiny and commentary about it. Is that being judged?” she asks herself. “I don’t know. And men don’t get that. The perfect illustration is me and Salmond: I can’t recall a single interview that he did in his entire time as first minister or SNP leader about why he didn’t have children.”

I’m the first woman in this office, and only here for a relatively short time, so I’ve got some obligation to move the dial

In an interview with Vogue last autumn, Sturgeon mentioned that she and her husband had discussed fostering. “We have talked about it in very, very general terms,” she says now, with some caution. “That has come from the work I’ve done with care-experienced young people, which has really got under my skin. I’ve seen the difference that good foster parents can make.”

Earlier this year, she discussed her experience of being “in the foothills” of the menopause on The Shift, a podcast featuring women in midlife. She told host Sam Baker: “I’ve got windows open in the depth of winter; my poor husband is shivering. I’ve thought to myself: what if that happens when I’m on my feet in parliament in the middle of first minister’s questions?”

What prompted her to speak out? “These are still such big things for women, shrouded in so much mystery and also masses of stigma,” she says. “I’m the first woman in this office and only here for a relatively short period of time, so if there are things you can do to try to move the dial a little bit, I’ve got some obligation to do that.”

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When I began reporting on Sturgeon as first minister, she had appointed the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet and appeared in the Holyrood chamber alongside two other female party leaders – expectations were high. Nowadays I seem to spend as much time reporting on other women’s disappointments with her.

But any female leader, even one as publicly feminist as Sturgeon, is not the cure-all for systemic inequality – she must carry with her a party, government and indeed country that lags behind. So I wonder sometimes how much of people’s disappointment in the glacial pace of change gets pinned on Sturgeon because she’s there.

She has increasingly become the focus of opposition to SNP plans to introduce a simplified system by which transgender individuals can change the sex recorded on their birth certificate – known as self-identification. Last June, at the final evidence session of the Holyrood committee examining these plans, the hearing had to be temporarily suspended after a number of women suddenly revealed T-shirts that read: “Nicola Sturgeon: destroyer of women’s rights”.

There are real threats to women from the misogyny that is still rife across our society. Trans women are not the threat

How does it feel to read that slogan? “I bow to no one in my commitment to feminism …” Sturgeon is so definitive on this point that her voice cracks. She doesn’t answer my question directly – “People have a right to say these things in a democracy” – but she does go on to answer the question that no politician can escape in the current climate: can you define a woman? She was heavily criticised at the local elections for refusing to do so.

She says: “The vast majority of women are people like us, who were born women and are biological women, and a very small number who are trans women – who are women. When that question is asked, usually it’s an invitation to exclude the tiny number of women who are trans,” she says, her frustration clear as her delivery accelerates, “and I am not going to do anything to further exclude and stigmatise them.”

She repeats her earlier concern about the rightward direction of the Tory leadership contest. “There are real threats to women right now, from the attack on our reproductive rights, the misogyny that is still rife across our society, the threats and reality of sexual violence that women face on a daily basis. That’s what feminists should be focused on. Trans women are not the threat to women.”

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Before she leaves, I return to the question of her future. When Sturgeon talked about fostering last October, it was the first signal that her mind was on life beyond Holyrood. “I am not about to quit the stage,” she says evenly, and whether she stands at the next election is a judgment she will make closer to the time. “But I look forward to the opportunity to do other interesting things after politics.” It is telling that she doesn’t resort to a politician’s answer here, insisting that by then she will be negotiating the terms of the breakup of the UK having won the second independence referendum.

And what it tells you depends on where you stand on Sturgeon. Is it proof that her heart’s not really in her plan for another vote, that she doesn’t believe it will happen or that she can win it? Or is it a refreshingly realistic response from a woman who is, just maybe, done with worrying about how anyone else interprets her? Her – stated at least – refusal to cling to office is a marked contrast to the likes of Tony Blair or Boris Johnson.

It is time for her portraits. Sturgeon stands alone, trim-figured and tiny without her trademark heels, dwarfed by the lighting rig. She swings her arms and bounces on her stockinged soles like a gymnast limbering up for the vault. She’s ready for what comes next.