Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, is standing on the front step of Bute House, her official residence in Edinburgh, on a balmy afternoon. Her aides are wary about her spending too much time out here but it isn’t security – or even a Scottish sensitivity to heat – that has them concerned; it’s the fact that, the moment Sturgeon steps out, people approach her with alarming speed. An elderly couple, a balding man with a large camera and a whole busload of tourists seem to spring forth in an instant. Blink and the first minister is across the road with the old couple, then peeping into the window of the bus, then allowing the man with the enormous lens a quick snap. Here’s the problem: too long out here can easily throw everyone off schedule and, right now, Sturgeon’s diary doesn’t allow much in the way of wiggle room.
Assuming the leadership of the Scottish National party (snp) after her predecessor, Alex Salmond, stepped down in 2014, Sturgeon led the party into the UK’s general election a year later, when the snp won 56 of 59 seats in Scotland.
The powers of the Scottish parliament are devolved from the UK’s in Westminster: it is free to pass laws from Edinburgh in most areas that pertain to the running of the country, including matters such as education, health, housing and the arts. But rulings in areas seen to have implications across the UK or on a global scale – such as foreign policy, defence and immigration – are still made by the UK government in Westminster. Throughout her political life, Sturgeon has campaigned with the snp to change this; the party is seeking independence for Scotland.
As we enter Bute House we spot an alluring antique chair at the base of a cantilevered stone staircase that stretches up into the upper recesses of the residence; Sturgeon never sits in it. “It looks too much like a throne,” she says. Instead she leads us up the staircase to discuss Scottish independence, Brexit and why her country is an alternative to London.
MONOCLE: There is a feeling of optimism in Scotland despite the exhaustive Brexit negotiations. Why do you think that is?
NICOLA STURGEON: There is a momentum right now. This is an optimistic and confident time for Scotland, which is why Brexit is so frustrating. Our new international branding campaign – Scotland is Now – gives a picture of what modern Scotland has to offer. There’s tradition: tartan, shortbread, the Highlands, the Loch Ness monster – all of that. But we’re also a very liberal, progressive country that has real strength in the key economic sectors of the future.
M: In which areas do you see these strengths?
NS: We are doing well in renewable energy, life sciences and engineering; Edinburgh is one of the biggest technology centres in the UK. We are the world leader in tackling climate change; as with other countries we must continue to raise that bar. This is a place to come to work, to study, to live – and you’re welcome. In the Brexit atmosphere in the UK right now, this is one of the most important messages we can send.
M: How can you expand Scotland’s diplomatic presence abroad?
NS: We work closely with counterparts from the UK government but it’s important to maintain a distinctive Scottish voice internationally – more so now with Brexit threatening to put up barriers to trade with some of our key markets. Scotland is consistently the most attractive place in the UK for foreign investment outside London and I’m determined to build on that. We have Scottish Affairs Offices in Beijing, Washington and Ottawa, as well as Scotland House in Brussels, which has been central to making our voice heard in the heart of the EU; this will remain open after Brexit. I believe that Scotland has a huge amount to offer the world and we should not be afraid to offer it.
M: Do you agree with UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s outlook that the UK can ‘easily cope’ with a no-deal Brexit?
NS: He’s seeing the same information, advice and modelling that I am. So how he can read the same stuff and come to that conclusion is beyond me. I’m a fully paid-up member of the positive, optimistic school of politics. Part of my belief in Scottish independence comes from a belief in the potential of my country. But you can’t magic away hard realities just by having a mind-over-matter approach. Perhaps it would get you through a university debate but I’m not sure it gets you through real-life politics and real-life government.
M: What are the worst potential consequences you foresee from leaving the EU without a deal?
NS: Our economic advisers have modelled that the Scottish economy could go into recession quickly: job losses in the tens of thousands and unemployment rising steeply. That kind of economic shock could have quite a long tail – conditions similar to those seen in the wake of the financial crisis. Also, a big part of the Scottish food industry is seafood; it doesn’t take a genius to work out that delays at customs between Dover and Calais could be catastrophic.
M: The majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU. Brexit might give you a mandate for another shot at Scottish independence. Is there a part of you that is pleased with how all this landed?
NS: No. What’s happened over Brexit, I think, does make it legitimate to give the people of Scotland another opportunity to choose independence. One of the motivations behind independence is the democratic deficit for Scotland within the UK: we have Conservative governments that we don’t vote for; we get outvoted on big policy issues. But none of that adds up to me being delighted that the UK is in crisis and that it might be about to go down a road that causes a lot of pain to ordinary people.
M: Do you foresee any obstacles to accession to the EU should Scotland gain independence?
NS: I’m not going to repeat the mistakes that the Brexiteers have made. Of course there would be discussions to be had but all of my conversations with people – whether in the EU institutions or in member states – tell me that they would welcome Scotland with open arms. The EU wants to enlarge itself so the idea that it would turn around to a country like Scotland and say, “Actually we don’t want you as a member” defies credibility.
M: Given their own secession issues – with Catalonia and Flanders – wouldn’t Spain or Belgium be loath to let you in?
NS: In 2014 there were individuals and forces within the EU that might have been quite keen to counter the independence argument. No country, including Spain, said it would veto an independent Scotland. Spain has since repeated that as long as Scotland takes a constitutional and democratic decision to be independent, it wouldn’t stand in its way. So that kind of stuff is always going to be bandied around by those who oppose independence. But if, even in the heat of 2014, Spain – quite deliberately, I think – stopped short of saying that it would veto an independent Scotland, that should tell us something.
Bringing Scotland to the fore:
Scotland is increasing its global presence with Scottish Affairs Offices in Beijing, Washington and Ottawa. It has also opened Innovation and Investment Hubs across the EU to attract investment.
Scotland has turned its blustery weather into an advantage: almost all the country’s electricity is from wind power. Northern archipelago Orkney has more wind than its residents know what to do with.
Glasgow – Scotland’s second city – used to be the murder capital of Europe. But by using a form of social work that treats violence like a disease, serious assault and attempted murder cases fell by 35 per cent between 2009 and 2018.
Tartan, shortbread and heavy-set folk hefting cabers: Scottish traditions are still a considerable draw for tourists. Some 3.4 million foreign tourists visited between the second quarter of 2017 and the first of 2018, spending £2.4bn (€2.6bn).
The country’s technology hubs in Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh are brimming with ideas and investment. They are worth £3.9bn (€4.3bn) to Scotland, which boasts a “unicorn”: flight-finder Skyscanner.