Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Nicola Sturgeon

Sunday 23 June 2019


SOPHY RIDGE: Well it’s 20 years since devolution so this week I travelled to Edinburgh to speak with Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, about independence, Brexit and what she makes of the man who is the favourite to be the next Prime Minister. It looks increasingly like Boris Johnson is going to be the next Prime Minister, do you think he’ll make a good one?

NICOLA STURGEON: Well No, in a word. He was a Foreign Secretary with a risible tenure, he didn’t display any basic competence or seriousness or purpose in that job. Brexit has damaged the UK’s international reputation in the last few years but close behind that, Boris Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary has damaged that reputation. He seems to have gone out of his way to be as gratuitously offensive to as many people and groups as possible so I’m afraid I don’t think he would be a good Prime Minister and I find it actually quite hard to get my head round it, knowing everything I know about him, that the Tories are even contemplating putting him in to Number 10.

SR: The Conservatives have done relatively well in Scotland in recent years, what do you think the prospect of a Boris Johnson leader would do?

NICOLA STURGEON: Well you just have to look at how uncomfortable Ruth Davidson, whenever Boris Johnson’s name is mentioned to know what the Scottish Conservatives think about the prospect of him in Number 10, I think it would be devastating, disastrous for the Conservatives UK wide but particularly in Scotland. He is seen in Scotland I think as one of the principle politicians who are responsible for the mess that we’re in over Brexit. The guy misled people in the EU Referendum campaign and the guy who now says he is prepared to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. For most people in Scotland that is a horrifying prospect.

SR: Ian Blackford caused a lot of controversy when he said that Boris Johnson was racist. Is he?

NICOLA STURGEON: I agree with Ian Blackford’s comments…

SR: So you think that Boris Johnson’s racist?

NICOLA STURGEON: Well look, Boris Johnson has made overtly racist comments, now I don’t know what’s in Boris Johnson’s head when he says those things, I don’t know what he’s thinking, what motivates him, what he actually feels about those things, but if anybody – Boris Johnson or anybody else – makes the kind of comments that he has done…

SR: What comments are you referring to? Just because saying that someone has made racist comments is a big thing to say…

NICOLA STURGEON: Well I mean the comments he made about Muslim women looking like letter boxes, the things…

SR: So people who criticise the burka are racist?

NICOLA STURGEON: You can criticise the burka – personally I think it’s up to women to decide what they wear and don’t wear, but you can criticise the burka without being deeply offensive – calling a Muslim woman a letterbox or looking like a bank robber…. Some of the things he said about black people I wouldn’t even repeat because I don’t think it’s appropriate to do so – so the point I’m making, I don’t know whether he does that for effect to grab headlines, or if that is what he really thinks, I can’t tell, but I do think that people who are prepared to make comments like that can’t suddenly throw their hands up in horror when people call them out for it and say they appear to be racist as a result of it.

SR: The prospect of a general election are looking relatively high, if there is a hung Parliament would the SNP be prepared to do a deal with Labour?

NICOLA STURGEON: I would want the SNP in Westminster to be part of a progressive coalition that could keep the Tories out of office. Now, that’s not me giving anybody a blank cheque, it’s about saying frankly and candidly to people where the SNP stands in that picture.

SR: So you would potentially go into coalition then with the Labour party?

NICOLA STURGEON: I said in previous general elections, I think formal coalitions I would be not particularly keen on.

SR: I know smaller parties often do badly out of them …

NICOLA STURGEON: The SNP is of course the third biggest party in Westminster, I don't know if we can be described as a small party even in that context of course but I have already said I don’t think … I’m not ruling anything in or out, I don’t think a formal coalition is what we would seek to do. We’ve been trying to work with Jeremy Corbyn to get him behind a second EU referendum, thus far that hasn’t happened and Jeremy Corbyn – and I say this in all seriousness – either a no deal Brexit or a catastrophic Brexit with all the damage that is done from that, Jeremy Corbyn if he doesn’t get off the fence on a second EU referendum will bear almost as much responsibility for that as Theresa May and the Conservatives.

SR: You say you have been working with Labour, what’s your sense about whether or not Jeremy Corbyn personally wants to see a second referendum?

NICOLA STURGEON: I don’t think he does and I think Jeremy Corbyn – and again as I said with Boris Johnson, I don't know what’s in Jeremy Corbyn’s head – but everything would suggest that Jeremy Corbyn, however he voted in the EU referendum actually would prefer the UK to leave. The real challenge for Labour now is to decide, they can’t keep straddling the fence or perching firmly on it, they have to decide what side are they on. Are they prepared to see the UK taken out of the EU, potentially with no deal, by a Prime Minister like Boris Johnson or are they going to now say, given everything’s that happened in the past three years, isn’t it time to get people across the UK look at this issue again and make a decision?

SR: Talking about referendums, you said that you want to have another independence referendum by May 2021, isn’t that a bit late? I mean we’d be out of the EU by then.

NICOLA STURGEON: Well you seem to know more than me, I hope we won’t be out of the EU by then.

SR: Well if Boris Johnson is Prime Minister then the likelihood is, that becomes more likely.

NICOLA STURGEON: Well I agree with that but as I said a couple of times and the position of Jeremy Corbyn becomes relevant here, the prospect of a no deal Brexit I think has increased significantly but also I think the potential to stop that happening and if Jeremy Corbyn gets off the fence is also …

SR: But why the delay?

NICOLA STURGEON: We are taking legislation right now through the Scottish Parliament, we have to put that in place. We have – and I make no apology for this – we have been trying to get to a point where people have clarity about the Brexit future and then we can make an informed choice, so I think given everything that’s happened, the right time scale is later in this Parliament and I’ve actually said towards the end of next year.

SR: There is a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, there is chaos in Westminster at the minute, why not just press ahead and have it now? Is it because you think you wouldn’t win?

NICOLA STURGEON: No, I’m absolutely confident that we would win a referendum. We have taken the steps to introduce legislation, I have said that we will have the option of accelerating that. Of course I have also said that we will have the discussion with a UK government at an appropriate point about the transfer of power that we recognised in 2014 was necessary to put in the legal grounding of the referendum beyond doubt and we don’t have a UK Prime Minister to have that discussion with right now but it’s worth having that discussion but there is no doubt that the case for independence is stronger than it has ever been and I am more confident – I was confident in 2014 and I am more confident than I’ve ever been – that Scotland will take that opportunity to be an independent European nation playing our part in the world.

SR: Now it is 20 years since devolution, what grade would you give your record?

NICOLA STURGEON: Well 20 years of course has seen governments of different colours. I’m not going to get into a …

SR: But are you proud?

NICOLA STURGEON: Yes, I’m very proud. I made a speech just earlier this week which set out what I think the record of the Scottish Parliament is, I think it’s a good one. This Parliament that we are sitting in just now which in just 20 years has become established as the democratic heart of our country. There are many things from minimum pricing for alcohol through personal care for the elderly, tuition at universities based on the ability to learn and not your ability to pay. Some of the work that we’ve been able to do in the health service, integrating health and social care for example, the ban on smoking in public places – a whole range of different things that wouldn’t have been possible without having a Scottish Parliament.

SR: Is it also a time for reflection about where things could improve, where the government could do better? I mean for example looking at the Scottish Household Survey, satisfaction in education, health and transport are at the lowest levels since it was launched in 2007. What’s going wrong?

NICOLA STURGEON: Firstly, on the question of whether it’s time to reflect, as First Minister I reflect every single day on how we can do better, how we build on our successes. Public attitudes to public services you will find are higher, satisfaction is higher in Scotland than in any other part of the UK and …

SR: So why does the survey show those levels?

NICOLA STURGEON: We went through a number of years of austerity, pressure on public services has been significant but if you take the health service, not only do we spend more per head of population than other parts of the UK, we have had the lowest waiting times in accident and emergency, the best performance than any other region in the UK for four years …

SR: Waiting times aren’t going down though.

NICOLA STURGEON: We’ve got an £850 million waiting times initiative to make sure we are meeting waiting times targets but the performance of the Scottish NHS is better than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

SR: I remember that famous picture of you and Theresa May when she first took power, do you feel sorry for her?

NICOLA STURGEON: As somebody in a leadership position I know how tough it is and I know how lonely it is and so yes, on a human level I can have sympathy with the position she’s been in and it’s been tough, I don't think anybody would deny that. At times, like everybody else, I marvelled at her sheer physical resilience in all of that, her ability to keep going but it’s also, and I don’t mean this in a nasty way but she has in many respects brought the difficulties she encountered upon herself. Yes, she inherited Brexit but nobody forced her to set the inflexible red lines that then made her negotiating position so impossibly difficult. She made two choices along the way that resulted in her being where she is so personally, yes, I can feel sorry for her but politically she has to take a lot of the responsibility for the mess that we’re now in.

SR: Do you think it has been harder because she’s a female leader?

NICOLA STURGEON: I think undoubtedly in some ways yes, probably and maybe it would take me some time to properly look back and reflect on these kind of things but I do think that women in leadership positions are judged differently. I think often some of the language, the anonymous quotes that were used about her which were very, very violent for example, I don’t think that would have necessarily happened with a male Prime Minister so yes, I do think it’s different but we’re in these jobs and we have to take the responsibility that comes with them.

SR: Just finally before we go, I am keen to ask about the World Cup, I have seen the picture in the office of the Scottish team, who are you going to be supporting now that Scotland are out?

NICOLA STURGEON: Oh for goodness sake, give me at least 24 hours. I know this is going out on Sunday but this is the morning after, this is the day after the night before …

SR: I know, I know!

NICOLA STURGEON: Look, I’ll just say first of all it was heartbreaking for Scotland last night but a women’s team have really done such a great amount back into Scottish football. This has been Scotland’s first World Cup in 21 years and we’ve scored brilliant goals, we’ve played some amazing football notwithstanding the results and I’m really proud of that young, talented, passionate team. I’m the patron of the team and I’ve got to know them a little bit in recent times and I feel gutted for them but I feel really proud of them as well and I think that team’s going to go much further in the future. Obviously when I was out for the England-Scotland match I was staying in the same hotel as the Lionesses so, I don't know, I wish England well obviously I do but to ask a Scottish person the morning after being put out of a World Cup to say – which is what I think you are trying to get to get me to say – just be a bit gentler on me than that please!

SR: Are you going to ask for a referendum on VAR?

NICOLA STURGEON: Look, I’ll tell you, I don’t even understand VAR fully but I hate it. I think we have suffered unfairly from a lot of awful refereeing decisions, we lost a dirty penalty against England in the first game, but these things happen. It think it felt to me watching, just as an observer, is not the reviewing of decisions, it’s the inconsistency of it. We’ve had penalties denies that were awarded against other teams and I don’t want to start sounding ‘We wuz robbed’ but we kind of was a little bit!

SR: Thank you very much. Nicola Sturgeon there, I wonder if she is ever going to forgive me for asking those football questions at the end!

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