Interview Conducted By Jörg Schindler
In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, Nicola Sturgeon, the head of the Scottish government, discusses her plans for an independence referendum, the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and the battle in the Tory Party to pick Theresa May’s successor.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, 48, is the head of the Scottish government and the chair of the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP has been shaping Scotland’s future for the past 12 years with an unusual mixture of left-wing social policy and environmentalism, and a nationalist but immigration-friendly agenda. Sturgeon was also a prominent figure in the lead-up to Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, in which 55 percent of voters rejected the proposal to leave the United Kingdom. Sturgeon, a lawyer by profession from Glasgow, has now announced plans for a second referendum — in two years at the latest.
DER SPIEGEL: First Minister, are you crossing fingers that Boris Johnson will make it into Downing Street?
Nicola Sturgeon: No. I think the prospect of Boris Johnson as prime minister is a horrifying one for most people, certainly in Scotland, but I suspect for large numbers of people across the United Kingdom as well.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Johnson appears to be an advocate for a no-deal Brexit. And according to recent polls, no-deal would boost the desire for Scottish independence enormously. Isn’t that exactly what you want?
Sturgeon: I never relished the prospect of damaging things happening to the UK just to fuel the case for independence. I’ve always wanted that case to be fought and won on the positive perspectives for Scotland. I don’t want Brexit to happen, although it will of course build support for independence, especially if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you read the poem Mr. Johnson authorized as the editor of The Spectator, where the author referred to the Scots as a “verminous race” who should be exterminated?
Sturgeon: I’ve seen it, yes. I’ve also been reminded in the last couple of days of his comments that Scottish people couldn’t become prime minister because of our political disability. Well, most Scottish people don’t think he is capable of becoming prime minister either. So, the feeling is mutual.
DER SPIEGEL: Johnson claims there is no better person to unite the United Kingdom than him. But is he?
Sturgeon: There’s nothing at all in Boris Johnson’s political performance so far that would suggest that is the case. I travel a fair bit across Europe and further afield. And over the past couple of years, it has been very obvious that the UK’s global reputation has been deeply damaged. The biggest cause of that is Brexit, obviously. But actually, pretty close behind is Boris Johnson’s tenure as foreign secretary, when he demonstrated his lack of competence or any basic integrity. His career is littered with almost deliberate attempts to gratuitously offend groups in order to curry favor with somebody else. He’s offended gays. He’s offended Muslim women. Most people struggle to believe that somebody like him as prime minister could actually unite people in a common endeavor.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you think will be the likeliest outcome of the Brexit mess?
Sturgeon: I think two things have become more likely since the European elections and Theresa May’s resignation. The prospect to have a second referendum that will potentially overturn the Brexit decision has increased. But so has the danger of a no-deal Brexit. People like me want to try to ensure the former happens.
DER SPIEGEL: Let’s assume there will be no Brexit. Will you call for a second Scottish independence referendum anyway?
Sturgeon: Look, I am very firm there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence. I think the whole Brexit experience demonstrates to Scotland the real downsides of not being independent. Scotland voted by 62 percent to remain in the European Union, and that’s been ignored.
DER SPIEGEL: The UK as a whole voted narrowly for Leave though.
Sturgeon: My government put forward in an earlier stage of the Brexit process proposals that would’ve seen compromise, on the EU single-market and the customs union. That was dismissed by the UK government. Powers have been taken away from the Scottish parliament. And many people in Scotland have simultaneously watched Ireland being treated completely differently by the European Union, being backed up and shown great solidarity. As an independent country within the EU, Ireland has a much greater influence and force. That’s not lost on people here.
DER SPIEGEL: What if London refuses to grant a second vote on independence? Would you endorse a Catalonia style referendum?
Sturgeon: We have started the legislative process in the Scottish parliament to make the preparations for a referendum. There’s very little point engaging with the UK government on this issue right now because they are in such a state of chaos.
DER SPIEGEL: But all the favorites for the leadership contest have said already that they will refuse to grant permission.
Sturgeon: These people also promised to leave the European Union on March 29. I don’t mean to be flippant, but there’s not a great deal of trust that you can place in any of these Tory politicians right now.
DER SPIEGEL: Again, would you dare to move for a vote even if London says no?
Sturgeon: There needs to be a bit more scrutiny on just how illegitimate and undemocratic a position for a UK government that would be. I stood for election as first minister in 2016 on a manifesto that said explicitly that, in the circumstances of Scotland being taken out of the EU, there should be a second independence referendum. I was elected on that basis. There is a majority for that opinion within the Scottish parliament. Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt would go into very difficult territory if they’d say: You’re not allowed, Scotland, to make that decision.
DER SPIEGEL: Will there definitely be an independence referendum before the end of the current legislative period in May 2021?
Sturgeon: That’s my intention. Tory politicians can argue the opposite. But the fundamental point here is that it’s not for me to decide, and it’s not for them to decide. It’s for the Scottish people to decide.
DER SPIEGEL: A Scottish referendum followed perhaps by a vote on Irish reunification could easily destroy the United Kingdom. Would you regret it?
Sturgeon: Next week, I’ll attend the British-Irish Council, which I do twice a year. I’ll sit around a table with two independent governments, the Republic of Ireland and the UK, the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and normally Northern Ireland, the crown dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Man. If Scotland becomes independent or Ireland in the future becomes reunified, we’ll all still sit around that table as representatives of the component parts of the British Isles. We don’t have to be in a political union for those relationships to continue in a constructive way.
DER SPIEGEL: You would be sitting around the table with what could become a strongly nationalist government of a Little Britain.
Sturgeon: That’s the decision for the people of England. But if Scotland is independent, we sit around that table in charge of our own decisions. Right now, we have those decisions imposed upon us by an unacceptable Westminster system.
DER SPIEGEL: Brexit has shown how difficult it is for a country to disentangle itself from a longstanding union. Wouldn’t Scotland face almost the same problems?
Sturgeon: I don’t accept this premise. I think what Brexit has demonstrated is how difficult it becomes when you try to do it without being honest with people in advance, with no plan, then setting red lines that have no grounding in reality and are completely undeliverable. I oppose Brexit, but the mess that Brexit has become was never inevitable.
DER SPIEGEL: What makes you think that it would be easier for you?
Sturgeon: We would do it as we did in 2014 when the people in Scotland were perfectly well informed about what we were seeking to do. We tell these stories a bit jocularly now, but people on street corners were having discussions about lenders of last resort and macroeconomic policy. A more engaged and well-informed population you would not have found on the face of the planet at that point. Compare that to the lies of Brexiteers on the side of a bus.
DER SPIEGEL: Still, the pro-independence side lost the referendum in 2014.
Sturgeon: Arguably, a lot of people who voted “no” were misinformed. They were told, “Vote ‘no’ and protect your place in Europe,” for example, which turned out not to be true. But those who voted for independence, they knew what they were voting for.
DER SPIEGEL: England is Scotland’s biggest trading partner. Suddenly there would be a hard border.
Sturgeon: I don’t want a border between Scotland and England.
DER SPIEGEL: If you’re in Europe and the others are out, there has to be one.
Sturgeon: Well, let’s wait and see what the outcome is — that depends on the rest of the UK’s ultimate relationship with the EU. I will always argue that it should be as close as possible. But it’s not me that’s creating the risk of borders. It’s the people who want to take the UK out of the EU, out of the single market, and out of the customs union. There is no more reason why there should be a border between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK than there needs to be a border between France and Germany.
DER SPIEGEL: How would Scotland survive independently? North Sea gas and oil are getting sparse, and you can’t run an economy on fish, whisky and tourism alone.
Sturgeon: You need to learn a little bit more about the basis of the Scottish economy. Scotland is a country that is richer in natural resources than most other countries on the planet, rich in people, rich in assets like education, and Scotland will prosper. If you look at most countries similar to Scotland in size that are already independent and have the assets we’ve got, they do better economically.
DER SPIEGEL: The Scottish budget deficit is currently around 13 billion pounds, almost three times higher than that which is allowed under EU rules. Have you been given any signals from Brussels that they would make an exception for Scotland?
Sturgeon: I’m not trying to sit here and say Scotland will not inherit any deficit position, but the figures you’ve used are figures that are drawn from the UK deficit. So, I don’t accept the idea that that is somehow a barrier to being independent. Obviously, I wouldn’t expect the EU to take sides on that issue. But every conversation I’ve had, particularly since the Brexit vote, leads me to believe that Scotland would be welcomed with open arms.
DER SPIEGEL: Does the rise of nationalism across Europe worry you?
Sturgeon: The rise of the far right does, yes. I struggle for the reasons you will understand with the term nationalism because you could describe me as a nationalist.
DER SPIEGEL: Isn’t it a contradiction to be nationalistic and left-wing at the same time?
Sturgeon: My party is by some distance the most pro-immigration party in the whole of the UK, probably one of the most across the whole of Europe. But our movement is about self-government. I want my country to be self-governing, like Germany or France. That is why we use the word nationalism in a different context here. I want Scotland to play a bigger, more constructive role working with other countries to tackle climate change or the migrant crisis.
DER SPIEGEL: The devolved Scottish parliament celebrated its 20th birthday in May. You were there right from the beginning. What is your personal motivation?
Sturgeon: I was a 16-year-old when I joined the SNP. Back then, I was growing up in a Scotland that was ruled by Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, a UK government that did a lot of damage to the very fabric of the country. And yet the vast majority of people in Scotland didn’t vote for her to be prime minister. It was that democratic deficit that made me support independence. When you look at things from the prism of today, that’s still the situation we’re in.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you describe your tenure as a failure if you don’t manage to lead Scotland to independence?
Sturgeon: I’d prefer not to describe it in that way. In many years to come, when I’m looking back on it, you can ask me that question again. But right now, I’ll focus on trying to achieve what I was elected to do.
DER SPIEGEL: First Minister, we thank you very much for this interview.