24 Sep 2014

Rise of Nicola Sturgeon: from ‘nippy sweetie’ to SNP leader?

She was the public face of the Yes campaign and is now running for SNP leader – just as her party becomes the UK’s third biggest. Meet the woman who used to be known as “scary”.

Even if you only had a passing interest in Scotland’s referendum, it would hard to miss Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond’s side-kick and the public-face of the SNP’s yes campaign.

But after countless appearances on television screens in the run up to the independence poll, the 44-year-old took to the air once more in the early hours of 19 September to acknoweldge a defeat:

“Clearly I’m deeply disappointed. You know, like thousands of others across the country, I’ve put my heart and soul into this campaign and there’s a real sense of disappointment that we’ve fallen narrowly short of securing a yes vote.”

The SNP had effectively failed to convince a majority in Scotland. But despite the outcome, her unflinchingly honest statement was welcomed by the public who appreciated that rare thing: a politician admitting defeat and avoiding the spin.

Indy Scot or not? Channel 4 News coverage of Scotland's referendum

Hours later, when Scotland’s first minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond, said he was stepping down, Ms Sturgeon was immediately the bookies’ favourite for his job.

The ex-solicitor formally announced her bid for leadership on Wednesday, saying: “I am putting myself forward for two simple reasons: I want to serve my party and my country. And I believe I am the best person for the job.”

Ms Sturgeon said that she was “more convinced than ever” that Scotland would be independent some day, but she said she accepted that the majority of people in Scotland had voted against it and ruled out another referendum any time soon. Her priority would be to “unite our nation around a common purpose”, she added, promising to make sure that Westminster honours its pledge of giving more powers to Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon in 2000

Photo: Nicola Sturgeon in 2000

‘She was fierce’

Nicola Sturgeon is as SNP as they get. She joined the youth wing of the party at the tender age of 16 in 1986, and continued to be involved in politics while studying at Glasgow University. Her mum is now an SNP councillor in North Ayrshire, having been apparently spurred on by her daughter, and Nicola is married to the party’s chief executive Peter Murrell.

It was back in the early 1990s, just after Margaret Thatcher’s term as prime minister, that Linda Fabiani MSP first got to know Ms Sturgeon when they were both in Glasgow. “She was pretty scary,” Ms Fabiani laughed. “She was fierce. She was always very articulate.”

The pair first knew each other socially through mutual friends, but Ms Fabiani later saw her in action at SNP conferences, and remembers thinking even then, that this was a woman who was “going places”.

“What really struck me – I’m 12 or 13-years older than her, and I remember it so clearly – was that for such a young activist, she had a very deep political sense and sense of social responsibility. That was my overwhelming feeling,” she told Channel 4 News.

It is fitting that Ms Sturgeon said her own bid for SNP leader should send a message to every girl and woman in Scotland – “no matter your background or what you want to achieve in life, in Scotland in 2014, there is no glass ceiling on ambition.”

Photo: in 2007, after securing the Glasgow Govan seat

At the age of just 22, Ms Sturgeon was the youngest parliamentary candidate in the 1992 elections, and failed to secure a seat for the SNP in Labour’s stronghold seat in Glasgow Shettleson. But far from being deterred, she went on to stand in Glasgow Govan in 1997, and was elected to the Glasgow city seat as an MSP in the first Holyrood elections of 1999.

She went on to become deputy leader of the SNP and later deputy first minister, under a newly returned Alex Salmond, and served as health secretary for five years when the SNP got into government in 2007. In this role, she became known at home for scrapping prescription charges and reversing A&E closures, and beyond Scotland, for her handling of the swine flu pandemic in 2009.

What really struck me was that for such a young activist, she had a very deep political sense and sense of social responsibility. Nicola Fabiani MSP

But after the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011, Ms Sturgeon soon became the party’s lead on the independence campaign and was fundamental in putting together the Edinburgh Agreement of October 2012 – the deal which put the historic referendum poll in place. She then hit the road, touring the towns of Scotland to bring the SNP’s pro-independence message to the public.

‘A ferocious and merciless Nationalist’

So far, no-one else has stepped forward to challenge her for SNP leadership. Her close bond with Mr Salmond is well known – she paid a fond tribute to him in her own leadership bid – and former SNP leader John Swinney said she would be an “excellent successor”. Within the party, she is “adored”, said one insider.

But it hasn’t all been a smooth ride. She used to be known as a “nippy sweetie” – Scottish slang for the sharp-tongued and strong-minded – a reputation secured after her weekly scrap with Labour’s Jack McConnell at First Minister’s Questions (the Scottish equivalent of PMQs) between 2004 and 2007. During this time, she was the party’s lead representative in the Scottish parliament while Mr Salmond remained in Westminster.

In a TV debate on independence last year with Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, Fraser Nelson described the debate in the Telegraph as “a genteel Liberal Democrat being disembowelled by a ferocious and merciless Nationalist… she seemed to quite enjoy it.”

Photo: in 2008, with Alex Salmond and John Mason MP

Those close to her say this persona is partly a result of being successful so young, and trying to be taken seriously. In the real world, “she’s actually great fun” said Ms Fabiani, who shared an office with Ms Sturgeon back in 2004 while working as deputy chief whip.

She is a fan of X-Factor and “reads rubbish” for relaxation. Family is also important, and her free time is spent with family.

Not that there will be much of that in the near future. The SNP has just seen a rush of 32,000 members signing up since the referendum, making it the third biggest party in the UK, and the expectations on Ms Sturgeon will be high.

In announcing her bid, she said she would have a “different approach” post-referendum, and the Westminster pledge must be of substance, not just rhetoric. All eyes will be on Ms Sturgeon to make sure that she delivers the same.