Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks to editor-at-large, Alastair Campbell, about how the pandemic has changed her.
It is two long months since I wrote a piece for a Scottish newspaper comparing the leadership and crisis management skills of Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson. I took 10 crisis management ingredients I had been setting out wherever I could, including here, in the vain hope someone in Number 10 might listen, and concluded that Scotland’s first minister scored better on pretty much all of them.
1. Devise, execute but also narrate clear strategy.
2. Show strong, clear, consistent leadership.
3. Organise from the centre of government.
4. Throw everything at it.
5. Use experts well.
6. Deploy a strong team.
7. Make the big moments count.
8. Take the public with you.
9. Show genuine empathy for people affected by the crisis.
10. Give hope, but not false hope.
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Go through them one by one, with Johnson and Sturgeon in mind, then make your own minds up.
I have Scottish family and friends who, though they can’t stand Johnson, don’t like it when I say anything un-negative about the SNP leader. I have Scottish journalist friends who tell me I only see snapshots of her in action, whereas ‘when you see her all the time there is too much sermonising, too much L’État, c’est moi, and a lot of the basics not working’, and I have Labour friends north and south who emphasise that unless we take down the SNP, even with Keir Starmer not Jeremy Corbyn at the help, power in Westminster remains a pipe-dream.
I do think, however, that it is important to speak as you find. I am a pretty tribal character; my political tribe has always been Labour (even when expelled); my national tribe has generally been British first, Scottish second, Yorkshire third, English fourth, though the Brexit debate has moved European up the ranks.
But there have to be limits to tribalism. Sturgeon seems to acknowledge that too, or else why is she talking to me, during a major crisis, for my series of Living Better in Lockdown interviews about mental health, when the last time she talked to me, at a People’s Vote rally in London, she had SNP tribalists coming down on her head for being photographed with a neoliberal Blairite war criminal (their words not mine)?
Perhaps a part of the answer is in her reply to my question about how the current crisis has changed her. ‘I have a really strong sense inside me, that I am not going to come out of this the same as when I went into it. It is shifting my perspective on things, making me re-evaluate what is important in life and what is not quite so important and probably lowering my tolerance to some of the nonsense of politics. I am a politician to my fingertips, I know how important rigorous debate is, and the battle of ideas, but a lot of modern politics is not about that, it’s just about chucking mud at each other and forcing yourself to believe the worst of your opponents. My tolerance of that is definitely lower. Who knows, I might get over that, but I hope not. This is an opportunity for us all to re-assess things a bit.’
‘Forcing yourself to believe the worst of your opponents…’ I have known that feeling. With Johnson, however, there is no forcing required, nor much hope that ‘the nonsense of politics’ will be gone any time soon.
Hours before our interview, set up by a Scottish Tory MP in the Commons, Johnson had declared ‘there is no such thing as a border between England and Scotland’, as he condemned any suggestion that Scotland should put restrictions on people from more heavily infected areas of England, joining in the Tory charge that any talk of it was a Sturgeon tactic, more about independence than Covid.
Does that mean, Sturgeon asks of the ‘no border’ claim, that she can head to Newcastle and tell them Scottish law applies there? ‘I don’t think these absurd and ridiculous statements help anybody. Earlier I was quoting Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, who is imposing quarantine on people from other states. I know in a UK political context the issue of the Scotland/England border is loaded, but anyone who is trying to see these public health decisions through that political prism is not coming at this from the right perspective. It’s a ridiculous way to approach it, and I hope those trying to politicise it in that way take a good look at themselves.’
We have drifted quickly, and perhaps inevitably, from mental health to politics.
So, I ask, what has it been like dealing with the UK government? The look on her face – lips scrunch up tight at the corners, eyebrows rise – is a bit of a giveaway, but … ‘I am going to try to be diplomatic because from the outset I have been very firm in my own self-discipline of not politicising, not chucking criticism about, because this is tough for every leader everywhere and we will all get things wrong. But yeah, I mean, it is not the easiest thing in the world, it never is. We talk a lot about having a four nation approach which with a virus makes sense, though you have to have the ability to respond within that. But it should mean all four nations being involved in the decision making and that does not always feel how it is in reality. These are not new problems, they are just being seen through a different prism.’
The day after we spoke, it emerged she and Johnson had not had a conversation for the entire month of June. Both she and the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, suggested dealing with the UK government over country-by-country quarantine planning had been utterly shambolic.
Whereas Johnson has seen his ratings fall during the Covid crisis, Sturgeon has seen hers rise; one recent poll had him with a -39 approval rating, her with +60, and support for independence at 54% against 46%. This is perhaps related to the fact of her fronting the Scottish government’s briefing every day, whereas Johnson did his best to avoid the now aborted London equivalent. (see, especially, points 1-3 and 8-10 above)
Latterly, I found the Number 10 briefings unwatchable, as they sought to paint a grim picture as a success story, and also for the lack of empathy for the dead and grieving, as ministers announced daily how many had ‘sadly’ died, with less emotional intelligence than the guy who does the classified check reading out a football score.
Sturgeon explained her strategy to ensure she did not slide into such formulaic insincerity. ‘At a very early stage, when the number of deaths was rising, big numbers, I remember making a conscious decision to stand at the podium through there, and every day as I read out the number, I was going to think about people in my own life that I love and, if they died, it would devastate me.
‘That has been important to me. We can never normalise what we have been through, and nor should we, because behind every one of these numbers is a family grieving the loss of a loved one. We need to remember that, particularly as we go into a phase now when the political or politicised debate gathers pace again.’
She is used to long hours, and having to make decisions. She gets by on four or five hours sleep and is ‘blessed’, she says, with reserves of physical and mental energy, resilience, and a supportive husband. It is the constant presence of death and sorrow, she stresses, that has made this crisis so much more intense than anything she has dealt with before. ‘You would have to be a particularly strange human being not to have that deeply effect you. What has been different has been the emotional impact of what we are dealing with. There is an element of that in every situation but not to this extent. The intensity of what we are doing is greater, and the sense of magnitude.
‘You know this, being in government there is always a sense that what you’re dealing with is important and vital, but that’s as nothing compared to how it has felt over the past three months.
‘There is the sense of getting through it, make the best decisions we can, try to learn as you go because we are all dealing with an unprecedented situation, and not to be scared to say when mistakes are made, and try not to repeat them.’
She doesn’t regret the decision to front all the briefings, and there has certainly been less mixed messaging from Holyrood than Westminster, but when I ask if she has been psychologically changed herself by the experience of the pandemic, it is to the experience of the briefings that she returns. ‘I don’t want to overstate this but nor do I want to underplay it… That has involved every day reporting on the numbers of people who have lost their lives and answering questions on whether that level of loss of life has been impacted or effected by decisions I have taken, and could it have been changed by other decisions? That is very hard. Maybe there are some people who can be unaffected by that. I am not sure I would want to be unaffected by that. I have felt the weight of that much more than anything else, and I always will to some extent.’
Now, as the death toll falls, and the lockdown begins to ease, a new set of challenges emerge, above all economic, but also the mental health policy implications of the crisis, the Royal College of Psychiatrists warning of a ‘tsunami’ of psychological distress arising from the pandemic.
‘It’s a big priority for us anyway, especially around child and adolescent mental health, but coming out of this crisis, the need to understand the mental health impact, and respond, is going to be massive. People like me are going to have to talk about this more openly. Stigma around mental health is reducing, it is way different to when I was growing up, but there is still more to do. But from a government point of view we have to make sure we are not just investing in the services but structuring them in a way that is much more preventative and early interventionist. It is one of the many things coming out of this crisis that will need to have even greater focus.’
There is perhaps another reason why she is being more reflective, beyond the main focus of our interview, and the crisis itself, and that is a significant birthday, on July 19, when she turns 50.
‘I have my ups and downs like everyone. I have days when I feel things are more on top of me than others and days when I feel a happier disposition than others, but generally I am able to keep a reasonable equilibrium. But I don’t underestimate the impact of something like this for any leader that the constant pressure can have and the need to remember you are only human, and need to take steps to look after yourself.’
Her big release is reading, especially fiction. ‘Reading has been a passion since I was a small child, and that is how I tend to take myself out of the stresses and strains of day to day life and work; I lose myself in the plot of a good novel.’
She is the only person I know, outside of librarians and booksellers, who arranges her novels alphabetically by author on the shelves. ‘I get a bit stressed if they are too chaotic. I like a reasonably alphabetical order to my novels. I am not so bothered when it comes to non-fiction.’
She is halfway through a novel called Orlando King, published around the time she was born, and written by someone she had never heard of until the book was recommended to her, Isabel Colegate. ‘It is amazing, a kind of historical panorama, very political, starts in the run up to the Second World War, I’ve not finished it but I think it goes through to the 60s. It’s got a bit of an Evelyn Waugh feel to it.’
The final subject we cover in our run around the mental health block is social media, and abuse which in politics, I say, ‘seems to be targeted at women more than men’.
‘It is absolutely targeted at women more than men,’ she retorts. ‘That’s not to say men don’t get it at times, but the nature of it and the sheer weight of it for women is of a different order. How do I deal with it? I try not to focus on it, try not to allow it to enter my world. I think, this is a bit counter intuitive, I am a bit more protected than some other people, my Twitter feed is so overloaded with stuff all the time, it’s easy to miss a lot of that stuff, because it passes so quickly. If you are sitting looking at a slower Twitter feed all the time, that stuff is more obvious. Social media companies still have a lot to do to get on top of it. I would say particularly to young women thinking about going into a profession or a walk of life that puts them in the public eye, you have to ignore that, challenge it where it needs challenging, because perhaps the downside of someone like me saying ignore it is that it is still there and doesn’t get challenged.’
‘Does it get to you?’ I ask.
‘Some of it does but probably not as much as people might think because I don’t want to allow myself to be thrown by it. I am human, believe it or not and occasionally criticism gets to me.’
Yet, when I posted clips of our chat on Twitter, amid a few inevitable war criminal jibes at me, and trolling of her, the vast bulk of comments were supportive, including many from Scots saying how proud they were of her, and from English people saying they wished she not Johnson was in charge down here. Sorry, Scottish Labour friends, I am merely the messenger of the messages here.
‘Praise, criticism, I have had both,’ she says. ‘This sounds a bit holier than thou and it is not meant to be – I am human, I am a politician, I am not immune to these things, but I try to tune as much of that out as possible, because if you allow yourself in normal times to think about what actions are getting praised against those getting criticised, the danger is that is how you start to base your decisions.
‘At a time like this, on an issue like this, that would potentially be catastrophic. Some of the decisions we are having to take, and this will continue to be the case, will not be popular. You’re restricting freedoms, you’re taking decisions with huge impact on the economy, so as far as possible take them for the best reasons based on best advice and judgement and not worry too much about whether they’re criticised or not.’