It is the norm on the Scottish National party campaign trail to have to fight one’s way towards Nicola Sturgeon through streets packed with admirers and selfie-hunters, some even brought to tears by her proximity.
But this is an election like no other. So, on Friday morning – before the death of Prince Philip was announced and political campaigning suspended – Sturgeon arrived at the deserted Whitelee windfarm in East Ayrshire to set out new climate targets in front of a handful of masked reporters and photographers, as the turbines rotated silently behind her.
It is less than three weeks since the first minister and SNP leader was cleared of breaching the ministerial code in her meetings with her predecessor, Alex Salmond, following allegations of sexual harassment made against him by two civil servants.
A day later, the Holyrood committee investigating the handling of those complaints by her government published a highly critical report that concluded Sturgeon had misled the Scottish parliament, though not knowingly. And a day after that, she survived a vote of no confidence brought by the Scottish Conservatives.
At the end of that week – which her supporters hoped would have drawn a line in the sand on this damaging period – Salmond upended the election campaign when he launched Alba, a new party that he claims can help secure a pro-independence “supermajority” at Holyrood, working in tandem with the SNP, whose leadership he accused of being part of a conspiracy to destroy his reputation and put him in prison.
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But if Sturgeon is in need of a moment to catch her breath, she shows no sign of it.
Nobody should take turnout for granted ahead of the 6 May vote, she says cheerfully, but she is reassured by “the snatches of conversations that I’m having from a distance … that people do have an understanding this is a serious election and serious times, and that there are big, big decisions for people to take”.
The big decision Sturgeon refers to is of course whether to have another independence referendum. While the new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, is fighting a vigorous campaign to shift the debate away from the constitution, Scotland’s place in the UK remains the key issue on which voters will make their decision – and the country is polarised.
Sturgeon has always argued that Boris Johnson cannot ignore democracy if the SNP wins a Holyrood mandate. Polls currently flip between predicting an outright SNP victory and a pro-independence majority bolstered by the Green party.
But in recent weeks, Sturgeon’s language has become increasingly definitive: Westminster’s continuing refusal to grant the section 30 order required to hold a legal referendum will melt away, she insists.
“If people in Scotland vote for a party saying, ‘when the time is right, there should be an independence referendum’, you cannot stand in the way of that, and I don’t think that is what will happen,” the first minister says.
“People will always challenge that because of what the supposed position of the UK government is,” she adds, but stresses that she is “pretty confident” her plan B – taking a referendum bill through Holyrood regardless, which could result in legal action from Westminster – will not be necessary.
She quotes from the Spectator, perhaps surprisingly given its staunch defence of Salmond during the Holyrood inquiry, saying the discussion within the UK government “has moved away from ‘we can stop a referendum’ to ‘when would it happen and on what basis would it happen?’”
Her “strong preference and intention” is to hold another referendum in the first half of the parliament, up to 2023, but she will be “guided by the realities of Covid”. Is it not another reality that half of pro-independence voters do not want another referendum so soon, indicating they are unconvinced by her argument that it is necessary to steer the recovery from the pandemic?
We can trade opinion polls, she says, but she has a “duty to be frank” with the public that Johnson’s idea of recovery is not the same as hers, adding that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, sets “alarm bells ringing” over a focus on debt and deficit reduction, meaning “austerity cuts for people who can least afford them”.
Sturgeon is on familiar territory raising the spectre of Johnson, a man whose chronic unpopularity in Scotland has only ever bolstered the SNP’s case. But now there is Salmond, whose showman’s ability to generate headlines and appeal to Sturgeon’s critics means his disruptive effect is hard to gauge. The latest polling puts Alba at between 3% and 6%, meaning it could jeopardise the SNP’s outright majority without picking up any MSPs.
The refrain from the more fundamentalist wing of the yes movement is that Sturgeon’s strategy on independence is too cautious – a quality that has drawn praise in relation to the pandemic. Last week, Salmond said Alba’s goal was to push the SNP into opening talks on independence in the first week of the new parliament; this could be accompanied by legal action, demonstrations or unauthorised plebiscites to ensure Westminster listens.
She dismissed Salmond’s “daft rhetoric” at the time, but it has serious consequences. Of course, street protests and appeals to international opinion play their part in a wider campaign, she says, “but pretending that any of that is an alternative or a substitute for getting the majority of people to vote for independence in a legitimate process is misleading people”.
Just as significant is the impact on undecided voters: “If you’re somebody that voted no in 2014 and … because of Brexit or other things, are now open-minded to independence – and I know an awful lot of these people – and you hear somebody say they think they can bulldoze their way to independence in spite of public opinion, I would think, ‘maybe I don’t want to engage in this any more’.”
Since Salmond announced his plans to return to Holyrood, standing as an Alba candidate for the north-east region, Sturgeon has been robust in questioning his suitability for office.
This offers opposition parties ample scope to highlight nationalist “feuding” and “psychodrama”, while some supporters have concerns that Sturgeon’s responses are counter-productive in spurring further coverage and inflating Alba’s influence.
The first minister says she has a choice: “Give the honest answer, or give some kind of tactical, politically calculated answer.
“In my opinion, are there questions about the appropriateness of the return to public office of somebody who was accused of serious inappropriate behaviour towards women – who was acquitted of any criminality and I will never question that – who in the course of a criminal trial seemed to suggest that he had behaved in ways that were not always appropriate, admitted something to me that I believe was deeply inappropriate, and has never really reckoned with that, has never reflected and been prepared to say, ‘I regret that and wouldn’t do that again in the future’.”
As the Salmond inquiries concluded, experts and campaigners warned of the chilling effect on women coming forward with sexual harassment complaints. In evidence to the Holyrood committee, the original complainers, Ms A and Ms B, said they did not believe there had been a meaningful change in government culture since 2013.
Sturgeon says she shares concerns about that effect, “specifically around the Scottish government, but also on a societal basis”, and that she feels “a very strong personal responsibility” to try to restore confidence that has been undermined.
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She admits A and B’s evidence – which described a culture of “complicity” around allegedly inappropriate behaviour and a lack of support for complainers – “is very difficult for anybody in government to read”.
But while she accepts the Holyrood inquiry report included “important stuff that we’ve got to reflect on”, she then argues the inquiry itself was partly responsible for any wider impact on women coming forward.
“If you’re a woman in Scotland over the past year or so, what you’ve witnessed is an entire political class and an inquiry of the national parliament at times indulging and amplifying the subject of complaints, saying that it was all a conspiracy, questioning the motives of the women who came forward, effectively saying that because there was an acquittal in a criminal trial that was tantamount to them lying.”
While A and B’s devastating evidence was heard too late in the process to put to Salmond or Sturgeon when they went before the committee, the inquiry reported scepticism over Sturgeon’s claims that she knew nothing of concerns about her predecessor’s behaviour before 2017.
Given the shocking evidence and the fact that the inquiries were circumscribed in remit, does she feel any really got to the bottom of what was going on then? “Have any of the inquiries properly done that? Probably not. I was part of that government and some of what I hear now was not my experience at the time, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen, that it wasn’t real.”
The Guardian also examined harassment policies and their promotion by different political parties, but it was a struggle to source up-to-date information from the SNP, and it is striking that guidance on making complaints is hard to find online, unlike other party websites.
“If that is the experience then that’s on us to fix. I’m not going to be defensive about that,” Sturgeon says immediately. The key change was the introduction of an independent phone line in 2017, she confirms, but then suggests another factor: “You’ve had the SNP itself accused of being part of a conspiracy and so, there has been an element of … we’ve had to let these inquiries take their course. Just as the government will have to properly reflect on their own processes and procedures, that’s part of what we will go through in the period ahead.”
This is a typical Sturgeon apology – direct and disarming but without immediate consequences – in this case skirting around why it should be that a party at the centre of a sexual harassment inquiry does not appear to have done much to improve its internal processes over the past five years.
It is a frustration that was aired by opposition parties on Friday after the health secretary, Jeane Freeman, admitted mistakes were made in discharging untested elderly patients from hospitals to care homes in the early weeks of the pandemic, which led Scotland to have the highest care home death toll of that wave.
But Sturgeon commends Freeman’s openness – though those same opposition voices questioned why it had taken the health secretary a year to say so, just as she was about to retire as an MSP – and adds: “Inevitably, we got things wrong, given what we were dealing with, and I would rather have an open, honest discussion about that because I think it’s important for accountability.” In this case, there will be a public inquiry, which Sturgeon has committed to have under way later this year if re-elected.
She said recently that the pandemic had made people in Scotland recognise the values of self-governance, and she disagrees with the suggestion that the success of the UK-wide vaccine programme has since contributed to a dip in support for independence. But it is Sturgeon’s honest broker style at the daily Covid-19 briefings – whether addressing children directly or talking about her distress at not being able to hug her mother – which many people mention when they are explaining their new commitment to independence.
Detractors will dismiss it as a false front or, worse, subterfuge, but her unerring ability to speak in a human way remains her most powerful political attribute.
Even Sturgeon’s harshest critics would recognise that the past 18 months have been gruelling for the first minister, who has been in power since 2014 and turned 50 last year. Some of those close to her suggest she was initially blindsided by the force of Salmond’s anger. How does she think she has changed?
It is difficult to do justice to this in an interview, she says: “It will take me probably quite some time looking back on this period of my life to properly process it all. But I do feel at a fundamental level that I will come out of this pandemic a different person to the person that I was going in, and there’s no doubt that the whole Salmond stuff has contributed to that.
“I’ve understood my own frailties and weaknesses more in the past year than I possibly did before, but I also feel a lot stronger in myself. I feel a lot more resilient in myself and I feel a lot more confident about trusting my own instincts on things than I perhaps ever have done before.”