Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Exclusive: Nicola Sturgeon speaks about her time in office and her love of books

By Rory Mullen

In her first newspaper interview since being arrested, Nicola Sturgeon opens up about her career and passions.

On 11 June Nicola Sturgeon, former First Minister of Scotland, was arrested following her resignation from office, which she announced earlier this year. An investigation into both her and her husband’s involvement with the SNP party finance scandal is ongoing. Earlier this week Sturgeon sat down with The Glasgow Guardian to give her first newspaper interview since the arrests; covering her political career, the influence of literature upon her life, and her relationship with Alex Salmond. 

Elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, following its reconvention, Sturgeon rose meteorically, succeeding Alex Salmond in the wake of the ‘No’ vote in 2014 as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP. She has since become a constant in Scottish politics, being at the helm of domestic affairs, and making some notable contributions on the international stage, such as playing host to COP26. Her leadership and debating skills led her to define politics at Holyrood, as opposition parties cycled through leaders which she long outlasted in her near decade in the highest office in the land. Taking 286 sessions of First Minister’s Questions, as the longest-serving First Minister to date she’s delivered more than a few scintillating one liners, reaffirming the sobriquet bestowed upon her early in her career as she fought in a male-dominated sphere: ‘Nippy Sweety’

After eight years in the top job – which is about five Prime Ministers in Westminster time – leading Scotland through a pandemic, and her party  to unprecedented electoral success at all levels, Sturgeon, to the surprise of many, resigned. Sturgeon insisted that she was indeed a human being; that she simply knew “in my head and in my heart” that the time was right, taking a cue perhaps from other female leaders. However, for critics, the impending political febrility that followed Sturgeon’s resignation, namely her and her husband’s dramatic arrests as part of the ongoing police investigation into SNP party finances, has since provided a broader context to the abrupt end to her political career.

However you view Sturgeon, whether as the Queen of Scots, as she is to generation of independence supporting people young people, or as a string of expletives and epithets Sturgeon, even her most ardent detractors would concede, leaves a pair of tartan heels that her successor will struggle to fill. 

The former First Minister has had nothing if not an eventful year, but she’s generously invited me into her office, primarily to discuss a less contentious passion than lifelong support for independence for Scotland – books.She emphasises that “literature is the thing I’m most passionate about”. I start by wishing her condolences, having lost her uncle, Iain Ferguson, whom she was texting book recommendations with just weeks before his rather sudden death. Ferguson, a journalist, had been assistant editor at the Daily Record and several smaller Ayrshire based publications.

In her own words, Nicola Sturgeon “hero-worshipped” him, regarding him more as a “cool big brother” than an uncle. She credits him with generating an addiction to news and current affairs and a great love of words through his journalism, but she also evokes a colourful picture of a Disc-Jockey, and a music lover, whose influence over the course of her life is manifest. His death leaves a massive gap, but no doubt a major part of his legacy is the inculcation of a love of books which has lasted a lifetime. 

Raised in Irvine, her parents offered encouragement, but a young Sturgeon required no such thing. Her earliest memory of reading, she reveals, are Enid Blyton books – the birth of a voracious young reader. With such a profound love of books, I ask her why she chose to read law here at the University. Why not an English degree? To be a writer was not something traditionally associated with the working classes, she suggests, but nor perhaps was the law or politics. Scots Law was a male dominated world. “Nothing, she insists, was ever going to stop me… When you’re young you feel you can overcome anything”, she opines. Sturgeon never pursued law much beyond a stint at the Drumchapel law centre. Even though Sturgeon was First Minister of the country for eight years, she confesses there remains a nagging part of her mother’s voice which tells her she  wasted that law degree.  

The pugnacity of frontline politics is an arena which I remind her she’s been in for as long as I can remember. Sturgeon the politician has received uncounted personal and vindictive attacks both within and outwith the chamber. It has been, suffice to say, one of hottest political years on record. Fiction, for her, has been as useful as it has been as every other year – an antidote to the tribal tonic of our politics. .  

The small business of running a country is taxing even for the seasoned players. Former First Ministers have had golf among their  hobbies. For Sturgeon, however, it was always reading. No matter how much the job comes home with you – Malcolm Tucker expletives included – for her mental health at those most stressful and crucial times, reading offered a sanctuary. At points of high stress, she reveals, “to be blunt, reading even if just a few pages before bed gave reprieve and helped with my mental health”. In resigning I ask her whether she’ll have more time for it: “I hope so”, she smiles back at me.

She confesses to preferring prose to poetry and drama. I ask her about literature that’s shaped her: she names the play, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, whose political analogues about the British ruling class seem pertinent to the  politics she tried to espouse in office. I invoke Val MacDiarmid, Douglas Stuart and other big names, asking her how proud she is to have presided over a renaissance of Scottish literature in recent years. Very. However, she insists on taking no credit whatsoever. She says, indeed, there’s more support needed for budding Scottish writers and is disinclined to believe that the recent saturation of Irish Authors on the Booker Prize indicates Ireland possessing something we don’t have. 

I ask her about her own bookshelf, which detractors might imagine is replete with The Beano and Trainspotting, interspersed with tartan and haggis. She insists that were such a thing true, it wouldn’t be insulting by any means; Trainspotting, she asserts, is one of the greatest books ever written. But whilst she loves Scottish literature, she’s by no means exclusively wedded to it. In truth, her shelf holds only a small proportion of Scottish authors. Indeed, in recent years, she confesses, fiction in translation has been one of her great loves. I ask about memoir – a genre that has an imminence of meaning to her. On her shelf is Deborah Orr’s Motherwell: A Girlhood, which she rates as “phenomenal”. What, then, about her own for which she’s reputed to have signed a six figure deal. 

Memory is an imperfect vessel, and whether her writing will be inflected through recent acrimonies remains to be seen, but Sturgeon protests that she won’t be rewriting history. She urges me to read the book, which comes out in 2025, and find out.

Sturgeon’s achievements, revere or revile them, surely rank as significant. As Lady Rae QC –  another woman who overcame many of the systemic barriers facing women in Scots law  –  comes to the end of her tenure as UofG’s rector, I ask Sturgeon if she would be ready for another election. She smiles, recalling her own student days, when she was in charge of Pat Kane’s rectoral campaign. She’s sceptical that she’ll be a candidate, but “never say never in life”.

This piece has been modified. The original version of this article, in our print edition, wrongly attributed the claim “Mein Campervan” to Alex Salmond – both in its copy and in the interview itself. Those words were in fact said by someone else. The Glasgow Guardian apologises profusely for this mistake.


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