Robert Armour gets round the Bute House fireplace for an exclusive interview with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
It was a time she remembers vividly. Irvine, early 1980s, a new town battling Thatcherism, a divisive coal strike, rising unemployment and the demise of industrialism.
Such a backdrop, you might imagine, is as bleak as they come.
For Nicola Sturgeon, though, it was anything but – instead, she drew from this a vision of a radically different Scotland.
Fast forward several decades and Scotland’s new First Minster is able to reflect on how those formative years imbued her with a huge sense of injustice, in turn shaping an ideology that would bring her here – to the historic Bute House and the most powerful seat in Scottish politics.
“The economy wasn’t in great shape, lots of people around me were looking at a life or an immediate future of unemployment and there was a general feeling of hopelessness,” she told TFN in an exclusive interview.
“That certainly gave me a strong sense of social justice and, at that stage, a strong feeling that it was wrong for Scotland to be governed by a Tory government that we hadn’t elected.”
Now, she is determined that the social justice values she learned at a young age will remain central to “everything” she does during her tenure as first minister – something which she believes can be embedded into a new vision of politics for Scotland.
“If you’ve got a fairer society you’ve got a stronger economy. The two should go hand in hand,” she says.
“I’m very keen to see a strong economy alongside a fairer society, not as two things competing, which is often how they have been viewed, but two sides of the same coin.”
That message was a particularly strong part of the Yes campaign during last September’s independence referendum.
Having seen communities mobilised in a way rarely witnessed in UK politics, Sturgeon knows the way to win hearts and minds – in Scotland at least – is through empowering more people with a greater sense of equality.
And the third sector, she believes, is central to this vision.
“Communities were energised, engaged, like never before,” she says.
“Many of the issues discussed during the debate did come from a sense of social justice – on both sides and it was really heartening to see those come far higher up the agenda.
“That’s something we need to keep going. But I think now social justice is at the heart of people’s thinking. It always was, but now it is being articulated better.”
This is why she believes Scots from all sides of the political spectrum are frustrated with the terms of the Westminster debate – when during the referendum they got the chance to ask some fundamental questions about the sort of society they wanted to live in.
To keep the momentum going in Scotland, Sturgeon says she’ll be investing in the third sector like no other government before.
She believes, for example, in endowing more responsibility to groups in the shape of greater devolution of public services and funding.
Three-year funding is also in her sights, she says, believing longer-term funding is a “common sense” approach to supporting the third sector to make Scottish society stronger.
“If we change our thinking and see the third sector as a full delivery partner as opposed to just grant receiving organisations then we change the whole culture,” she says.
How this will come to fruition during her tenure is yet to be seen – though it would suggest that Sturgeon could become the most empathetic first minster the third sector has ever had.
Her own constituency – Glasgow Southside – is host to Scotland’s most ethnically diverse community but it also has one of the country’s highest rates of inequality in terms of poverty, unemployment and attainment.
On the back of this, Sturgeon says a vibrant third sector has emerged and she has supported its development through everything from care organisations to employment initiatives and refugee re-settlement groups during her time as an SNP MSP.
This experience has endowed her with a firm grounding on the big issues and challenges the sector faces. And during her time as health minister, she found herself in frequent contact with the sector.
During this period, she became frustrated at how bureaucracy stifled much of the innovation created in communities and she claims to be a convert to alternative approaches offered by charities and voluntary groups.
“I’ve seen it in action. I know the issues and I’m clear about the solutions,” she says. “I want to harness innovation and make that approach the norm. Where there are innovative, new, creative approaches then let’s use them if we can. Let’s back those projects.”
Warm words, but if successful at counteracting unpopular Westminster policies in Scotland, is Sturgeon not worried people will become satisfied with the devolved system – to the detriment of the demand for full independence?
“At the end of the day you’ve got to do your best with what you’ve got,” she says. “I tend to believe the opposite will happen in Scotland. The constraints placed upon the country, with Westminster holding the lion’s share of welfare policy and funding, will become even more visible and the opposite will happen.
“We’ve demonstrated through mitigating the effects of welfare reform, for example, that we have done our best for Scotland while arguing certain things should be different. So I don’t see any conflict between the two.”
For Sturgeon it’s partly about moving on from the politics of negativity and instigating a period of refreshing change – a marked departure against her predecessor Alex Salmond’s preoccupation with Westminster control.
She claims she will be moving on from the culture of blaming the coalition government for all Scotland’s woes.
“As long as I’m in the post my job is to use whatever powers, whatever resources to make the biggest difference in terms of social justice,” she says.
“That’s my day-to-day preoccupation. It doesn’t stop me from arguing that Westminster should afford us more powers to make that job easier. I would be failing in my duty if I didn’t keep reminding people that Westminster still controls power over 70% of our tax and 85% of our welfare budget.
“So with the greatest will in the world I can only do so much.
“But I know this government can continue to make a difference with what we’ve got.”
Devolving public sector services to third sector…
I’ve always believed that, in theory, the innovation of the third sector and the direct contact with the people it supports is a valuable aspect to add to our public services.
When I was health secretaryI saw how this influenced directly into practical experience.
I saw first-hand countless occasions when a third-sector organisation was far more able to provide a practical solution to a problem than the NHS as a big statutory behemoth.
The third sector has to be more centrally involved – not just as an afterthought or a token gesture but actually fully integrated into how we plan and deliver public services. If you
take the example of health and social care, a lot of organisations will express frustration as to how that’s panned out, but we’re determined the third sector gets a proper seat around the table in future.
Three year funding is a strong and powerful argument – but we live in a time of very constrained funds. The Scottish Government has been cut by over 10% in real terms since the
current Westminster government took control.
When you’ve got that overallreduction in your budget it’s just not possible to allocate resources thatprotects everyone from their share of pain.
How we’ve tried to do it is toprotect the health service first and foremost then protect local governmentservices which are, relatively speaking, greater than other parts of the UK.
But you cannot completely insulate people from the effects with such a large reduction in the budget.
In terms of direct funding tothe third sector, we’ve maintained these levels. But in terms of cash going tolocal authorities and the NHS – of which the third sector should have a share –
we need to change our mind-set and see the sector more as an integral way of delivering public services. So it’s not the NHS handing over a grant; it’s the
NHS trusting the third sector to deliver services better than it can.
What frustrates me most as First Minister is I can look at the levers I can pull and say let’s do this, that, or the other, but then I’ve got this juggernaut of welfare cuts coming down the road. And I can’t stop it.
No matter how much we do to try and alleviate the pain of these cuts, it can never take them away. That’s a huge frustration. The problem we face is
that Westminster is waging an ideological war and that is hard to contain, despite us doing our best to mitigate as much of this.
The big con trick is making people believe it’s all about getting tougher on the workshy. Those who have borne the biggest brunt of welfare cuts have been women with children and disabled people.
That’s how unfair these cuts are. And Scots can see this.
How can we as a government help alleviate poverty? Promoting fairer wages is one way. We’re backing the Living Wage campaign. Just a few weeks ago the 100th company signed up, marking around 100,000 employees now getting the living wage.
We’re also investing a lot to soften the blow of welfare cuts, whether that’s through the bedroom tax mitigation, the Scottish Welfare Fund, cash we’re giving to organisations like Citizens Advice Scotland to help them deal with the welfare fallout and a lot of action through education and health to help tackle the root causes of poverty.
So we’re doing everything in our powers.
We have ambitious targets but they need to be. Are they too ambitious? I don’t think so.
We won’t know what we can achieve unless we set the bar high. That’s what we have done. We are a world leader in renewables and alternative energies – that’s to our great credit.
And we’ve done more in terms of the climate than any government before. So we are already succeeding on a number of fronts.
I want to use the symbol, the significance of the first woman first minster as much as possible. One woman in one job does not change anything unless you use that – and that’s what
I’m determined to do. I’ll therefore use every possible power I’ve got to make equality central to everything this government does.
If we look at the issueswe’ve already changed – the cabinet, same sex marriage, it’s clear thedirection of travel I want to go in.
Thatcher went out of her way to do the opposite. Her being prime minister never inspired women to strive for greater things. I want to use my position to help other women, from whatever
walk of life, to reach their potential.