A decade to defy disparity
Read an interview with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon looking back on ten years of SNP government.
Looking back on ten years of SNP government, Nicola Sturgeon recounts a short but telling story.
“A few months after I became First Minister, I got a letter from a woman whose niece was at the school I went to. It was beautiful. She was telling me how it had affected her niece to see someone who had attended her school go on to become First Minister. It had opened her niece’s eyes to the fact that she, as a girl from the west of Scotland, growing up in a similar family to mine, could go on to do anything she wanted to. I will keep that letter as long as I live.”
It’s a story that gets to the heart of some of the most important motivations and aspirations in Nicola’s political life. The simple message is that nothing should be off limits to young people because of their upbringing, gender or how much money they have. This quest for equality is what got her started in politics. It is what has driven the SNP government for the last ten years. And it is what will shape the policies of the next ten years.
“I was one of the lucky ones, but I grew up in a community where you didn’t have to go far to see deep inequality. When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister a lot of what her government was doing was making that inequality gap wider. That was undoubtedly a big motivator for me to get involved in politics. Inequality didn’t just appear in Scotland overnight, it was generations in the making and it is going to take time to turn around. There is no doubt that closing these gaps is the biggest challenge we face as a country. We will do it not just because it is the right thing to do, but because there is a growing wealth of evidence that the more equal a society, the more successful its economy is.”
During ten years in power the SNP government has prioritised tackling that inequality wherever possible – in education, in health and in the economy. “Two of my proudest achievements of the SNP government have been getting rid of charges for ill health and tuition fees,” says Nicola. “Around 600,000 adults from families with an annual income as low as £16,000 would have been liable for prescription charges before we abolished them. And while tuition fees have continued to soar in England, Scottish students know that under the SNP, their education will always be based on their ability to learn – not their ability to pay.”
Nicola won the Glasgow Govan seat in 2007, as the first SNP government was formed. In her victory speech she spoke of having “nothing but ambition for the great nation of Scotland”.
“In that election we presented a new approach for Scotland – an approach that would build a more successful Scotland. We wanted to create a healthier Scotland, with safer communities and wealthier families and we have delivered on these ambitions,” she says.
Today, Scotland is seeing the benefits of ten years of SNP government. There is record funding for health – the budget has increased by £3.3 billion since the SNP took office, and A&E services are the best performing in the UK. Recorded crime has dropped to its lowest in 42 years, and there are 1,000 extra police officers on the streets. And large swathes of the country’s infrastructure have been rebuilt, including schools and hospitals in some of the most deprived areas. Behind all these numbers are individuals whose lives have been changed for the better.
“Recently I was speaking to a group of student nurses who said to me that they wouldn’t be doing what they were doing if we hadn’t protected their bursary,” says Nicola. “I also remember when we were in opposition speaking to a woman with Parkinson’s disease, who told me that some weeks she had to make choices between having her medicine and heating her home because of prescription charges. I could go on and on about how our policies are making a practical difference.”
⏱ QUICK QUESTIONS
What is your greatest fear? I suppose letting people down. That’s the way I have always been and I think that’s particularly true of many young women.
What is your worst habit? Twitter. I have to put it out of my reach. I try to limit myself to particular slots or I’ll get sucked in. It’s not always a good use of time.
Who do you find inspiring? My sister. She is younger than me, but in many respects she’s like the older sister. Very often people will assume that I have the tougher job, but I watch her holding down her job, looking after her kids and just generally being a fantastic person and I find her pretty inspirational.
What’s the worst job you ever did? Selling tattie scones around the doors when I was about 14. I just hated it so it ended up my dad had to do it for me. It was for a bakery company and they gave you commission for each packet.
If you could only eat one type food for the rest of your life, what would it be? Chocolate. No, actually that’s not true, crisps. I’m much more of a crisp person.
Have you found any television series to fill the hole left by Borgen? Not yet. I actually watch very little television now, so when I get the chance to take my mind away from politics I tend to read a book rather than watch telly. I’m currently reading Commonwealth by American writer Ann Patchett. However, I am a huge River City fan. I don’t always get to watch it though.
What’s the first treasured possession you would rescue from a fire? My books. I would rescue as many books off my bookshelf as I possibly could.
When was the last time you were star struck? I met Ewan McGregor at the premiere of his directorial debut film American Pastoral and I was a little bit star struck because I have always been a big fan. But I hope I didn’t let on. I was cool as a cucumber.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you? Be true to yourself. In politics you get advice coming at you from all directions, most of it contradictory. You should listen to it, but in the end, be true to yourself and trust your instinct.
The biggest focus for the SNP government now is education, and that is where Nicola hopes to make the biggest impact in the coming years.
“Education has been so central and transformational in my experience that I understand how important it is to any young person. I was the first person to go to university in my family and the educational opportunities I had were so central to what I have been able to do. I want every young person in Scotland to have the same chances in life I had.”
After ten years of SNP government, Higher exam passes are up by almost a third since 2007 and over 90 per cent of leavers are now going on to work, training or education. Learning environments have improved, thwith over 600 schools rebuilt or refurbished in the same period, and yet, challenges remain.
“We have an education system to be proud of in Scotland and we have made some really important changes. But there are deep inequalities in it, which are not unique to Scotland. It’s a hard fact of life that if you grow up in a really wealthy family you are more likely to do better at school, you are more likely to go to university and more likely to go on to have a well-paid job.
“We are not going to eradicate this gap over one parliamentary term. However, I have set a very bold ambition to effectively eradicate it over a decade. I will be disappointed if we don’t make significant progress towards that goal during this term. Crucially we have put in place the measures by which we will be judged.”
Perhaps the most visible inequality Nicola is helping to tackle by her very presence in the First Minister’s office is gender inequality. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ goes the famous line, and the presence of a female First Minister is helping take down some of the remaining barriers that women face.
“It matters, whether consciously or unconsciously, to girls and young women that they see women in particular jobs. It demonstrates that anything is possible and I feel that responsibility every single day.
“Over the next ten years we will make a step change as a society in some of these gender inequality issues. In terms of equality in politics, or companies, or on public boards – the places in our country where decisions are taken – I think we will see that significantly improve and we will take action to accelerate that progress.
“When I became First Minister my eight-year-old niece was in the public gallery. By the time she is a young woman I hope she will have no need to know about any of these issues. I hope that all the battles that my generation of women and generations of women before me have had to fight are no longer battles for her. I can’t do that on my own, but if I can play a small part in consigning some of these big gender equality issues to history then the next generation can get on and just follow their dreams.”
Nicola joined the Party as a young, ambitious woman aged 16. How would her teenage self judge the progress made in the last ten years?
“She’d take me to task in all sorts of ways and would be sitting on my shoulder saying ‘why are you doing this?’ and ‘why didn’t you do this quicker?’ That’s just how I am. But I think she’d be happy and proud of what we have achieved so far.
“As to the future, my motivation hasn’t changed from when I was 16. The same things make me passionate and frustrate me, and the same ambitions for this great country drive me on.”