Why you should care
Because she’ll cry freedom till she’s blue in the face.
Just five days after the Brexit vote, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon beelined for Brussels to see how her native Scotland might stay in the European Union, despite the referendum’s clear results. Though the U.K. chose to leave the EU, 62 percent of Sturgeon’s countrymen voted to “Remain.” Sturgeon wasn’t naive: She knew that for Scotland to be part of the bloc, it would first have to leave the U.K.
Call her trip a symbolic flare for the next battle for Scottish independence. Sturgeon, a staunchly left-of-center politician, hails from the group that two years ago asked Scots to vote for freedom: the Scottish National Party. That effort failed, and while Sturgeon had hoped to focus on domestic issues such as education and health, Brexit has thrown her political career back onto the international stage. Sturgeon is “cleverly deriving a huge amount of political capital from the scenario that Brexit presents,” says author David Torrance, who’s written extensively about Scottish politics. The question for Sturgeon, who Andrew Dorman, professor of international security at Kings College London, calls “among the brightest and clearest thinkers in the U.K.,” is whether Brexit and its fallout will signal that the time is right to free her 5.2 million-strong homeland at last.
She was known in Scotland as the leader with the strongest image, and now she’s known throughout the U.K. in those terms.
Three decades back, Sturgeon, who has been beating a drum for Scottish independence since she joined the SNP at age 16, sounded a tad more fringe. “There’s now no difference at all between Labour and the Tories,” the trench-coated teenager told cameras as she passed out political fliers to Glaswegians. “They’re both saying exactly the same things that they’ve been saying for years.” Six years later, Sturgeon became Scotland’s youngest Parliamentary candidate. She was elected to Parliament in 1999 and appointed to the SNP’s cabinet as shadow minister for children and education. Having grown up in a working-class home, Sturgeon has long advocated for equal access education — something she sees as integral to her political success.
Sturgeon’s rise was slow but steady. For a decade, experts say, she was being groomed to take the helm from Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP from 2004, and the country from 2007-2014 — notably boosting her party street cred by marrying SNP chief executive Peter Murrell in 2010. Yet ironically, it was the 2014 failed attempt at independence that at last elevated her to party leadership — Salmond fell on his sword, and Sturgeon took the helm. Though not a natural, she’s grown into her role, says John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde, referring to Sturgeon as a “rare case of someone who’s learned the art of political communication.”
That’s reflected in her widespread popularity, in Scotland and throughout the U.K. “She was known in Scotland as the leader with the strongest image, and now she’s known throughout the U.K. in those terms,” says Paul Cairney, a politics professor at the University of Stirling. Small and elegant, Sturgeon seems thoroughly stable — perhaps a necessary image to balance any separatist’s agenda. Watching her in public, you’re likely to notice her well-coiffed hair, modest makeup and rhythmic speech. She elicits cheers and laughs with measured, often self-deprecating humor; she keeps her more acerbic side private, Torrance says. Some have drawn unlikely comparisons between her and Margaret Thatcher. Her attention to detail and head for statistics help her come off as the most knowledgeable person in the room. (She’s known for leaving her debate opponents bloodied.) Ideologically, Sturgeon couldn’t be more opposed to Maggie: She’s anti-austerity, wants to boost public spending on education, favors raising the minimum wage from between £6.70 and £7.20, depending on age, to £8.70 by 2020, and has advocated for Westminster to add £2 billion to NHS funding for Scotland.
What now, though? New British Prime Minister Theresa May seems to want a unified U.K. approach to Brexit before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to leave — which may mean wooing SNP favor. But British conservatives can only go so far in catering to Scottish sentiment. Sturgeon has suggested that Scotland could stay in both the EU and the U.K. in an arrangement similar to Denmark’s. (Greenland, an autonomous part of Denmark, voted to leave the EU in 1984.) But any compromise would require both U.K. and EU support, and far too many border allowances.
Meanwhile, the usually circumspect Sturgeon may have overplayed her hand following Brexit, when she uncharacteristically said it was “highly likely” that there would be a second referendum on Scottish independence. Polls show support for a “Yes” vote to leave the U.K. is growing, but it’s still too close; analysts say Sturgeon’s unlikely to go for it until support climbs above 60 percent. In any case, a U.K. position is expected by the end of the year, at which point Sturgeon must decide whether to accept it or go for broke. And whatever the outcome, Sturgeon, and her popularity, are likely to stay put. There is no SNP heir apparent — she was uncontested in 2014 — which leaves her leading the land of the brave … whether they’re free, or being dragged kicking and screaming from the EU.