MAR­ION VAN RENTERGHEM, re­porter-at-large for Van­ity Fair, talks to Scot­land’s first min­is­ter Ni­cola Stur­geon about na­tion­al­ism, Brexit and whether her coun­try can ‘take back con­trol’ from West­min­ster

The New European - - News - BY MAR­ION VAN RENTERGHEM

Scot­land’s first min­is­ter on Brexit, Merkel and na­tion­al­ism

MVR: What is your pri­or­ity, sup­port for a Peo­ple’s Vote or a new ref­er­en­dum on Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence?

NS: We are fight­ing to pro­tect Scot­land’s in­ter­ests. We are look­ing at ev­ery sin­gle op­tion that al­lows us to do so. We have ar­gued against Brexit, we have ar­gued for the UK to re­main as close to the EU as pos­si­ble, by stay­ing in the sin­gle mar­ket and the cus­toms union. We cer­tainly would sup­port the op­tion of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on the EU to try to se­cure a dif­fer­ent out­come. All these op­tions are alive at this stage. Clearly, as we move for­ward, some of those will fall away and then we’ll take a de­ci­sion on a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence.

MVR: Brexit might of­fer an out­side op­por­tu­nity for Scot­land to leave the UK. Is a part of you happy with Brexit?

NS: Ab­so­lutely not. It does not make me happy that Brexit is hap­pen­ing. I would pre­fer the UK to stay in the EU. I would pre­fer that we’re hav­ing a much more pos­i­tive de­bate about Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence, than one that was mo­ti­vated by the dis­as­ter that is Brexit. Even if Scot­land be­comes an in­de­pen­dent coun­try, I still think it will be bet­ter for both Scot­land and the rest of the UK to be in the EU. But Brexit strength­ens the ar­gu­ment for Scot­land to be in­de­pen­dent, yes def­i­nitely. Brexit is a good il­lus­tra­tion of the point: Scot­land, in a few months, is about to leave the EU and 60% of peo­ple in Scot­land voted against that hap­pen­ing. And yet, we’re not em­pow­ered to con­trol it.

So here is the ar­gu­ment for be­ing in­de­pen­dent in a nut­shell.

MVR: You re­jected Theresa May’s of­fer of a meet­ing last week, to dis­cuss her deal, af­ter she had talked it through with her cabi­net. Why?

NS: It is a small ex­am­ple that il­lus­trates that big­ger point that Scot­land’s in­ter­ests have been ig­nored and iso­lated. I’m not sure there was much to be gained for the prime min­is­ter by speak­ing to me af­ter the cabi­net had al­ready taken its de­ci­sion. If there had been any re­spect for a Scot­tish govern­ment’s po­si­tion, then pre­sum­ably she would had wanted to hear that be­fore the cabi­net took its de­ci­sion – and for the cabi­net to con­sider us as part of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

MVR: Are you a stub­born per­son?

NS: Well… yeah, I think so. I’m a rea­son­able per­son too. I’m the first min­is­ter of a coun­try that voted to stay in the EU. I be­lieve in Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence. And yet I have all along, through the last two years, tried to com­pro­mise and find a com­mon ground with the prime min­is­ter. Some­times I’m sure peo­ple in my own party might wish I hadn’t been so will­ing to com­pro­mise. So I don’t think I am un­rea­son­able. But I don’t give in eas­ily and I don’t think any­one in my po­si­tion should give in eas­ily when the in­ter­ests of the peo­ple you rep­re­sent are at stake. That is def­i­nitely the case right now.

MVR: How can you praise both na­tion­al­ism and the EU?

NS: I find it a bit strange talk­ing to you, a cit­i­zen of an in­de­pen­dent coun­try who could find it kind of un­usual that some­body wants their own coun­try to be in­de­pen­dent! You are French, you take in­de­pen­dence for granted. And it’s not be­cause you don’t like Ger­many or the UK. Scot­land was a in­de­pen­dent coun­try for more than 300 years. We are a na­tion, and Scot­land’s voice within Bri­tain is not heard.

MVR: Euro­pean democ­ra­cies are cur­rently threat­ened by the rise of na­tion­al­ists. Do you think it’s the right time to add one more na­tion state?

NS: The dif­fer­ence be­tween them and us is like night and day. The prob­lem that we have is that we have one word, ‘na­tion­al­ism’, to cover such a broad spec­trum. We are so dif­fer­ent to other forces across Europe that would be de­scribed as na­tion­al­ist. They are all about be­ing in­su­lar, and the fears of oth­ers, and xeno­pho­bic. What we stand for is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to that. We, the SNP, are the most pro-im­mi­gra­tion party in the whole of the UK. We would be de­scribed as a na­tion­al­ist party and yet we are the most pro-im­mi­gra­tion. I’m Scot­tish. I was born here, but some­body who moved here from Pak­istan a few years ago and chose this as their home is as Scot­tish as I am. Be­ing Scot­tish is not about where you were born. It’s not about how long you’ve lived here nor how long your fam­ily have been here. For me, be­ing Scot­tish is a state of mind.

MVR: You re­mind me of An­gela Merkel

NS: I like her sense of prin­ci­ples and re­silience. She’s a very strong woman and in that sense a good role model for other women. I hugely ad­mired the courage she showed over the mi­grant is­sue. She did that at huge po­ten­tial per­sonal cost and un­doubt­edly her party is pay­ing some kind of price for that. But nev­er­the­less she did it be­cause she thought it was the right thing to do. Ac­tu­ally it’s an un­der­rated thing in pol­i­tics to do some­thing be­cause you know it’s the right thing to do, even if it comes to putting you in a dif­fi­cult place. And I hugely ad­mire her for that. But, you know, his­tory I think will judge her well for that, as it should do.

MVR: Is the fight for a na­tional iden­tity enough to sus­tain a pol­icy?

It’s not what drives my pol­i­tics. It’s not re­ally about my iden­tity. It’s about what gives the coun­try I live in the best op­por­tu­nity to build the best econ­omy, have the fairest so­ci­ety, have the de­ci­sions taken that de­ter­mine the pros­per­ity of our coun­try. I hap­pen to think that gov­ern­ing our­selves is the best way to do that. Be­ing proud to be Scot­tish is not what re­ally drives my sup­port for Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence.

There is a dis­tinc­tion be­tween what I call util­i­tar­ian na­tion­al­ism and ex­is­ten­tial na­tion­al­ism. I want Scot­land to be in­de­pen­dent be­cause the pow­ers of de­ci­sion-mak­ing that gives us helps to build a bet­ter coun­try. I’m very much an util­i­tar­ian na­tion­al­ist.

MVR: The Brex­iters have adopted slo­gans like “take back con­trol” from the EU. Wouldn’t you use the same words about the UK?

NS: I have not a sin­gle sim­i­lar­ity with Farage, John­son and oth­ers. We are a very civic na­tion­al­ist move­ment and it’s all about Scot­land be­ing in con­trol of its own des­tiny, to­gether with be­ing very col­lab­o­ra­tive with other coun­tries. We want to be a part of the EU, work­ing with oth­ers. The UK is not the same as the EU. We don’t have a voice that is lis­tened to within the UK. The UK is not a col­lec­tion of in­de­pen­dent coun­tries. The EU is. The two things are com­pletely dif­fer­ent.

MVR: If you do get in­de­pen­dence from the UK and re-join the EU, aren’t you afraid Brus­sels will im­pose its rules and pre­vent you from ‘tak­ing back con­trol’?

NS: No. The EU is an or­gan­i­sa­tion made up of in­de­pen­dent states. We live in a global world, where coun­tries have to col­lab­o­rate be­cause there are many is­sues which in­di­vid­ual coun­tries can’t deal with on their own. Ire­land is a good ex­am­ple. [Look at] the con­trast right now be­tween Ire­land, which is an in­de­pen­dent coun­try hav­ing sol­i­dar­ity and sup­port from its Euro­pean part­ners, and Scot­land, which is com­pletely ig­nored by the UK govern­ment. So look, the EU is not per­fect. There are things about the EU I don’t like. There are pol­icy po­si­tions of the EU that I don’t like. But I have no fear of Scot­land, as an in­de­pen­dent coun­try co­op­er­at­ing in that way with other in­de­pen­dent coun­tries.

MVR: If you are in­de­pen­dent, you won’t be ‘Bri­tish’ any more. Will you miss it?

NS: That is ab­so­lutely not true. Peo­ple of Scan­di­navia, be­cause their coun­tries are in­de­pen­dent, do not cease be­ing Scan­di­na­vian. The Bri­tish Isles is a geo­graphic iden­tity, like Scan­di­navia. Scot­land will still be part of the Bri­tish Isles if we are an in­de­pen­dent coun­try. So in that sense, yes, I will re­main Bri­tish. You know, I don’t have a hi­er­ar­chy of iden­ti­ties. I’m Scot­tish, but I’m very Euro­pean and I feel a sense of Bri­tish­ness in some re­spect – there are many so­cial, cul­tural and fam­ily links be­tween Scot­land and the rest of the Bri­tish Isles.

MVR: Ten years ago, Alex Sal­mond claimed that Scot­land will be in­de­pen­dent in 2017. What is your pre­dicted date?

NS: I firmly be­lieve Scot­land will be in­de­pen­dent well within my life­time. It will hap­pen when a ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in Scot­land will vote for it, so I don’t want to put an ar­bi­trary time limit on that. But it is fair to say it should be sooner rather than later. Ev­ery­thing that has hap­pened in the last cou­ple of years has demon­strated why Scot­land needs it. Brexit is a last ex­am­ple. Now that we are not in­de­pen­dent, we are com­pelled to face that fu­ture out­side the EU and all of the dam­age that it will do. So if Brexit hap­pens, it might be a trig­ger.

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