Since 19th November last year, Nicola Sturgeon has been the First Minister of Scotland and by extension one of the most powerful women in the history of British politics. Though the SNP-led Yes campaign failed in its campaign for independence, their membership has soared and a raft of measures including the first gender balanced cabinet has seen Sturgeon seize control of Scottish politics. After being invited to return to her alma mater by the student society Successful Women at Glasgow, the First Minister sat down with qmunicate to discuss the state of democracy in Scotland, her time at the University of Glasgow and how best to enshrine gender equality.
Do you think the new engagement with politics post-referendum, particularly amongst young people, is a permanent change?
Oh, I really hope so. From talking to a lot of young people it certainly feels as if it’s something that has changed permanently. Young people are always going to have a deeper knowledge and understanding of politics, having been through the experience of the referendum. I think the good thing is that when I talk about young people being interested, I’m not just talking about 16 and 17 year olds who had the chance to vote, or college and university students – the number of primary school kids that seem to have taken an interest in the referendum is astonishing. I think there’s every reason to be quite confident that the referendum has changed something pretty fundamental.
How do you plan on keeping them engaged?
I think it’s just trying to make politics relevant. Why did people get interested and excited and enthused during the referendum? It was because it mattered. For a lot of people, for the first time maybe, they voted because they saw a point to voting and they saw that their vote could change something and that the change was actually important. So it’s about making people continue to see that politics is important and politicians making sure that it’s important for people. And if we do that then I think we won’t have any difficulty in keeping people enthused. I suppose the biggest lesson for me was that it wasn’t politicians who made people interested in the referendum, it was people themselves that got interested and that’s what we need to make sure continues to be the case.
Only 35% of Glasgow Uni’s Court are women. This falls short of the 40% recommendation which was set out in a report of the review of the Higher Education of Scotland. Should this 40% quota be compulsory for the university?
Without getting into constitutional politics, we have a limit to what we can legislate up in Scotland, and we don’t have the power to legislate on everything we would like. We would look to legislate on quotas on public boards and I think that extends to other areas as well. Not everybody agrees with me on this, and I’m sure it would be a very heated debate if it was going through Parliament, but there comes a point when you’ve got to decide whether something’s important or not and do we really just need to take that decisive step towards it.
What do you believe are the main barriers in achieving a 50/50 gender divide in university bodies?
I guess it would be the same as in other walks of life – it’s attitudes, it’s women themselves feeling, for a variety of reasons, that they’re not able to put themselves forward to get into these positions. Lots of women experience very overt gender discrimination. Many don’t, and I don’t think I could point to an example that I have, but that doesn’t meant that there are not a lot of barriers that you face as a woman that men don’t face. It is about attitudes, and it’s about how society is structured, and we’ve got to pick up the pace of change in all of that.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Do you think it’s harder for institutions built upon centuries of tradition, like the University of Glasgow, to combat sexism as opposed to newer institutions?
Not necessarily. In fact sometimes older institutions can be better at reinventing themselves because they’ve got a confidence in their place in the world which newer institutions sometimes don’t have. But of course there are institutional issues around everything that we’re talking about here, but it’s not the physical institutions, it’s the attitudes of the people who make them up that are often the barriers, so that’s what we’ve got to change. As I said in my talk, this ancient institution is a great example of fantastic strides being made towards gender equality. So no, I think it’s about determination and will, rather than the age of the institution you’re talking about.
Do you think we have a duty to educate young people in politics, especially if the voting age is lowered to 16?
I think that we should educate young people about citizenship, and Curriculum for Excellence, which is the new curriculum, has all of this as part of it. We should educate young people about politics with a small ‘p’, about government and governance. What schools should never do is try and convince people to vote one way or another, but equipping young people to make that decision for themselves is a very important part of what young people should do and learn in schools.
I thought that by and large schools did a great job in the referendum, in engaging young people and enabling them to come to their own conclusions. There’s a lot there that can be learnt from.
Besides a degree, what did your time at Glasgow Uni teach you, and how has it helped you get to where you are today?
It taught me what the best bars on Byres Road are! It’s not there anymore, but Bonhams was my favourite for a while, and Tennent’s was a regular haunt. But I don’t want to make it sound like I spent my entire university career in pubs!
I suppose my experience here taught me to think for myself and to work out who I was and what was important to me. I guess that’s the most valuable thing you get out of university – apart from a degree of course – the space and the freedom. Often you’re not as tied to home or your parents as you were at school, and you feel liberated to find out who you are and what you believe about things. That’s certainly what I was able to do here.
Were there any societies like Successful Women at Glasgow (SW@G) when you were here, societies that helped you develop both as a person and specifically as a woman?
I can’t say there wasn’t, but not any that I was aware of, and certainly none that I was a member of. I think if there had been, I probably would have been a member of it. The organisation I was most involved in at university was GUSNA (Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association) and I was in the SRC for a period as well. I think all of these things help you develop yourself. Particularly the SRC – I suppose it’s politics in a microcosm in some ways. You hone your debating skills, you learn when to have a fight and when not to – well, you don’t always learn when not to have a fight! So yes, a lot of what I learned at university outside of my formal studies was stuff that has come in useful later in life.
Regarding the announcement yesterday on the government proposals on English votes for English laws, do you think there’s a democratic deficit if Scottish MPs vote on matters that don’t affect their constituents?
I suppose my first observation would be on how ironic it all is. You go back to the referendum and we were getting all this rhetoric about how we are an equal partner in the UK and a valued member of the family of nations, and then the referendum is over and they’re trying to take away our voting rights!
That said, I take the view that where issues are genuinely English only issues and they have no impact on Scotland, then yes, I think there is a case for English votes for English laws. When issues are the devolved responsibility of the Scottish Parliament English MPs can’t vote on them, so I think there is a case there. The problem is what issues fall into that category, and I think what the Tories are trying to do just now is pull in a lot of issues to that category that shouldn’t be there. The example I was using a few weeks ago was decisions on the English health service. Now, on the face of it Scottish health is devolved so English health must be a matter of English votes for English laws. Except, if you take decisions on the English health service then that has an impact on the budget of the English health service, which has a direct knock on effect to the Scottish health budget due to the Barnett formula. On issues like that, it’s not just legitimate for Scottish MPs to vote, I’d say it was essential.
So you’d say they were defending Scottish interests?
In those situations? Absolutely.
After the killings in Paris a few weeks ago we saw leaders from Britain and around the world marching in support of France, do you recognise that there’s a certain irony and hypocrisy to have our leaders doing that at the same time they supply weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia?
I’m a very strong advocate of ethical foreign policy and ethics in arms sales. I think the UK government has not always covered itself in glory in terms of who it provides arms and weapons to. If you think back to the Iraq war, we were there fighting against a government who just a few years previous to that had been getting supplied weapons by the governments that were now fighting them. It’s always easy to take a very simplistic view, but generally speaking I think we should strive not to behave in a way internationally that can be seen as hypocritical or double standards. I think the UK government has to think very carefully about who it supplies those arms to.
Finally First Minister, what’s your opinion on the state of Scottish hip hop?
I can’t say I’m too up to date, but I love Stanley Odd. ‘Son I Voted Yes’ still makes me tear up.
Thank you very much.
[Louisa Burden and Max Sefton]
Photo credit to Callum Woodbridge.