In the spring of 1999, Sturgeon became part of the first class of Members of the new Scottish Parliament. A few minutes before noon, on May 12th, Winifred Ewing, the oldest member of the new chamber, reconvened the Parliament, which had not sat since the Act of Union, in 1707. In 2004, Salmond made Sturgeon his deputy. By then, the S.N.P. was the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament, which was controlled by a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Salmond was still an M.P., which made Sturgeon the Party’s de-facto leader in Edinburgh. “At that point, everything that everybody knew about Nicola Sturgeon was that she was the Alex Salmond loyalist,” Jack McConnell, a Labour peer, who was the country’s First Minister at the time, told me. “That was the perception—quite aggressive and very, very political.”
In the next three years, McConnell came to respect his adversary. “She conducted herself in a way that was appropriate in a leader,” he said. In 2007, the S.N.P. formed a minority government, and Salmond became First Minister. Sturgeon immersed herself in her job and her party. She married Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the S.N.P. They don’t have children. “There weren’t that many people who were able to challenge Alex. Nicola was probably one of the few who was able to,” Shona Robison, a former S.N.P. Cabinet secretary, who has known both politicians for thirty years, said.
One Scottish reporter noted how Sturgeon’s hand gestures came to resemble Salmond’s, as did her little preëmptive laugh when defusing a provocative question. A strategist who worked with the duo recalled that Salmond was unwilling to start meetings until Sturgeon was in the room. “They deferred to one another,” the strategist said. “In many ways, it seemed like quite an equal relationship.” In 2014, when Sturgeon took over as First Minister, she described her debt to Salmond as immeasurable. “Outside my mum and dad, and my husband now, he has been the most influential and important person in my adult life,” she told me. “Somebody—I don’t want to use this term too loosely—but somebody that I loved, on a level.”
Since coming to power, the S.N.P. has sought to play two roles: as a capable government and as the vanguard of a movement. The Party’s critics argue that its obsession with independence is a distraction from running the country. Scotland is still marked by deprivation; one in four children lives in poverty. Under the S.N.P., the country’s education system, which was once considered the best in the U.K., has continued a long decline. One afternoon, I walked through Govanhill, in Sturgeon’s constituency, where the city’s nineteenth-century tenements still stand. The neighborhood is among the most diverse in Scotland, with a large Roma population. I met Fatima Uygun, the manager of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, an N.G.O. that has spent the past twenty years occupying and then restoring a once resplendent swimming pool.
During the pandemic, Uygun and her team paused the project in order to help out in the neighborhood. “We knew, very early on, that the people here were going to get a really good kicking,” she said. Uygun’s staff raised more than two hundred thousand pounds, mostly from government sources, to supply food to poor families and tablets and laptops to children who couldn’t go to school. The N.G.O. set up a temporary youth club, to organize street activities, and a low-cost, coöperative supermarket, called the People’s Pantry.
Uygun describes herself as a revolutionary socialist. Like many people on the left, and those at the leading edge of Scotland’s independence movement, she sees Sturgeon as a cautious figure who is resistant to transformational change. “I’ve been here for over twenty years. Govanhill has not improved. It’s gone downhill. We have lost services. The roads are manky. I’ve never seen so much rubbish about,” Uygun said. “There are more homeless people on the streets, you know?” Uygun acknowledged the S.N.P.’s anti-racism and Sturgeon’s leadership during the pandemic. “But when it comes to the bread and butter,” she said, “I don’t see life as improved.”
Nonetheless, Uygun observed that Sturgeon’s quest for independence struck a unifying chord in a neighborhood where more than fifty languages are spoken. For a long time, Govanhill had a large Irish Catholic community. “Independence from Britain has been something that has always been the case here,” Uygun said. “And then you have people like the Roma, who’ve never had it. All these things don’t on the surface sound like they should matter, but independence is really important.”
The previous week, Sturgeon had paid a visit to the People’s Pantry; a crowd gathered outside within minutes. “There is lots of shit I can say about Nicola Sturgeon, but when we have needed her for certain things she has delivered,” Uygun said. “People love her.” Sturgeon was one of the first politicians to endorse the group’s occupation of the Govanhill baths. I asked Uygun if she thought that Sturgeon did things like this out of political opportunism or if her motives were more sincere. “I don’t care,” Uygun replied. “We need her.”
That night, Sturgeon took part in an election debate on STV, Scotland’s main independent television channel. On the set, Sturgeon, who wore a white suit jacket over a black blouse and skirt, was flanked by five men: the STV moderator and the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens.
Scotland’s electoral system has been designed to make it difficult for a single party to achieve a parliamentary majority. Since the most recent election, which took place seven weeks before the Brexit vote, in 2016, the S.N.P. has governed with support from the five M.S.P.s of the Scottish Greens, who also back independence. Sturgeon’s pitch this time around has been that if Scotland reëlects a majority of pro-independence M.S.P.s—in full knowledge of Brexit and of the ravages of the pandemic—then the case for a second referendum, to be held in 2023, will be undeniable. Going into the debate, an STV poll had found that the S.N.P. was on course to win a majority on its own.
During the broadcast, Sturgeon’s opponents highlighted shortcomings in the S.N.P.’s record: from water-supply problems at Glasgow’s largest hospital, which led to the deaths of two children, to inadequate ferry services and gaps in the educational progress of poorer students. Sturgeon has a habit, which can be risky for a politician, of conceding occasional mistakes. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, challenged her about Scotland’s rate of drug-related deaths, which is more than three times that of Sweden, the next most afflicted European nation. “I think we took our eye off the ball on drugs deaths,” Sturgeon admitted.
When Ross tried to change the subject to schools, Sturgeon brought him back: “I take the view that when politicians get things wrong—and we all get things wrong—it’s really important to face up to that.” Sturgeon played up the symbolism of being the only woman on the stage and the only person actually talking about winning the election. (The STV poll put the Conservatives in second place, with about twenty per cent of the vote.) “Listening to the gentlemen around me tonight,” Sturgeon said, “I think I’m the only one saying that I want to be in government and be First Minister.”
Brexit and Johnson, both deeply unpopular in Scotland, are favorite subjects of Sturgeon’s. She likes to mock her opponents, who also argued against Britain leaving the E.U., for their feebleness now that it has come to pass. During the STV debate, she turned on Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: “People in Scotland just have to accept being dragged out of the E.U. against their will, and there is nothing you can do about it?”
Brexit has consolidated support for a Scottish-independence referendum, but it is a complicating factor as well. Britain has now left both the E.U.’s single market and its customs union. As a result, new customs and border checks are conducted on most goods traded with Europe. If Scotland becomes independent, it will have to choose between borderless trade with the rest of the U.K., to which it exports around sixty billion pounds’ worth of goods a year, and joining the E.U.’s single market, to which it exports a quarter of that amount. In February, the London School of Economics calculated that, in trade terms, leaving the U.K. would be two or three times as damaging to Scotland’s economy as Brexit has been.
Sturgeon avoids the dilemma of an economic border with England, which has not existed for three centuries, by insisting that she doesn’t want one. “I don’t want to leave any single market,” she says. But other nationalists concede that the question of Scotland’s E.U. membership will be a knot in any upcoming referendum campaign, just as the future of Scotland’s currency—which the S.N.P. has also not resolved—was in 2014. When I asked Andrew Wilson, a former S.N.P. official who helped write a recent economic plan for an independent Scotland, whether the country would have to choose between the E.U.’s single market and that of the U.K., he replied, “Yeah, clearly.”
Johnson is also more problematic for Sturgeon than he seems. She does not appear to like him much. In the summer of 2019, the Prime Minister was booed loudly as he arrived at Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence, in Edinburgh. “We like to give people a welcome in Scotland,” Sturgeon deadpanned to reporters. Last month, she cautioned that Johnson would be like Donald Trump, in his contempt for the democratic process, if he resisted a second referendum. Nonetheless, Sturgeon must rely on him to give her what she wants. The Prime Minister has previously suggested that forty-one years—the passage of time between Britain’s two European referenda—is the “right sort of gap” for Scotland, which would delay a vote until 2055. Sturgeon does not trust Johnson. “It’s a strange thing,” she told me. “I think that, when he tells you something, he actually believes he’s telling the truth.” Her calculation is that Johnson will see that, if he denies Scotland a vote, he will make independence only more likely in the end. “I think, inevitably, political reality and political self-interest will kick in,” she said.
On the afternoon of April 2, 2018, Salmond arrived at Sturgeon’s house, in the East End of Glasgow. For about an hour, they spoke alone in the dining room. During the conversation, Salmond showed Sturgeon a letter he had received on March 7th, from Scotland’s most senior civil servant, telling him that he was under investigation for sexual harassment during his time as First Minister. The previous November, two officials, who became known as Ms. A and Ms. B, raised concerns about Salmond’s behavior. Ms. A later alleged that Salmond had sexually assaulted her one night in December, 2013, when she had been working alone with him in a bedroom at Bute House, and they had been drinking Maotai, a type of Chinese liquor.
The allegations did not come out of nowhere. In the fall of 2017, weeks into the #MeToo movement, complaints that staff at Edinburgh Airport made about Salmond were picked up by reporters and relayed to Sturgeon, but they did not become public. (A police investigation led to no charges.) Since stepping down as the leader of the S.N.P., Salmond had become an awkward figure for Sturgeon. In 2017, after losing his seat in the House of Commons, he performed a smutty show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Salmond also agreed to host a program, which he still presents, on RT, the Kremlin-backed Russian news network.
Nonetheless, the details and the seriousness of the allegations startled Sturgeon, who had overseen the development of a new harassment-complaints procedure for the Scottish government, as a response to #MeToo. “My head was spinning,” she later recounted. While Salmond talked, Sturgeon was acutely conscious of her multiple roles—as a friend, a political ally, a government leader, and a woman. “I remember leaving the room at one point,” she told me. “I think I said that I was going to make a cup of tea, and going to the bathroom and feeling physically sick.”
Salmond was determined to fight the allegations, and, in the course of multiple meetings and telephone calls, he asked Sturgeon to intervene. She did not. She has not spoken to Salmond since. I asked her if she thought that Salmond had registered that he had done anything wrong. “I didn’t get the sense that he had really understood why he should have apologized,” Sturgeon said. “And I didn’t get the sense then, and I don’t get the sense now, that he understood the aspect of abuse of power that was at play.”
During the summer of 2018, Salmond’s lawyers identified a critical problem with the Scottish government’s handling of the allegations. According to the new procedure, when the complaints were made, an investigating officer who had had no prior contact with the people involved should have been appointed. Instead, the officer on the case had been in touch with Ms. A and Ms. B since they came forward with their concerns. In January, 2019, Salmond won a legal challenge against the Scottish government, for which he was awarded five hundred and twelve thousand pounds in legal costs.
The following spring, Salmond was prosecuted for fourteen sexual offenses, alleged by ten women. During the trial, he was accused by civil servants and S.N.P. officials of kissing them on the mouth and grabbing their bottoms, and of stroking an aide’s face while she slept in a car. Salmond’s defense team described him as a “touchy-feely, tactile person,” whose behavior fell short of being criminal. Salmond acknowledged some of the incidents. He described the alleged assault at Bute House as “a sleepy cuddle,” for which he had apologized in 2013, and another attempt to kiss a staffer, while reënacting a Jack Vettriano painting, as “high jinks.” He said he’d stroked the aide’s face to wake her up. He denied any nonconsensual acts. He was acquitted of twelve charges, one charge was dropped during the trial, and another was deemed not proven.
The flawed investigations of Salmond rebounded badly on Sturgeon. Scottish politics is a small place. Many people believed that Sturgeon had been willing to ignore her mentor’s inappropriate behavior as long as it suited her political goals. “This was an open secret in Scottish politics going back to 2014,” Murdo Fraser, a Conservative M.S.P., told me. In August, 2020, Sturgeon admitted to a Scottish Parliament inquiry that she had failed to disclose a meeting with Geoff Aberdein, Salmond’s former chief of staff, four days before the April 2nd meeting with Salmond. A second inquiry, into whether Sturgeon had misled Parliament and breached Scotland’s ministerial code, followed, led by James Hamilton, a former chief prosecutor in Ireland.
Although the details of the scandal were mazelike, the spectacle of the overlapping inquiries was terrible for the S.N.P. Sturgeon was struck by how much she had to lose. “There is a deep structural sexism and misogyny about it,” she said. “We still have this thing that, you know, how a woman who is close to a powerful man who behaves inappropriately . . . It is actually much more important to scrutinize her than the behavior itself.” During the first three months of this year, which coincided with the rollout of Britain’s successful vaccination program, support for Scottish independence slid back toward fifty per cent. Salmond was unrepentant. Giving evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, he described a “prolonged, malicious, and concerted” conspiracy to remove him from public life and accused Sturgeon of breaking several ministerial rules. When I asked him why he had tried to destroy his former protégée, he chuckled for several seconds. “If I wanted to destroy her, that could have been done,” he said.
On March 18th, a leak revealed that a committee of M.S.P.s would conclude that Sturgeon had misled Parliament. But their report did not say that she had done so knowingly. The news broke on a Thursday evening. Over the weekend, her premiership hung in the balance. Sturgeon had accepted that she would resign if the Hamilton inquiry into her own conduct found that she had broken the rules. At two minutes past midnight on Monday morning, John Swinney, Sturgeon’s deputy, received a copy of Hamilton’s report, which examined four possible breaches of Scotland’s ministerial code. Sturgeon was cleared of all four. “It was the most colossal relief to me to see that,” Swinney said.
The Salmond scandal and the danger it posed to Sturgeon revealed how much of the S.N.P.’s political appeal—and the independence movement as a whole—is now vested in her personally. Hamilton’s report was not made public until the afternoon. For hours, Scottish politicians and reporters kept an eye on the Scottish government’s Web site. Robison, Sturgeon’s old friend and S.N.P. ally, sat at her kitchen table, refreshing the page on her laptop. When she grasped Hamilton’s conclusions, she burst into tears. “When you think about all those years of effort, of progress, of everything, that was all in that one basket,” Robison told me. “She is so central to the cause.”
The Scottish election campaign began three days later. One of Sturgeon’s last official acts, before Parliament adjourned, was to propose a pay increase of at least four per cent to Scotland’s National Health Service staff, in recognition of their work during the pandemic. (Three weeks earlier, Johnson had offered staff in England a one-per-cent raise.) When people said that Sturgeon looked tired, she said that she was tired. That weekend, Bell, Sturgeon’s S.N.P. friend from Irvine, hosted a virtual launch of her constituency campaign in Glasgow Southside. Sturgeon sat in her dining room at home, with a backdrop of the Saltire, Scotland’s flag. Paul Anderson, a fiddler from Aberdeenshire, played a tune he had composed, “Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland.” Sturgeon put on her glasses. Her mouth was set. She remembered, every minute or two, to smile at the screen.
The threat from Salmond had not passed. The day before, he had announced that he would be leading a new independence party, Alba, in the coming elections. Although Salmond has been discredited in many voters’ eyes, he remains a compelling figure for some nationalists, who believe that he has a cunning and a daring, especially when dealing with the U.K. government, that Sturgeon cannot match. “The problem that Nicola has, and it is one entirely of her own making, is that the case for independence hasn’t advanced one iota since 2014,” Salmond said. Alba’s early campaign materials were unashamedly jingoistic, invoking Robert the Bruce and medieval battles with England. Salmond told me that he imagines Alba as an opposition nationalist party, challenging the S.N.P. to be bolder.
The split between Sturgeon and Salmond is not only personal. There is a faction within the Party that sees Sturgeon as too controlling and too passive, and wants her to seek a referendum through the courts or to use Scotland’s parliamentary elections as a plebiscite on independence. In the days after Alba launched, two S.N.P. M.P.s in Westminster defected. “The time is now,” another disgruntled M.P. said. “But the time for everything for Nicola seems to be procrastination.” The discord within the movement is a gift for Johnson. A recent poll suggests that Alba may win as many as eight seats in the Scottish Parliament. The unified message of the S.N.P., which has long been fundamental to its rise, has frayed. “They are not riven down the middle,” a senior U.K. official told me. “But they are riven.”
Sturgeon’s campaign has focussed on the pandemic and its aftermath. “The dividing line in this election on every issue is between those who want to vie to be the opposition and those of us who are serious,” she says. The S.N.P., in its manifesto, promises to increase Scotland’s N.H.S. funding by twenty per cent and to raise the country’s social-care budget by a quarter. It offers a “minimum income guarantee”—a first step toward a universal basic income—and plans for free child care for one- and two-year-olds from low-income families.
If the S.N.P. wins on May 6th and Sturgeon forms a fourth successive pro-independence government, Johnson is expected to turn down her request for a second referendum. “Now is not the time” is the line used by his officials. In Sturgeon’s eyes, making momentous choices is exactly what societies should be doing after the pandemic. “People talk about recovery as if it’s some kind of neutral concept,” she said. “It’s not. What you recover to is down to the choices you make, and the values that underpin those.”
S.N.P. activists often say that English people, and English politicians, just don’t get what lies at the heart of their desire for independence. It is both a complaint and the engine of their political success. “Most people here in Scotland, subliminally, have spent their whole lives being told that we are not capable of being an independent country,” Sturgeon told me. Johnson and his ministers are in no danger of ever feeling that, which is why her cause will never die. “They don’t seem to understand that on an emotional level, that having things done to you . . . You know, people don’t like that in their individual lives,” she said. “So why should a country put up with it?” ♦