First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon Discusses Brexit

As the deadline for the UK leaving the EU fast approaches, the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon is in the unusual position of seeing the country she leads being dragged out of the EU, despite Scottish people favouring remaining in the union. She speaks with Michel Martin in New York about Brexit, as well as her own – so far unrealized – desire for Scotland’s independence from the UK.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: We turn next to a small nation caught in the middle of an enormous tug of war and to the woman leading the defense. She is Nicola Sturgeon, well-known as the first Minister of Scotland. One of the only a handful of female heads of government around the world. And since the U.K. voted for Brexit back in 2016, Scotland has been caught up in this crisis against its will. It voted overwhelmingly to stay in the E.U. Nicola Sturgeon has been a leading voice for a second referendum on E.U. membership and she’s doing everything that she can to make sure her economy survives Brexit. And that mission has brought her to the United States where Brexit is an ongoing topic of fascination and some confusion. Our Michel Martin caught up with Sturgeon in New York.


MICHEL MARTIN: First Minister, thank you so much for joining us.

NICOLA STURGEON, SCOTTISH FIRST MINISTER: You’re very welcome. It’s lovely to be here.

MARTIN: I think most Americans know that Scotland has a long —


MARTIN: — and fruitful close relationship with the United States, both, you know, culturally, economically and lots of other ways.


MARTIN: But I just wonder if there’s something about the tone of the current administration that concerns you. You probably heard some —


MARTIN: — of the president’s State of the Union address —


MARTIN: — and the very first couple of words he talked about putting America’s interests first and I wonder if there’s something that concerns you, that you felt a need to address while you’re here.

STURGEON: Well, look, I think it’s no secret that I’m not aligned politically with the current president of the United States. We, you know, disagree and differ on many things. But as you see, Scotland and the U.S. have a very strong and longstanding relationship, and that relationship endures regardless of who occupies the office of president or a first minister of Scotland. As it was the timing of my visit is perhaps more to do with developments in the U.K. than in the U.S. Brexit, of course, the U.K. leaving the European Union is an issue that is occupying much of our thinking. And I want to make sure that the rest of the world knows that notwithstanding Brexit, Scotland remains open for business, Scotland didn’t vote to leave the E.U., that’s something that’s happening to us against our will but we want to make sure that other countries know that Scotland remains open and welcoming and we want to attract businesses and individuals to come and live and work in our country.

MARTIN: One reason that some Americans are very interested in Brexit apart from just all the obvious is that they saw it as kind of a precursor to what happened in the United States with the rise of Donald Trump as president. What is your view about what led to Brexit?

STURGEON: I think some of the factors behind Brexit are probably the same factors that perhaps were behind the election of Donald Trump as president of the U.S., obviously, they’re different situations and different circumstances. But in the U.K. I think the Brexit vote, ironically, wasn’t entirely to do with the European Union and the U.K.’s membership with the European Union. Many people who voted to leave the E.U. were voting against the status quo because there was concern — is considered, understandable concern in the U.K. about rising levels of inequality and poverty, people feeling as if the status quo is not serving them well, that sometimes manifests itself in a view that immigration is to blame for that and we need to reduce the numbers of people coming to live in our country. And I guess some of the same factors would apply in the election of Donald Trump.

MARTIN: I mean, you’ve been very blunt about saying that the U.K. is not ready, that the May government is not ready to meet this deadline. What should happen now in your view?

STURGEON: Well, the prime minister, Theresa may, in my view, should ask Europe for an extension of the deadline because after two-and-a-half years she and her government have been completely incapable of coming up with a plan to leave the E.U. in an orderly well-managed fashion. So, the risk now is that we leave at the end of March with no agreement in place, and that would have quite catastrophic effects for almost every aspect of life in the U.K. And even if an agreement struck in the next couple of weeks, we’re running out of time to do all of the practical things to put that agreement into effect. And in my view, because there is no agreement about how to leave the European Union in the U.K., we should put the issue back to the people in another referendum.

MARTIN: But what would that accomplish though? Because it’s my understanding that, you know, we’ve asked whether there was buyer’s remorse about this.


MARTIN: And it appears that it’s not so much that there’s buyer’s remorse, is that people are dug in, that the people who are against it are still against it, they’re even more against it now and the people who were for it are just mad that it hasn’t happened yet. So, what would another referendum accomplish?

STURGEON: There’s some truth in what you’ve just said there. Opinion polls would suggest that opinion is still quite evenly balanced. Although, it would also suggest that if there was another referendum the outcome probably would be to remain in the E.U. And I guess in another referendum, young people who, by and large, wanted to stay in the E.U. might be more likely to vote than they were in the first referendum.

MARTIN: So, the idea is that people are better educated now than they were before?


MARTIN: Or is that more people are aware of how — what the stakes are and would participate —

STURGEON: A bit of both. I think people are more aware of the stakes and would participate, I think others are undoubtedly more informed about the downsides and people have seen, you know, the makes that’s been made over the process of Brexit since the vote. I don’t think there’s any room for complacency in any electoral contest, whether it’s a referendum on an election, you have to make a case and you have to win that case. But I do think that that is every likelihood the result would be different and people would all know. Ironically, people are much more informed about the issues around this than they were before they voted.

MARTIN: And so, what (INAUDIBLE) independence? I think people may remember that there was a referendum on independence and that Scotland voted against it, there was a very spirited debates — I don’t know if campaign is the right word. But it was a very spirited —

STURGEON: And it was very informed campaign. Unlike the Brexit vote, people really got into the issues before the vote. So, people voted knowing all of the ins and outs and the pros and cons, where and —

MARTIN: But to my understanding that part of the reason that people voted against it was that they wanted to stay within the E.U.?

STURGEON: Ironically, I used the word ironic again, in the independence campaign, one of the arguments that was made by those who were against independence was if Scotland voted to be independent, we would be thrown out of the European Union because the U.K. is the member state and we would have to reapply for membership. And that did scare some people. And here we are four years later, because we are not independent, we have been taken out of the European Union. So, that, undoubtedly, brings the issue of independence back to the fore in many people’s minds we are in this position because we’re not independent, you know, 62 percent of people in Scotland voted to remain in the E.U. and yet, in a matter of weeks, we could be outside the E.U. So, that democratic deficit that Scotland faces has been part of the U.K. undoubtedly makes many people want to look again at the issue of Scotland becoming an independent country.

MARTIN: And what about you? Are you looking again at the prospect of — or supporting another referendum of Scottish independence?

STURGEON: Absolutely. I think there will be another independence referendum. And I — when that happens, I think Scotland this time will vote to be independent and that would be a way of us then being able to protect our place in Europe and make sure that the decisions that, you know, influence this direction of our country are taken in Scotland Norte in London. The timing of that is yet to be determined. Obviously, there’s a lot of concern about the Brexit process just now. And as first minister of Scotland, I have said that I will set out my view on the timing of another independence referendum in the next few weeks, once we see how did this Brexit process finally place out.

MARTIN: But I’m pressing the question because it sounds to me as though you’re saying that Scotland has had enough. So, no matter what Britain decides to do, Scotland wants to be independent now because you’ve seen the most negative consequences —


MARTIN: — or even potential consequences, even the potential consequences are enough to say to people enough is enough.


MARTIN: So, why not just call it then?

STURGEON: Well, what I’m saying is, I think there will be another independence and I think there should be another independence referendum. I’m not yet certain of exactly when that should happen. Because right now, you know, a few weeks from Brexit, we don’t know whether the U.K. will leave with a deal or leave without a deal or perhaps not leave at all, there could be another general election in the U.K. because of this chaos, there might be another referendum on the issue of European Union membership. So, I think we need to just wait and see a little bit about what’s going to happen on these things before I come to view and when the rate time for an independence referendum would be.

MARTIN: Do you think in — I’m not quite sure what timeframe, three years, five, that Scotland will be applying to the E.U. as an independent nation?

STURGEON: I would love to think so and I think it will. I’m not going to put a particular time scale in it right now. But in the not too distant future, I think Scotland will be an independent country looking to join the E.U. as an independent country and looking to take a seat at the United Nations not far away from here.

MARTIN: So in the time we have left, I do want to ask a little bit about you. You belong to the very small club of women heads of government. The legislative body here in the United States has elected the largest number of women serving for the first time but it’s still a tiny minority, nowhere near half. Achieving gender equity has been a signature issue for you and you’ve recently been appointed to another position to the United Nations whereyou’ll be sort of amplifying this issue on the world stage. And I just wanted to know if you have some sort of core principles for how you pursue this question, you know, as a head of state.

STURGEON: What I would see and how I come at this issue is shifting people’s mindset on it. And instead of seeing efforts to support women into leadership positions across all sections of society, a special pleading or unfair preferment, we should actually look at it from the other way around. Unless you take the view, which hopefully not very many people do, that women are somehow less capable of being in senior positions in any organization, whether that’s a government or a company or a public organization, that doesn’t have gender diversity and equal representation is obviously doing something wrong because there must be barriers in the way to women progressing. And it’s those barriers we have to help take down. And I’m a great believer that we should all lead by example. One of — as you see, too few head female heads of government. I have a gender balance cabinet and we encourage all organizations across Scotland to take action. And the other thing that we really need to, I think, encourage understanding of is that — this is not something to do just because it’s good for women and it’s fair for women. All of the evidence now says that companies, organizations, governments that have greater diversity and greater representation of women in their decision-making actually perform better. And so there’s a really hardheaded reason to promote gender equality as well as a principled reason.

MARTIN: Well, there are those who see it as social engineering. I know that there’s a lot of resistance in this country.

STURGEON: That’s the opposite view. Surely, to have a society where women are so underrepresented, that’s been social engineering gone wrong over generations. And we want to utilize the talents of all of our population, not just half of our population. Women are as capable of being government leaders, heads of businesses as men are. So the fact that we have this inequality between the genders, that’s a sign that something is wrong, not — it’s not efforts to redress that, the social engineering. That’s about redressing the systemic barriers that women face.

MARTIN: On the other hand, and this is a sensitive subject and we’re not going to litigate it here, your predecessor as first minister has recently been accused of some very serious misconduct when it comes to his relationships with women. But your role and his has been criticized. I know that you had meetings with him while this matter was still being sort of investigated. Is that leading by example?

STURGEON: Well, I can’t go into detail of that because it is a criminal proceeding. But what I see and what I’ve always sought to act on as well as talk about is the fact that nobody should be given special treatment because of their seniority or their position. And we’re sitting here talking about this, in itself is evidence that it wasn’t simply brushed under the carpet because of the identity of the person involved. And that’s what I think is important. And as I say I can’t go into the detail of any of this because of the circumstances of it. But nobody should be above accountability for these issues, whether it’s a head of a government or whoever. When complaints come forward, they must be treated properly and investigated properly. And that’s the important principle that I advocate and always will.

MARTIN: Do you feel as a woman leader yourself, and as I said one of the very few, that you have some special responsibility here, that you’re under special scrutiny here? What is your special responsibility when it comes to this?

STURGEON: I think it’s to speak up and ensure that women are taken seriously and that women are not automatically disbelieved and that we have systems in place that allow concerns and complaints to be properly dealt with. And if we fall short on those, to address that and make sure we get to rate in future. And as a woman, I feel very strongly about these issues and I feel a responsibility on these issues. But it can’t just be the responsibility of women. Often here, we’re talking about the behavior and the conduct of men. And men have to take ownership and responsibility for that as well. And that’s something that I think we shouldn’t lose sight of.

MARTIN: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, thanks so much for speaking to us.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Spike Lee about his film “BlacKkKlansman,” his career and the racist controversies surrounding Virginia politics and Liam Neeson. Author Leila Slimani discusses her new book and the rise of populism and extremism in France. Michel Martin speaks with First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon about Brexit.