Transcripts of broadcast interviews rarely do politicians any favours. What can sound half-reasonable has a tendency to degenerate into semi-literacy as soon as the same words appear in print. We should bear that caveat in mind when we consider a written version of a television interview with the first minister, which featured prominently on BBC Scotland's website last weekend.
An instinctive reaction of anyone reading it might have been to wonder why the BBC had exposed Nicola Sturgeon to verbatim chunks of her own prose. This, for example, was her response to a suggestion that she might call a snap Holyrood election or take court action against the UK government for its refusal to allow a second independence referendum:
These are not the kinds of things I am thinking of. I’ve got a responsibility to lead the country. I was elected as first minister less than a year ago. I’ve got a responsibility to lead this country. We are very focused on getting growth in our economy and transforming education. These are things that continue to be my priorities – these sort of scenarios that are put to me are not the ones I am thinking, but I do have an idea of how I progress the will of parliament.
No doubt this could have been paraphrased in a tactful way. Instead the BBC came to Ms Sturgeon's assistance only to the extent of inserting the word 'of' in hard brackets after her second use of 'thinking'. It might also have been possible to improve the sentence, 'I'm absolutely clear that the position of Theresa May, I just don’t think is politically sustainable', which moved from absolute clarity to cloudy speculation in successive phrases.
But the next paragraph, even with the insertion of clarifying parentheses, is a more serious challenge to intelligibility:
If the Scottish parliament is of the position as it is because it has voted in this way that Scotland should be given a choice – not now, but when the time is right, when there is clarity about Brexit and obviously when there is clarity also about independence – that we should have a choice about our future.
In an amended version of the story on Saturday afternoon, an
accompanying photograph of the first minister was replaced by an image of her from the broadcast interview and a helpful comma was added after the word 'position' – but otherwise the page lingered unaltered into the evening before it was finally dumped in the dustbin of history.
Even first ministers are entitled to off-days. Clearly this was one of Ms Sturgeon's. After her whirlwind tour of America in which she created (or 'sustained') the mighty total of 44 jobs in support of Scotland's failing economy, she may have been suffering from jet lag. If this is the explanation, perhaps it was a little cruel of the BBC to report the interview in so many direct quotes.
Cruel, yet justified: for the interview, nakedly transcribed, was a reminder of Orwell's theory that muddled language is often a sign of muddled thinking. It also told us something about the first minister that the broadcast original, with its visual distractions and the presence of an interviewer, would not so easily have done. It told us that, after two and a half years in office, Nicola Sturgeon may be developing messianic tendencies: that she is beginning to see herself as the saviour of the nation.
Of the 209 words in the published transcript, 17 are 'I', ‘my’ or ‘me’. In contrast, the word 'we', in relation to the administration she heads, occurs only once. This is the 'we' who are 'focused' on growing the economy and 'transforming' education, areas of policy in which her administration is vulnerable and from which the first minister may, consciously or sub-consciously, wish to detach herself.
That solitary 'we' is the only sign that the first minister has a hinterland of political colleagues, a cabinet of some sort. Mostly, the messiah seems to be on her own, leading her troubled people to the promised land – a vision underlined by the swift repetition of the sentence 'I have a responsibility to lead this [or the] country'.
Until she said it, I had no idea that Nicola Sturgeon presumed so exalted a view of her own importance. In our bitterly polarised political culture, it came as a surprise to learn that anyone was claiming to 'lead the country'. So we had best look at the facts. In the last Holyrood election – less than a year ago, as she correctly reminded us – her party gained the support of around 25% of the electorate. The rest – the 75% who declined to unite behind Ms Sturgeon’s leadership of the country – either voted for other parties or did not trouble themselves to vote at all.
In the constituency election – the only one that counts given the constitutional racket of the so-called 'regional' poll – the SNP and the Greens (the two independence-supporting parties) won 1,073,069 votes while the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems (the three Unionist parties) won 1,194,343, a majority in favour of Scotland's continued membership of the UK. Somehow, 11 months later, this means nothing: a decisive mandate for a second referendum has been declared.
Fair enough; much appears to have changed. But I doubt that these uncertain times confer any special privileges on politicians, even first ministers. We are not at war; nor, despite Brexit, do we face some dire emergency. There is, as yet, no need for grandiose talk about 'leading the country'. The first minister's pretension is as absurd as Dewar's 'father of the nation' mantle, except that he had the grace to be – or pretend to be – embarrassed by it. The most she leads, and the most any of her predecessors led, is a devolved administration discharging – in theory at least – a wide and increasing range of practical responsibilities. This is a long way short of 'leading the country' in the sense of moral legitimacy usually implied by the term.
Dewar never led more than a quarter of the country, and nor does Nicola Sturgeon. The chances that this partisan figure will ever unite Scotland, pre- or post-referendum, are remote indeed. But if she can tear herself away from the day job of securing independence, and 'transform' education in the little spare time she has at her disposal, she might yet earn the gratitude of her people.