by Private: Harry McGrath

Who is Nicola Sturgeon?

March 6, 2015 | by Private: Harry McGrath

DAVID Torrance’s biography of Nicola Sturgeon opens in the Scottish Parliament. She is about to become the First Minister of Scotland and ‘appeared relaxed in a red one-piece dress (designed by Edinburgh design duo Totty Rocks). Sitting a few rows behind her was the man she was about to succeed, Alex Salmond, his big brown eyes beaming amiably.’ Try to imagine this the other way around: ‘Alex Salmond, appeared relaxed in a two-piece suit designed by George for Walmart/Asda while Nicola Sturgeon’s big blue (?) eyes beamed amiably.’ Nobody would write that. Nor would they if you replaced Salmond with any of his three male predecessors: Dewar, McLeish or McConnell.

Torrance then embarks on a gentle stroll through Sturgeon’s ‘polished and well-judged [acceptance] speech’ and highlights the interaction between Scotland’s first female First Minister and her family who were in the chamber to witness her big day. This comes to a screeching halt with a sentence that begins ‘Often criticised for being childless …’ Who often criticises her for that? What kind of people would?  

Torrance might be referring to the ravings of a former Scotland rugby player during the referendum campaign as reported in the Daily Mail. Apart from that, the only person drawing attention to the issue is the biographer himself who returns to it repeatedly. The presence of the biographer in biography is a well-trammelled area of study and it is already a problem here. The urge to identify with the sympathetic figure of Sturgeon is in tension with the desire to reject the testimony of a biographer who, by page four, appears capable of crass (and false) assertion.

According to Torrance, this shouldn’t matter. In his preface, he refers to the famous letter from Alex Salmond, the reluctant subject of a previous Torrance biography, which was published in the Herald. It included the observation that, ‘I hardly know David Torrance and, much more problematically for a biographer – he doesn’t know me at all.’ Torrance takes this to mean that Salmond doesn’t understand the nature of biography and argues that it is rarely about ‘intimacy’ in the Boswell and Johnson sense. Apparently, it should be about ‘detached assessment’ which he feels he is well equipped to provide. An alternative interpretation might be that the former First Minister thinks Torrance’s biography of him is a stinker. Either way, Sturgeon, like her predecessor, showed no enthusiasm for having her story told by David Torrance and declined to meet him for a ‘background interview’. In short, this is a ‘fully unauthorised biography’.

The idea that biographies are rarely about intimacy between writer and subject is, of course, highly contentious. Some would say the opposite: that the primary duty of the biographer is to become intimate with their subject and that there are a number of ways to do that short of trailing them around as Boswell did Johnson. In Torrance’s brief survey of Sturgeon’s formative years in Ayrshire, for instance, a day spent with the predominantly female staff in my sister’s school in Irvine would have revealed a lot about the First Minister’s upbringing and many of the reasons why she is so widely admired by women in particular. Instead Torrance, or his undergraduate research assistant, scour newspapers for scattered pieces of information and throw them all together.

In fact, ‘Chapter 2: A working-class girl from Ayrshire’ would be better titled ‘Ayrshire through the wrong end of a telescope’, such is the sense of distance between Torrance and what he is describing. When he does stumble on something interesting, he takes no interest in it. Is there a connection between the fact that Sturgeon’s father lived in a tied cottage in Dunure and land reform being declared a priority by the new First Minister? This isn’t even identified as a potential issue far less answered. Detached assessment isn’t very helpful here.

Torrance’s primary intention for the Ayrshire chapter seems to be to get it over with as quickly as possible and move Sturgeon into an environment where he is more comfortable. In this at least he is successful. Sturgeon’s first eighteen years merit only fifteen pages and suddenly she is at Glasgow University studying law and becoming involved in student politics on behalf of the SNP. Cue a conventional overview of Sturgeon’s student years devoid of new information or interesting insight. Her various activities at Glasgow University included supporting pop star/commentator Pat Kane’s bid to become university rector. He, in turn, was busy cultivating the SNP’s ethos as ‘a modern, intellectual, progressive nationalism which simultaneously maintained our sense of nationhood and connected it with other European cultures.’ Kane deserves kudos for that, not least because the quote comes from his 1992 book Tinsel Show and the ethos he described then is now the prevailing one. Kane is a big part of the story here and it would be interesting to hear from him almost a quarter of a century on, but he is eerily quiet.

In the same chapter, the phrase ‘anonymous interview’ starts to appear in endnotes. Soon these nameless interviewees are turning up everywhere and eventually they contend with newspapers as the prime source of Torrance’s material. They say things that, almost without exception, are so anodyne as to make one wonder why they required anonymity in the first place. Here, for instance, is a ‘political contemporary’ recollecting the Glasgow University days: ‘despite coming across as “earnest” there was also another side of Sturgeon that was ‘caring, warm, appealing’.’ Torrance doesn’t explain why anonymity is needed for such trivia, but his biography is starting to echo to the sound of doors quietly closing.

And so it goes. The chapters roll on in the style of a fleshed-out Wikipedia entry: Nicola as rising star; Nicola for leader; the return of Alex; Nicola for deputy; electoral disappointment/victory/ triumph; referendum; post referendum etc. There are gender offensive chapter titles – ‘Nippy Sweetie’, ‘High Priestess’ – and some handy reminders of details you might have missed if you weren’t paying attention the first time. It’s essentially a rehash. There might be some residual value for folk who, in generations to come, want to know from an anonymous source whether Nicola Sturgeon was shy, engaging, hardworking, independent, determined, funny, serious, kind, empathetic or distant. If so, they can perm any three or four from ten.

It is a relief when Torrance finally attempts some analysis. Poking around in search of political inconsistencies is one of his things and he returns to it in the last chapter. The apparent contradiction between the pursuit of social justice and the lowering of corporation tax is a particular favourite (even though Sturgeon has been making noises about dumping the latter). On the last page, he summarizes Scotland’s new First Minister thus: ‘although less cynical than her predecessor, she was in other respects as much a product of the professional political era as those she often criticised, comfortable with spin, triangulation, and the elevation of pragmatism over principle.’ Well perhaps, but that hardly explains her remarkable popularity. To others her political career is more obviously defined by its consistency – on nuclear weapons, for instance, or tuition fees, or inequality. This is in contrast to her prospective lead opponent in the Scottish Parliament who is busy reimagining his past and changing his tunes.

To invoke Dr Johnson, it is not done well but you are surprised to find it done all. At the most basic level, the speed with which the biography has been written is unseemly. In January 2015, Torrance conducted numerous interviews, including anonymous ones on 10th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 20th of that month. The most recent interview was with Sturgeon’s friend Claire Mitchell QC on 28 January. A publisher’s draft appeared in early February; barely enough time for the ink to dry on the transcripts or for the mysterious interviewees to shoot the craw. This inexplicable need for speed may be the reason why the text is so repetitive. If you didn’t know that Angela Constance was a university contemporary of Nicola Sturgeon, you will by the umpteenth time it’s mentioned. Ditto the various aspects of the SNP that remind Torrance of New Labour. Ditto his old chestnut about not blaming Margaret Thatcher for Scotland’s struggling communities because the rot has set in before she came along.

For someone who often uses his newspaper columns to accuse the SNP of simplifying complex arguments, Torrance has a strange way of belittling the big issues when they arise. He is right to point out that ‘it was not hard to see why the Deputy First Minister identified so closely with the hit Danish TV series about a female First Minister, Brigitte Nyborg, of a small, social democratic nation in northern Europe.’ But we need more on the attraction of fictional role models when there is a dearth of real ones (even with Helle Thorning-Schmidt becoming Denmark’s Statsminister a year after Borgen was launched). And we need much more on the challenges faced by a Scottish female First Minister in an unprecedented situation. Instead Torrance calls Sturgeon ‘a bit of a fan-girl’ – as if she had snuck in the side door at a Barry Manilow concert – and implies that her office was out of order when it arranged for her to meet Borgen actress Sidse Babett Knudsen in Edinburgh.

In 2014 Sturgeon said, ‘We turn on the TV and very rarely hear people that sound like us. Subconsciously over the years you associate London accents with authority, with people who know what they are talking about.’ Torrance dismisses this as ‘old fashioned Nationalist chippiness’ relating to ‘the received pronunciation of 1950s broadcasting’. The biographer’s habit of using jibes to choke off potentially interesting themes is both irritating and self-defeating. About five per cent of MPs are from working-class backgrounds and this has obvious implications for the televised accent of UK politics. It also wouldn’t have taken much to broaden the discussion and consider the wider issues around power and its circumspection inherent in Scotland’s devolved political system. These issues concern Torrance’s subject even if they don’t him, and they extend beyond politics. It is too facile to say, as Torrance does, that everything is fine because Andrew Marr, Jim Naughtie and Kirsty Wark are BBC stalwarts.

Scotland’s first female First Minister deserves better and will surely get it. In the meantime, the main hope for Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life is that its existence doesn’t discourage anyone from doing the job properly. In the preface Torrance says that his biography is necessary because more ought to be known of governing men and women beyond an occasional newspaper profile or their ‘official CVs’, but he hasn’t delivered even at that level. He also says that this is an ‘interim biography’ which suggests the possibility that there is another on the way by the same author. Given the speed with which this one was produced, a new army of anonymous interviewees could be mustering in the woods even before this book reaches the shelves.


Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life

David Torrance

Birlinn, £8.99, ISBN 9781780272962, PP208

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