Brexit Made One U.K. Leader Look Good, and We’re Not Talking Theresa May

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon actually had a plan.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon.

Photographer: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Leave it to the land of Shakespeare to stage a drama where all the male leads end up dead. The first head to roll after the U.K.’s June 23 vote to leave the European Union was Prime Minister David Cameron’s. He resigned just hours after losing the Brexit referendum, having gambled the nation’s economic future for a few more years at 10 Downing Street. Next on the chopping block was Boris Johnson, who after leading the Leave campaign appeared startled and unprepared for victory, and was forced out of the race to succeed Cameron by an ally’s betrayal. A third leader, Jeremy Corbyn, lost a vote of no confidence to the Labour Party rank-and-file, which was furious over his halfhearted case for the Remain side. Possibly the most shameless figure to exit the stage was Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party. He admitted after victory that a critical argument for Brexit had been a “mistake,” and then resigned his position.

The only major British politicians standing are two women: Theresa May, the Tory member of Parliament who will be the next prime minister, and Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister. And unlike May, who lucked her way into a battlefield promotion, Sturgeon had a plan—and is arguably the sole British party leader to emerge stronger from the Brexit bloodbath. She campaigned to remain in the EU but has been steadier in defeat than anyone on the Leave side has been in victory. The morning after the vote, Sturgeon gave a televised speech: a small, hardy woman in a red suit, standing between Scottish and EU flags and projecting confidence to a rattled world. Sturgeon, 46, reminded her audience that her Scottish National Party had run a dignified, issues-based campaign. She spoke directly to immigrants, much maligned in the contest, saying, “You remain welcome here, Scotland is your home, and your contribution is valued.” And she acknowledged the legitimacy of the Leave side’s grievances. The vote, Sturgeon said, “was a clear expression of disaffection with the political system that has failed in too many communities. … The Westminster establishment has some serious soul-searching to do.”

Political commentators around the world were wowed by the appearance of a grown-up. The Week, a popular British news magazine, ran an illustrated cover showing Sturgeon standing on solid ground while Cameron, Johnson, and Corbyn teetered over fissures in the earth. In an editorial headlined “A Modest Proposal to End Political Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Toronto Star asked, “Why not find a way to put her in charge of righting the British ship and steering a path through the Euro mess?” The answer is that Sturgeon doesn’t aspire to lead Britain. She would rather sever it in two.

Since the age of 16, Sturgeon’s lodestar has been Scottish independence. She almost saw her dream realized in 2014, when Scotland voted 55 percent to 45 percent to remain in the U.K.—a closer margin than many had expected. In the Brexit referendum, 62 percent of Scots, and a majority in every Scottish county, voted to remain in the EU, but they were outnumbered by the English and Welsh who wanted out. This was, Sturgeon told the reporters watching her June 24 speech, “democratically unacceptable,” and she declared that a new Scottish independence referendum was “on the table.”

The Wednesday after the Brexit vote, Sturgeon rose at 4:15 a.m. and traveled to EU headquarters in Brussels to discuss options for keeping Scotland in the bloc. A day earlier, the Scottish Parliament voted 92-0 to support Sturgeon’s efforts, and she appointed a council of experts to advise her on European affairs. “Sturgeon clearly had a plan,” says Michael Moore, who served in Cameron’s cabinet as secretary of state for Scotland from 2010 until 2013. “It sits very neatly in contrast to the chaos that has happened in every party in Westminster since the EU referendum.”

Sturgeon is an anomaly not only in Britain. She is a nationalist courting Brussels at a time when nationalists in other Western European countries are threatening to rend the EU apart. Populist parties in France, Austria, and the Netherlands applauded the Brexit and are hoping a Frexit, Oexit, and Nexit will soon follow; Sturgeon, meanwhile, happily snapped photos of herself with EU technocrats like a teenager backstage at Coachella. She’s what George Reid, the former presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, calls a “canny radical,” the political unicorn for which liberals in just about every other European country hunt in vain—a beloved leader who has harnessed populist energy to outward-looking social democratic policies, rather than isolationism and ethnic rage.

“There is a story about Robert the Bruce, who is Scotland’s first hero king,” says Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as first minister of Scotland and the architect of the SNP’s success over the past 30 years. In the early 14th century, Bruce hid in a cave after an unsuccessful revolt against the English. He watched a small spider fail several times to weave a web across the cave ceiling. “On the seventh attempt, the spider successfully spun its web,” Salmond says. “And that is when Robert the Bruce said, ‘I’ll have one more go,’ which was successful. Nicola Sturgeon has shown the same perseverance as Robert the Bruce’s spider.”

Sturgeon declined to be interviewed, but party colleagues, political journalists, and a 2015 biography describe a singularly focused career. She first dreamed of independence as a teenager in Dreghorn, the town in western Scotland where she was born in 1970. At the time, Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies were leading to the closure of steel mills and industrial works across the country. Sturgeon, the daughter of an electrician and a dental nurse, watched hopelessness spread as Dreghorn boarded up its coal mines and unemployment soared. “Thatcher was the motivation for my entire political career,” she said later. “I hated everything she stood for.”

Sturgeon was in good company. Under Thatcher’s Conservative administration, Scotland became so pro-Labour that people joked that election officials weighed votes instead of counting them. But it wasn’t enough to oust the PM, who remained popular in England, where more than 80 percent of Britain’s population lived. Sturgeon feared that Scotland would always be at the mercy of its southern neighbor, and she decided a divorce, after almost 300 years of marriage, was the only cure.

In 1987, Sturgeon, a quiet teen with a porcupine-like haircut, visited Kay Ullrich, the local candidate for Parliament representing the Scottish National Party, which had been founded in 1934 to advocate independence. “I went to the door, and this young girl was standing there,” Ullrich remembers. “She said, ‘Hullo, Mrs. Ullrich. My name is Nicola Sturgeon. Can I help with your campaign?’ ” The SNP was on the fringe of Scottish politics, and Ullrich had no real chance of winning, but Sturgeon canvassed neighborhoods late into the night, long after the other volunteers had retired to the pub. “She was absolutely gutted that I didn’t win,” says Ullrich. “Political realism set in quickly with Nicola.”

Sturgeon enrolled as a law student at the University of Glasgow in 1988 and volunteered for Salmond’s 1990 SNP leadership campaign. She struck many of her peers as shy and awkward. “She was unnaturally serious,” says Alex Bell, who served as the SNP’s policy director from 2010 to 2013. “She didn’t really have small talk.” Some party members called Sturgeon “nippy sweetie” behind her back—sexist slang for an ambitious woman.

In 1992 the SNP recruited the 22-year-old Sturgeon as the youngest candidate in that year’s parliamentary elections. She was more left-wing than Salmond, a former banker, but she subscribed to his vision for the party. Unlike SNP hard-liners, who demanded full independence as soon as possible, Salmond advocated a gradualist approach. For the SNP to thrive, it would need to develop a robust social democratic platform so it could compete for votes with Labour. The SNP should not be “for Scotland, for its own sake,” he said. “We should be for Scotland for social and economic justice.”

As a novice campaigner, Sturgeon struggled to connect with voters and lost badly as Labour again trounced the SNP across Scotland. She also lost in 1994, 1995, and 1997, in both local and parliamentary elections, but each time she gained stature in the SNP. “Do not underrate the importance of stubbornness, stamina, and perseverance,” Salmond says. By the end of the decade, “many saw Sturgeon as the most talented young politician in the party,” says James Mitchell, a political scientist at the University of Edinburgh.

In 1999, Tony Blair’s Labour government in Westminster created a Scottish Parliament to address lingering resentment over Thatcher’s interventions. Sturgeon ran for the new chamber and lost, again, but was given a “list seat” that the SNP, which finished second to Labour, was free to assign. She quickly rose to the party’s frontbench. Only five years later, Salmond tapped her as his deputy. Sturgeon had still never won an election, but at the age of 34 she was anointed the SNP’s future leader.

With her new profile, Sturgeon nobly endured a media campaign to warm her image with Scottish voters. She led reporters on tours of her apartment, chatting about shoes and designer clothes. Sturgeon talked about Sex and the City, saying she identified most with Miranda—the least vivacious, but most successful, member of the show’s quartet. Her countryman Sean Connery taught her how to project her voice. “There’s no doubt that she became a much more outgoing person and politician,” Salmond says. “She was much more willing to display her emotions.” Sturgeon also developed a political style distinct from her mentor’s. “For all Salmond’s gifts, he’s a gambler,” says Tom Devine, a Scottish historian. “The thing about Sturgeon is she’s disciplined and methodical.”

During debates before parliamentary elections, Sturgeon outclassed her opponents. “Some radicals will take to the barricade and shout the slogans. She is not like that at all,” Reid says. “She does her homework. She delineates the issues, she measures the risks, she consults, she decides.” Finally, in 2007, Sturgeon won an election, as a representative for Glasgow in the Scottish Parliament. Left-wing voters had come to see the SNP as a credible alternative to Labour, which was beginning to lose its stranglehold on the Scottish electorate in the waning years of the Blair administration. When Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, lost to Tory candidate Cameron in 2010, Labour’s slide turned into collapse. The SNP won an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament—and with it a mandate to call for a long-awaited referendum on Scottish independence.

Salmond assigned Sturgeon to write the SNP’s 670-page white paper on independence and negotiate with Westminster. Her counterpart was Moore, the secretary of state for Scotland. He was disarmed by her preparedness. “Her approach to it would be to look for a weakness in the enemy’s logical argument and deploy fact-based arguments that came from very thorough research,” he says. “There were no histrionics. It became clear to me that she had been given the authority to get the deal done.” A referendum was announced for 2014.

When Salmond had to manage the government in Edinburgh, Sturgeon led the SNP’s independence campaign. They began with polls showing support of just 30 percent, as their opponents framed the debate as a choice between the status quo and a leap into the unknown. At rallies and as a frequent guest on British news broadcasts, Sturgeon made the case that there were risks in staying, too: Presciently, she pointed out that England could vote the U.K. out of the EU.

The SNP argued that an independent Scotland could thrive like Ireland or Norway. There were good reasons, though, to worry about an independent Scotland’s economic future. University of Glasgow economist Ronald MacDonald estimated that independence would cut Scotland’s economic output by as much as £100 billion ($132.6 billion) by 2023. The SNP used perhaps overly optimistic revenue projections for North Sea oil to paint a rosy picture of Scotland’s self-sufficiency. Salmond also assured voters that Scotland would remain on the pound sterling and seemed unprepared when the Treasury in London quickly ruled out that possibility. Major financial institutions such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life threatened to move to London if Scotland seceded. Still, Sturgeon and Salmond’s methods found converts from Cameron’s “Better Together” campaign, which was dubbed “Project Fear” in the Scottish press.

By the day of the vote, Sept. 18, 2014, support for independence had risen to 50 percent in the polls. That night, Sturgeon and Salmond gathered with the rest of the SNP leadership at Dynamic Earth, a museum next to the extravagant Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, and prepared for a massive celebration. Instead, Sturgeon learned from an exit poll at 10 p.m. that voters had chosen to remain in the U.K. In a small room, she hugged Salmond in silence. After the results became official, her political mentor resigned as first minister. There was no contest over who would replace him.
Scottish nationalists know they can’t lose a second referendum. The Parti Québécois, Quebec’s separatists, managed to get a referendum for the province’s independence from Canada on the ballot twice, in 1980 and 1995, but after the second close loss, some concessions from Ottawa resulted in the Parti losing momentum and cohesion. In Scotland, Sturgeon believes the SNP can win an independence vote if the timing is right. “I’m sure that her ideal would be to wait to have another independence referendum until the polls have been running at 60 percent for six months and absolutely everything was in the bag,” says Hamish Macdonell, former political editor of the Scotsman.

Defeat in 2014 turned into a boon for the SNP’s popularity. The referendum turnout was 85 percent, and with so many new people involved in politics, party membership quadrupled before the 2015 national elections, giving the SNP a chance to send more of its members to Parliament in London. Sturgeon hosted rallies across the country. The SNP began selling T-shirts emblazoned with her signature, and British newspapers described a “Cult of Nicola.” She continued to excel at pre-election debates. At one, in April 2015, her cool-headed intensity contrasted with leaden performances from Cameron and Labour’s Ed Miliband, and polls afterward declared her the winner. She was even stronger in the next debate. She called it a “disgrace” that Cameron skipped the event, and it became clear that the anger at the Conservative Party she had developed as a teenager still boiled. “This election is about getting rid of the Tories,” she scolded Miliband, who had ruled out a governing coalition with the SNP. “We have a chance to kick David Cameron out of Downing Street. Don’t turn your back on it. People will never forgive you.” The SNP swamped Labour, winning 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster, a gain of 50 that made it the third-biggest party in Parliament. Sturgeon was now a force beyond Scotland. Polls showed her as the most popular politician in the U.K., even among English voters.

When Brexit debates began, Sturgeon was ruthless with Johnson, the silver-tongued but clownish ex-mayor of London. “Whatever else you do,” she warned the audience, “do not trust a word Boris Johnson says about the NHS [National Health Service].” Sturgeon and Cameron were on the same side of this referendum, but while the PM spoke of economic calamity, she crafted a positive argument for remaining in the EU, pointing to the bloc’s protections for expectant mothers and the benefits for young people of freedom of movement across the continent.

Yet Sturgeon didn’t really believe the Brexit would happen. It was only 10 days before the vote that she and her team began drafting contingency plans, but still it was enough time to prepare her better for the fallout than any of her rivals. Afterward, when she visited Brussels, Sturgeon met with any official who would receive her. Her goal was to create as much negotiating space as possible, suggesting Scotland could remain in the EU with or without another independence referendum. (The EU allowed Greenland to withdraw in 1985, even though it’s a part of member state Denmark, setting a precedent for one section of a country to leave and another to remain.) So far, though, the EU has insisted it will negotiate only with Westminster. Another major obstacle is that any country in the bloc can veto a new member, and Spain doesn’t want to give its own separatists, in Catalonia, an example to follow.

Sturgeon must also consider that the economic case for Scottish secession from the U.K. is weaker than it was in 2014. The price of oil has plummeted from $90 a barrel to about $45. And it will need to create a stable currency to join the EU, which the University of Glasgow’s MacDonald says could require Scotland to impose exactly the type of austerity measures that the SNP denounces from Westminster. Even if these problems can be addressed, it’s not clear if access to the European market can ever be as important to Scotland as access to the English one: some 80 percent of Scottish goods and services go to England.

Still, some economists see a brighter future for Scotland in the EU rather than an isolated U.K. Christian Ewald, head of the economics department at the University of Glasgow’s business school, campaigned in 2014 for Scotland to remain with Britain. “The EU referendum has changed my mind fundamentally,” he says. On the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow, one hears lots of wishful thinking that English businesses would move to Scotland to retain access to European markets.

One impact of the Brexit vote may be that economic arguments hold less sway. “I’m not so sure that those issues are so important anymore,” Macdonell says. “Oddly enough, what I think the Brexit vote has done is legitimize big, shocking votes.” Short-term economic damage seems inevitable either way, and Scottish voters are asking themselves with new urgency which values they want their nation to enshrine.

Polls on Scottish independence after the Brexit vote have put support in the low 50s—a swing in Sturgeon’s direction, but still less than the 60 percent level that many people think the SNP needs to ensure victory. People who know Sturgeon say she’d hoped the possibility of such a vote wouldn’t come up so early in her administration. She’d have preferred to govern and continue to prove the SNP’s abilities. If it’s clear now that Sturgeon will have the opportunity to realize her lifelong dream of Scottish independence, then it’s also clear that, for all her success so far, her legacy isn’t yet written.

“All the big challenges of currency, economy, creating a broad national consensus, the response to a possible Spanish veto on an EU application, and the timing of a new referendum have yet to be faced,” says historian Devine. “Only when some of them are and the battle is joined can her capacities really be measured.”

QuickTake: Scotland's Independence Bid
(Corrects the day that Sturgeon traveled to Brussels after the Brexit vote in the fifth paragraph.)
    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.