Exclusive interview: Alan Cumming in conversation with Nicola Sturgeon

We asked Alan Cumming if he’d like to interview Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for The Big Issue. He said yes, of course...

I arrive in Edinburgh on the sleeper train from London on the morning of this interview. And my first interaction with the driver who was waiting for me was vintage Scotland. “So, Alan, is this you moving back home because of that Trump buffoon?!”

All day in fact, as I wandered around the city, I basked in the patter, like a puppy having its tummy rubbed. And when I mentioned my appointment at Holyrood…

“Tell Nicola she’s a credit to Scotland!”

“Ask her about medical marijuana, Alan!”

“She’s got to keep on giving it laldy with the EU!”

“A true leader! We’re lucky to have her!”

We are living in the Nicola Sturgeon era. For me, she is the most respected politician in Britain. Her brand of down-to-earth, compassionate, yet take-no-prisoners rhetoric eviscerated David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage in the televised debates of the last general election. And her appearance on the steps of Bute House the morning after the Brexit result with a considered plan about Scotland’s latest political schism brought her increased respect and admiration, even from people who might not completely agree with all her policies. Nicola Sturgeon manages to transcend the everyday political wrangling and connect with people in an inspirational way – but one that is practical, manageable and makes perfect sense. She is the well-mannered yet rampant lioness and we are her lucky cubs.

No wonder The Daily Mail called her the most dangerous woman in Britain.

And here she is, smiling and welcoming, laughing about the last time we met: during this summer’s Edinburgh Festival, when she sat next to me and my dog Lala in the theatre bar after my show and confessed she normally would be too nervous to be that close to a canine.

We are living in the Nicola Sturgeon era. For me, she is the most respected politician in Britain

‘Revealed: how Alan Cumming helped Nicola Sturgeon overcome her greatest phobia’ screamed the next day’s headlines.

How has your 2016 been?

“It’s been crazy!” she laughs. “We’re going to look back on 2016 and think: what happened? I thought 2014 would be hard to beat in the craziness stakes – but, yeah… Brexit, the US election, I still think we’ll wake up and it’ll all have been a dream.”

If only. Of course, Brexit and Donald Trump dominate our chat as they dominate every interaction these days. My mum can’t even say Trump’s name. She calls him ‘that man’. I ask if Nicola has met The Donald.

“No, I haven’t,” she says.

Will you?

“Obviously he spends time in Scotland, he has Scottish ancestry, and if he comes – as I’m sure he will – he’s the President of America and if the opportunity is there, I’d meet him,” she replies, her face a mask of restraint.

I raise an eyebrow, she continues.

“I’ve written to him to congratulate him. I don’t think it’s any secret that I would rather that he hadn’t been elected. But he has, and so I’m going to respect that but I’m not going to abandon my own values, just as I’m sure he’s not going to abandon the things he believes in.

“Hopefully we can have a relationship based on values, although I do hope he does abandon some of the values that he campaigned on. He’s going to be the President of America. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.”

She is right, of course. He is going to be the President of America, and Britain will exit the EU. I bring up that speech the morning after the Brexit result and how prepared and calm she had seemed. “You seemed to be the only person that wasn’t shocked,” I say.

He’s the President of America and if the opportunity is there, I’d meet him

“No, I was shocked. I was surprised at the result. Strangely, a couple of weeks before I had thought that the result might go that way but then changed my mind. By polling day I thought it was going to be okay, and I was shocked when the results started to come in.”

So what happened, Nicola?

“I think a lot of people thought that if the status quo wasn’t delivering for you, then why would you vote for it? I can speak more about Brexit, with the austerity and the inequality that comes of that – why would you vote to keep things the same as they are just now?”

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.

I tell her that for me, as the dust settles on both of this year’s political blitzkriegs, the overriding feeling is of being so completely out of touch and out of synch with so many voters I previously thought I had worked out. And moving on from that it is hard when all the media outlets I’ve trusted and held accountable got it so radically wrong, too. As a political person, how does the First Minister feel about a system that is failing to pick up the clues and, therefore, the eventual outcomes?

“We saw early signs in the independence referendum,” she says. “People are getting their news, their figures, how they form their opinions, from different sources now: Twitter, Facebook, social media. People are not forming their opinions based on what they used to. The traditional media, the traditional pollsters, are making assumptions of how people are forming opinions that are way off reality.”

Isn’t it true that a populace rejecting the media status quo and seeking new sources to make up their own minds from might not be such a bad thing?

She agrees, adding: “There is a downside: some of the stuff that circulates on social media is a load of rubbish.”

So, where do we go from here? It seems as though we are at the mercy of whoever can project the most potent, insidious message, who encourage political engagement by using fear that incites racism and other forms of latent bigotry.

The First Minister reminds me that those words so quickly translate into actions.

“I think we must be careful not to legitimise some minority opinions underneath that, that are about intolerance. We’ve seen – thankfully not so much in Scotland – but in the rest of the UK some horribly racist attacks.”

“Hate crimes against the LGBT community have gone up 147 per cent since Brexit,” I add, bleakly.

“We shouldn’t allow that to become legitimised by rightly saying that there are some understandable reasons why people voted against the status quo,” she says.

Doesn’t this shift away from the political status quo concern her? Especially being somewhat part of the political establishment in Scotland herself?

“Hugely!” she says. “And as politicians we’ve got to think about how we tackle some of the legitimate underlying reasons for that. But equally we’ve also got to have the courage to stand up to the intolerant attitudes that are sheltering under concerns about austerity or inequality. Take Brexit: I would exempt the SNP from this but what mainstream politician in the years running up to Brexit actually had the guts to stand up and say, ‘You know what, immigration is actually quite a good thing for our economy, and it makes us more diverse?’. By the time you get into a campaign where immigration is the big issue, you’re fighting a losing battle because no one has taken on that argument.”

I do hope he does abandon some of the values that he campaigned on

I tell her of my theory, that Donald Trump being elected is a triumph of the lack of value that America has placed on education – you can see that in Brexit, too. The day after, the most Googled thing in the UK was ‘What is the EU?’, I remind her.

In America, you have to have money to have an education, and the majority of people who voted for Trump didn’t have access to, or the option of, further education. America has to take responsibility for allowing that huge swathe of the population being predisposed to being affected by jingoism and propaganda, and the buttons Trump pressed.

I take a moment to consider the fact that I have the ear of the leader of my country and maybe I should let her do more of the talking but I’m on a roll. In Britain, I say, it’s a similar thing. If you look at the way the education system in England is being dismantled, or not valued as much in comparison to Scotland, then you can see a trend where people are more likely to be politically engaged here, and more willing to analyse and make qualified decisions.

“I’d like to think that is the case,” Sturgeon maintains. “And certainly there is a long-standing intergenerational value that we put on education. I’m slightly cautious about being too complacent, to say everything is fine on that front in Scotland because we’ve got some big challenges around education, in making sure that standards are high and that everyone is able to fulfil their potential. But certainly that tradition of education in Scotland goes way back. It’s a strong foundation.” [This interview was conducted before the recent PISA figures were published showing a marked decline in Scottish school standards – The Big Issue].

Finally, I ask her some questions collected from a few Big Issue vendors. There were no false promises about concerns of costs and standards in homeless hostels or what actual changes a Big Issue vendor might see if Scotland eventually gained its independence.

But then we get to Dean from Cardiff’s question.

‘Do you prefer Merkel or May? Are they decent to get on with?’

There is a slight flicker of an impish grin before she answers.

“I’m going to have to tread carefully here. I’ve never met Angela Merkel, although I am a great admirer of her. Our politics are not identical but I thought the leadership she showed around the Syrian refugee crisis was really strong. I know Theresa May better, of course. While our politics are very different, I hope we can have a relationship where we can work together. But it’s early days yet. She’s not been Prime Minister for that long.”

So, that would be Merkel then? I persist (on Dean’s behalf). You’ve got to make a choice…

“Well, um…” the First Minister of Scotland dilly-dallies. I try to make the question easier for her.

If it was one of those games where you had to shove one of them into a tank of goo…

“Well, probably, yes…” she begins, reluctantly.

You’d shove Theresa? I persist.

“I’ve never met Merkel. I’m trying to be diplomatic here,” she manages through chuckles.

I’m only trying to get an answer to Dean’s question! I insist.

In the spirit of diplomacy, I add.

I see what you’re saying: it’s early days and Theresa’s got a way to go…

“Okay. I’ll settle for that,” she says.

@Alancumming@NicolaSturgeon

NICOLA STURGEON – IN BRIEF

On Scotland and its place in the EU
“It may be that if Scotland wants to stay as an open, internationalist, outward-looking country, trading freely with the single market, that we have to be independent. Because the Tories want to take us in a completely different direction. If that’s the case, I think we should embrace that positively.”

On Power
[This year Forbes named Nicola Sturgeon as the 50th most powerful woman in the world and the second most powerful in Britain]
“I’m not letting it go to my head! It’s flattering, of course, but I don’t really think about those sort of things. What does it really mean? You just concentrate on the job you’ve got to do.”

On running an SNP candidate in England
“I’m tempted… There are a lot [of people] in England – a lot who contact me – who feel completely disenfranchised that there is nobody speaking up for them. Our London branch is booming at the moment.”

On The Big Issue
“I buy it as often as I can. I wouldn’t claim to buy it every week, and I don’t have one particular vendor, basically because I’m very rarely in the same place twice. I like the book review section, and I always like the vendor profile on the back page.”

On hopes for 2017
“That it is slightly calmer than 2016.”