Nicola Sturgeon on cybernats, Farage and the SNP in Westminster

Nicola Sturgeon on cybernats, Farage and the SNP in Westminster

NEW YORK — It was during the TV election debates in April that the new face of the post-referendum Scottish National Party was first unveiled to the British public. Following a poll-winning performance during the seven-way leaders debate on ITVNicola Sturgeon appeared on a five-person panel for the sequel, flanked by Labour’sEd Miliband, Ukip’s Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood.

Broadcast live on the BBC, the vignette concluded with the SNP leader beseeching Miliband to ally against the common enemy in Downing Street, a proposal the now-former Labour chief rebuffed. Earlier, Scotland’s first minister had instigated a testy exchange with Farage on immigration. Sturgeon emerged from both unscathed. What’s more, she exited the broadcast looking like the only opposition leader able to articulate a credible anti-establishment position.

“I didn’t go into the debate intending to engage with Farage,” Sturgeon tells HuffPost, sitting in a meeting room on the top floor of Morgan Stanley’s headquarters overlooking Times Square in New York. Instead she resolved to draw her blade only if he was “offensive.” He was and she did, capping a bad night for the Ukip boss who was earlier booed for attacking the audience.

“I think Farage was exposed in those debates,” she reflects. “Once he’d blamed the foreigners, there was pretty much nothing else. I think people saw him for what he was.”

In the days following the debate, Sturgeon’s inbox was deluged by emails from English voters asking her to stand candidates south of the border, a flood she ascribes to a “deep disillusionment about the lack of choice on offer.”

Decrying the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems as “different shades of the same thing,” the 44-year-old says the appetite for an alternative “is just as strong” in the rest of the UK as it is in Scotland. “But my goodness, there’s a market for a really social democratic party in England,” she suggests.

Yet a month later David Cameron returned to Downing Street, his tenure at Number 10 freshly unshackled from coalition. “They [the voters] opted for the devil they knew,” says Sturgeon. Her post election analysis is simple: Miliband failed to “do the deal with voters in England” and was therefore not a “viable alternative.”

The former solicitor quickly rebukes any notion that the SNP aided the Tories by splitting the opposition vote. “Labour could have won every seat in Scotland and they still wouldn’t have won the election because the failed to beat the Tories in England,” she says. “It’s not for me to answer why Labour failed in England, but that’s the question they’ve got to answer.”

Sturgeon admits the debates were “nerve-wracking” with “a lot riding on it for all of us.” Emblematic of the relief was the now-famed hug between Sturgeon and her fellow panellists, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood, as David Dimbleby closed the show.

Yet the SNP chief suggests it was more than just respite, calling it a “vivid illustration” of how women approach politics. “Three men wouldn’t have done that, even if they felt the same,” she says, recalling the positive reaction she received “to see women represented” and how it had “changed the tone.”

The day before our interview, Sturgeon was similarly anxious ahead of an appearance on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Despite being broadcast on Comedy Central, the show has become the sole proponent of oppositional political debate in the US, much to the shame of mainstream news outlets. As such it has a huge following nationally and around the world. Invitations to appear are not to be snubbed.

“I got through it,” she laughs, describing the show’s outgoing host as “charming and very well informed.” Her appearance was the centrepiece of a four-day tour of the US to promote business, tourism and study. Within the segment, the first minister was asked about the tribal nature of British politics and whether Blighty was becoming polarised, similar to the US.

She reflects further on this during our sit down, saying “it feels like it has” but attributes that to social media, that has given “people who want to be aggressive and abusive… ways of being heard.”

“The referendum, by its nature, had a ‘yes’ camp and a ‘no’ camp, which can make people feel as though they’re divided, but overwhelmingly the experience of the referendum on both sides was positive,” she says.

sturgeon the daily show

The SNP leader appears on Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’, part of her four-day tour of the United States

Last Sunday Alastair Campbell appeared on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr” show, the former political aide decrying the so-called cybernats (a catchall term for abusive nationalists) following some rough treatment of the late Charles Kennedy during the election campaign.

Yet Sturgeon insists the invective doesn’t solely emanate from her corner of the Union, with people “on both sides” engaging in online abuse. “I could shown you the abuse that gets hurled at me on Twitter,” she says, nodding to her phone. Still, the first minister remains a fan of the micro-blogging site, which “democratises public debate” even if the tone is “impossible to control.”

“Party leaders do have a responsibility to speak out,” she says, “and I do that more than any other party leader. Even people who are professing to be on my side, I’ll call them out.”

The cybernats emerged during the bruising referendum campaign, culminating last September in a narrow defeat for the nationalists. Scotland was to remain in the Union and the groundswell of SNP support would quickly dissipate. Except, it didn’t. The momentum increased, propelling Sturgeon’s party to a landslide victory at the general election, securing 56 of the 59 Scottish seats.

Parliament started a new session and Westminster welcomed a raft of fledgling MPs from the north, some indifferent or unaware of the traditions of the House of Commons. Headlines followed in which nationalists were accused of not following protocol and being disruptive.

“We are not deliberately going around Westminster trying to annoy people,” says Sturgeon. “We’ve got people in our group that are new to politics. They don’t know what the hundred-year traditions are. Clapping is commonplace in the Scottish parliament. Who knew it’s forbidden in the House of Commons?”

Still, she remains bullish, insisting the SNP is doing “what it should be doing — asserting its position as the third biggest party in the House of Commons.” Her MPs are not there to “be disruptive or destructive,” but are there “to get things done.”

Despite general election success, Sturgeon still regards the referendum as a “devastating defeat” though she notes it quickly became clear that “something had changed in Scotland” and the country would not go “back to the way we were before the referendum.” Having tasted “what it was like to be in charge of the destiny of our own country” that appetite would not be sated.

Yet victory in May created fresh problems for the party, whose ultimate ambition remains to leave the Union. How quickly can they call for a second vote on independence? Waiting has a generational benefit (young people are more likely to vote ‘yes’ so better to be patient) however delay risks diminishing the enthusiastic support that has propelled the nationalists to lofty heights. Sturgeon cuts a middle road, describing the “deep pragmatism” of the people who want independence.

“We know we can’t rush it,” she says. “We didn’t persuade the majority [at the referendum], and there’s no shortcut. You can’t just keep asking the question over and over again until you get the answer you want. You have to build a case through patient endeavour.” In the meantime, Sturgeon is determined to “get on with running the country,” including pushing for more devolution from Westminster, even more than was promised by the post-referendum Smith Report.

Smith was a response by the Westminster parties to the referendum result,” she says. “They need to come up with a response to the general election result. To say it’s business as usual and carry on with ‘Smith’ won’t satisfy people.”

Sturgeon is unmoved by the argument that further devolution could undercut her quest for independence, machinations she dismisses as “Machiavellian.” She is more open to idea that an EU referendum could lead to a second independence vote, though admits her preference would be not to hold an EU vote at all. “I hope the UK votes to stay in,” she says. “If that doesn’t happen we’ll have to see. But it’s one scenario that could increase demand for a second referendum because Scotland is not going to look kindly on being taken out of the EU.”

We return to Labour and the question of whether the SNP needs a robust opposition party in Scotland if only for accountability. “I think it’s healthy in any democracy to have a strong opposition but as first minister I can’t create one,” she says. “Also, I’m still a politician. I’m not going to wish for the quick recovery of my main political opponent, not when I’ve got an election in 11 months time.”

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Cenk Uygur on Brits, Bachmann and Barak…

Cenk Uygur is an unlikely global celebrity. Born in Turkey and raised in the US, the trained lawyer started broadcasting a satellite radio talk show called The Young Turks in 2002. By 2005, the format had developed into an online broadcast distributed on YouTube, from where it has grown to become one of the best known and most viewed offerings on the web. It currently boasts around 30 million views each month, and has received more than 500 million views in total since launch.

“I knew we had a following,” Uygur tells The Huffington Post UK, “when I got off the underground in London and heard someone shout ‘Cenk – what are you doing here?’ I’d only been in the country about an hour.”

Yet notoriety is something the 41-year-old has increasingly had to deal with. Last year, the success of Uygur’s online show caught the attention of cable news channel MSNBC, who offered the LA resident a contract to host their coveted 6pm slot. He accepted, though it proved only a brief association. After six months, Uygur was offered a lower profile time, which he refused, having been told his tone was not to the liking of executives in Washington.

Uygur’s combative style, developed for the web generation, apparently didn’t sit well with the cable news audience. So, he moved back to TYT (though he never actually left) and is now looking to expand.

“The UK is our third largest territory behind the US and Canada,” he says. “It would be great to take the show there. Maybe in the future we can expand to set up Young Turks in different regions, and the UK would definitely be a prime contender to do that. Because of the show’s global popularity, we are definitely looking to give it more of an international feel.”

Using YouTube, alongside live web streaming, has given Uygur and his fellow Turks an almost global reach.

“That’s the great thing about being online,” he says. “If you look at shows like John Stewart and The Colbert Report, they’re restricted to a channel. We are not.”

Every day, more than a million people visit the TYT channel on YouTube, for their daily fix of progressive political discourse, entrenching Cenk as a fixture in the US media landscape. And, in a country where newscasters wear their political leanings like an identity badge, Uygur is unashamedly to the left of the divide.

“I started The Young Turks as there needed to be a push back against Fox News and the other news sources, which only pushed the agenda of big corporations,” he says. “We didn’t sit down and have a meeting in which we determined the editorial or political line. We just try and present the news without all the bulls*it. The show is just a reflection of the people that make it.”

For Uygur, John Stewart, The Colbert Report, Air America on the radio, plus MSNBC’s increasingly progressive stance is all part of the same push back. “It is a fight to balance out the news so Americans aren’t just told one side of the story,” he says.

I enquire if, in the interest of balance, he ever invites conservatives on the show?

“We try and get conservatives on the show all the time,” he snaps back. “It’s great when they come on. I have nothing against conservative principles, however what’s preached by people like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News has absolutely nothing to do with conservatism.”

“You only have to look at subsidies for oil companies,” he continues, now in full flow. “These subsidies are sold by the right-wing media as an issue that fits well with conservative principles. Can there be anything less conservative than subsidies for oil companies? People like Limbaugh or companies like Fox News are paid by the corporations to push their agenda. They call it conservatism, but it’s just corporate propaganda.”

It’s the kind of vitriol that has won the Uygur fan and foe alike. It is also indicative of America’s increasingly polarised media, much of which has come to resemble two armed camps rather than members of the same profession.

It’s a situation not only certain to continue through to the 2012 election, but could well have a bearing on its outcome.

“Obama is in so much trouble right now,” says Uygur. “He’s got nine per cent unemployment… and that nine per cent is not going down anytime soon. Then there’s the downgrade of the country’s credit rating, following the ridiculous situation with the debt ceiling.”

In recent months, the TYT host has become increasingly critical of Obama and the current administration.

“If he was doing the right things, it wouldn’t be so bad,” he says, “but the President simply isn’t looking at the type of policies that will get the country out of its current mess. It”s just more tax cuts for the rich. I can honestly see Obama’s popularity figures dropping into the 30s.”

So you think Obama will lose, I ask?

“No – I’m not saying he will lose. The Republican Party could do him a favour and nominate some lunatic. That would give him a chance.”

The nomination process for the Republican Party, although underway, is far from yielding a definite candidate, with a recent CNN poll putting Ricky Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann as the leading candidates in that order, with Sarah Palin yet to declare.

“People are actually talking about Michelle Bachmann as a real candidate for the Republican nomination,” he says with exasperation. “Come on… Admittedly, her figures are good right now, but she is simply not a serious candidate. Mitt Romney is more likely as is Rick Perry. I’m surprised that Mike Huckabee has ruled himself out of the race. He would mobilise the evangelical vote and could portray himself as a populist. There’s a mood in the country right now for a populist candidate. I’m amazed he hasn’t jumped back in.”

“The run up to the election is going to be vicious,” he continues, barely drawing breath. “The Republicans have already started. The leak about Michelle Bachmann taking prescription drugs was unbelievable. I’m the last person who wants to see Bachmann in the White House, but for Republicans to leak the migraine information, questioning not only her mental health but also inferring that she was addicted to prescription drugs was unforgivable. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be that kind of election.”

Whatever happens, The Young Turks will no doubt be covering it, broadcasting their daily mix of the irreverent, the serious and the funny from their poky studio in downtown LA.

“We’d like to expand as the set is looking a bit cramped,” he says. “The set has been a good home as it’s very intimate but we’re in the process of moving very soon. Actually, I can’t confirm that right now… but we are.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.