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 ITV, Nicola 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.
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.”
Football is big in New York, with packed bars for Premier League and La Liga games, plus one – soon to be two MLS teams – making their home in the city. And with Frank Lampard the latest pilgrim to follow the Mayflower, the ties between the east coast and the European game are growing ever stronger.
That has been highlighted further this week with the arrival of Arsenal, the North London Club in town to play a pre-season fixture against the New York Red Bulls, captained by former Gunners’ striker Thierry Henry – another to have made the crossing from Europe to the game’s ‘New World’.
“Football is growing in America,” Mathieu Flamini tells HuffPost. “You have a good example from today with Frank Lampard coming to sign for a team in New York. More and more Americans seem to be appreciating soccer so it’s exciting, especially for players like us who get to play in Europe. Maybe one day we’ll have the opportunity to come and play in the US.”
Playing in the MLS is something the French midfielder would certainly consider, Flamini adds.
Likewise Mikel Arteta, who has watched with interest the transfer of his friend David Villa, who preceded Lampard in signing for the Manchester City-backed New York City FC, which is due to join the MLS next season.
“I think they are growing the sport and the fan base in a very intelligent way with the MSL,” the Spanish midfielder tells HuffPost. “They are making it very attractive and seem to have the structure in place to really progress with the domestic league. It helps that they are attracting big players, which means there’s a lot of media around the game, a lot of people are talking about it. The game in the US is definitely going in the right direction, so there’s a real opportunity for players to come over from Europe.”
On Villa, Arteta was not surprised at the move, saying he was “the right age”. “I know him well and he was looking for a move like that,” he adds. “I’m delighted for him. He’s really happy and I think it’ll be a great opportunity for him here, though it’ll be a different type of pressure. I think Xavi is close to coming as well, so there’s a lot of interest in joining the league.”
Iker Casillas too, according to the NYC FC Twitter page – a Spanish invasion complimented by a lad from East London.
“You could see how the US had progressed in the World Cup,” says Abou Diaby, now an Arsenal veteran. “They did really well and had the whole country behind the team. They got to the last 16, which is really good, so the potential is there for them to succeed.”
“In terms of the size of the US market for British domestic soccer, I don’t think they’ve even scratched the surface yet,” says Tom Fox, the club’s Chief Commercial Officer. “Plus all our commercial partners, the partners who ask us to help them promote their brand, are asking Arsenal to take a look at this market, so there’s something going on here in the US and we know it can help our partners be successful.”
It’s a market that many big European clubs are attempting to exploit, with Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Roma, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Olympiakos all currently muddying their boots on US soil.
“We have a huge following on social media – I think we have more Twitter followers than any other premier league club – and many of those Twitter/Facebook followers are in the United States,” says Fox.
Arsenal certainly has name recognition in the US, and not only from the NBC premier league coverage. Piers Morgan, a zealous Arsenal fan and erstwhile host of Piers Morgan Live on CNN, spent much of last season tweeting delight and disgust (mainly disgust) about his beloved team to his myriad of trans-Atlantic followers.
“Some of Piers Morgan’s comments are… very interesting,” says Flamini, with some slight unease.
“So interesting he lost his show,” chimes in Fox.
Flamini continues: “Look, he’s very passionate and it’s good that as a supporter he loves the club that much… but sometimes it’s not that easy to perform and win titles, but hopefully he was happy that we won a cup last season. Maybe there will be more titles coming.”
The French holding player says that taking criticism is part of the team’s job as professional players.
“Everyone has something to say about the club so we focus on performing and not on what the fans are saying out side of the pitch,” Flamini says.
Moving on to more comfortable ground, Arsenal have a new ‘marquee’ player, the Chilean strike Alexis Sanchez, who Flamini says will add “quality to the team”.
“I met him when he was doing his medical,” says Arteta. “He was very happy to join the club; it’s a big time for him. We have to try and help him settle in as quickly as possible, but he will certainly bring a lot of quality to the squad, so we’re looking forward to having him.”
“I think he will fit in with the existing Arsenal system,” says Diaby. “He’s a very talented player, so he should match perfectly with our style of play.”
It’s a style that Arsene Wenger has developed over his 17-year tenure as manager of the club, and a way of playing that brands want to be associated with.
Swiss watchmaker Jean Richard is just the latest hoping to benefit from the association with the North London outfit.
“The fit was very easy,” Bruno Grande, the company’s MD, tells HuffPost. “Arsenal is all about style, respect, the way they play, the way the team behaves – it’s the reason why we decided to work with them. Luckily enough, they decided to work with us.”