Nicola Sturgeon, visiting China and Hong Kong, raises her profile and promotes Scotland

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says on visit to Hong Kong her modern nation has far more to offer than its famous whisky and salmon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 2:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 10:02pm

It was a neat trick: she was "the most dangerous woman in Britain" and the most popular public figure in the country at precisely the same time.

With political schizophrenia of that magnitude afoot, something big had to be happening. So in a way, earlier this year when First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon led her independence-seeking Scottish National Party to a landslide general election victory in the northern part of what remains the United Kingdom, it was not really a surprise.

The unprecedented election result, which followed a "no" vote in a closely fought referendum on independence that energised Scotland late last year, catapulted Sturgeon from obscurity onto the international stage.

READ MORE: Scottish referendum could be lesson in political engagement for Hong Kong, says First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Within weeks, the electrician's daughter from small-town Scotland, whom the right-wing Daily Mail dubbed Britain's "most dangerous" woman, had out-polled Angelina Jolie in a respected poll of the world's most powerful women and appeared on primetime American television trading wise-cracks as a guest of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

On her maiden visit to China, including Hong Kong, and her first interview with a newspaper on Chinese soil, Sturgeon told the South China Morning Post yesterday of the importance she places on the relationship between the two countries.

She was particularly struck by what she described as a keen "knowledge and interest" here and on the mainland in "modern" Scotland, as well as the traditional Scottish trademarks of whisky, golf and salmon.

Not surprisingly, given the sensitivity of the issue of independence in these parts, Scotland's first minister - a position within the United Kingdom's political structure which, for the uninitiated, is a bit like that of the Hong Kong Chief Executive in relation to China, except Sturgeon can be removed by democratic vote and the country she leads has a fully directly elected, devolved parliament with extensive powers, excluding defence and foreign affairs - stayed clear of the thorny topic.

She would not be drawn into saying whether her discussions with mainland officials had broached the topic of how Beijing would receive a fully independent Scotland.

"As someone who has spent the whole of my adult life working to make Scotland an independent country I wouldn't appreciate other countries seeking to interfere in that decision and I don't think it is my place to interfere or offer advice to any other country, anywhere in the world, on their decisions," she said.

Watch: Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon discusses Hong Kong and Scottish independence

However, there are signs that - for reasons of mutual economic benefit and strategic usefulness - China is up for a tartan tango.

Sturgeon's predecessor, Alex Salmond, visited China four times during his tenure as first minister and on a four-day official visit to Britain in 2011, Premier Li Keqiang - who was then vice-premier - made his first stop in Scotland's capital Edinburgh for a meeting and a glass of whisky with Salmond.

DON'T MISS: INFOGRAPHIC - How Scotland left a lasting mark on Hong Kong

This foreign policy that isn't foreign policy continues apace under Team Sturgeon. She arrived in Hong Kong yesterday following a trip to the mainland, which included high-level talks with State Councillor Yang Jiechi on Tuesday.

According to Xinhua, Yang spoke highly about the development of Sino-British relations and the importance the Scottish government assigns to relations with China.

He said China was ready to make joint efforts with the Scottish government to strengthen bilateral exchanges and cooperation in areas including economics, education and culture.

Sturgeon had been formally invited by the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.

"My impression from the people I have met in China so far is that people are very aware of Scotland - not just the traditions - but modern Scotland as a good place to do business … a good place to study and establish deepening cultural ties".

"This is my job, yes to promote the traditional aspects of our nation but also to spread the message of a new, confident, well educated and outward looking Scotland that wants to engage with the world.

"I will do this regardless of Scotland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom," Sturgeon added.

"I am here to make the positive case for Scotland. We live in an interconnected world and I am of the strong belief that regardless of how nations organise themselves, collaborations between countries are vitally important".

And it is a two-way street. During her recent visit to Beijing and Shanghai, where Sturgeon gave a keynote speech on the expansion of women's rights both in Scotland and in China, it was also announced that there was to be an expansion of a programme called "Confucius Classrooms" in her home country.

At present more than 200 schools and 20,000 school children across Scotland learn about China and its language. The Hanban, an organisation which promotes Chinese language and learning, will provide additional funding to extend the programme. They will also offer Scottish local authorities help to fund an extra six Putonghua teaching posts across Scotland.

"We want our young people to be better prepared for life and work in a multi-cultural, global marketplace and Mandarin is one of the world's most widely spoken languages. Evidence shows that early language learning improves literacy and that young children learn languages more easily.

"Extending the Confucius Classroom learning programme to primary schools will improve language learning opportunities for more Scottish pupils, in addition to the 20,000 who already benefit," said Sturgeon.

A far cry indeed from her chat with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, an experience which Sturgeon described self-deprecatingly as "terrifying".

"He's [Stewart] a very smart man and a very funny man. It was certainly an experience."

Amid the frivolity, the first minister had the presence of mind to make certain she had the last say: "As I said, whether it is the United States or China, my job is to engage and state the case for a modern and confident Scotland. I'll do that whenever I get the opportunity."

The inexorable rise of the Scottish 'nippy sweetie'

Early on in her political career Nicola Sturgeon earned the nickname "nippy sweetie'', a Scottish expression reserved exclusively for women of a particular type - the sort you do not cross under any circumstances.

It was a characteristic she would need as she cut her teeth in the harsh, male-dominated world of traditional Scottish politics - a scene that has been completely transformed over the past two years in a seismic shift changing the face of the United Kingdom.

In truth, Scottish society has never been short of "nippy sweeties", so much so that the epithet has morphed from an insult into a mark of grudging yet unshakeable respect.

Working alongside her predecessor, the "street-fighting'' political operator Alex Salmond, for the best part of two decades probably helped Sturgeon hone the abilities that undoubtedly helped her to a democratic mandate most political leaders can only dream of in the British general election earlier this year.

The left-leaning, anti-austerity, independence-seeking Scottish National Party which she leads won 56 out of the 59 seats up for grabs in Scotland, consigning the Labour Party, which had dominated Scottish politics for the best part of the 20th century, to the political dustbin in one of its traditional heartlands.

But almost certainly more important are her humble roots. She was brought up in an intensely political working-class family in the small town of Irvine, Ayrshire, on the west coast of the country she now leads. Her mother remains active as a local politician for the SNP.

Sturgeon lives in Glasgow with her husband, Peter Murrell, who is the current chief executive of the SNP.

Born in 1970 and one of three daughters of electrician Robert and nurse Joan, Sturgeon went to a state school and studied law at the University of Glasgow before working as a solicitor in Glasgow. By 1992, the year she graduated, she had already been a member of her party for six years; that year she became Scotland's youngest parliamentary candidate. In 1999 she won a seat to the devolved Scottish Parliament.

She first served as the party's shadow minister for education, and later for health and justice.

Sturgeon was elected SNP deputy leader in 2004, standing on a joint ticket with Salmond.

In 2007 she was appointed deputy first minister and cabinet secretary for health and well-being, and then for infrastructure, investment and cities.

In November last year, Sturgeon was elected unopposed as leader of the SNP, following the "no" vote in the Scottish independence referendum and the subsequent resignation of Salmond, now the SNP's spokesman on foreign affairs in the Westminster Parliament in London.

True to her "nippy sweetie'' past, Sturgeon immediately made sure the gender balance in her ruling cabinet was cut straight down the middle.

But it was for this year's British general election that she reserved her best political feat, upstaging the other party leaders by out-polling them all - even though she wasn't standing for a seat.

Niall Fraser