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Scottish First Minister: 'Independent Scotland Would Be A Powerful Voice'


British prime minister, David Cameron, may have been the winner in this year's British elections, but Nicola Sturgeon was the star. She's the leader of the Scottish National Party which went from holding just six of Scotland's seats in parliament to 56, all but three of them. She is Scotland's first minister, the leader of the Scottish Parliament, and she's on a visit to the U.S. this week and our guest today. Welcome to the program.

NICOLA STURGEON: Thank you very much, indeed. It's lovely to be here.

SIEGEL: On this trip, you've spoken both to the Council of Foreign Relations and on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

STURGEON: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: Are you here to prepare Americans to hear more directly from the leader of Scotland as opposed to just the United Kingdom?

STURGEON: I would be very happy for Americans to hear directly from Scotland. There's long-standing and very close links between our two countries, and I'm very keen that these things are strengthened in the future. So I've had a great reception here in the United States this week, and I look forward to visiting many more times in the future.

SIEGEL: Scotland held a referendum on independence just last year, and independence lost pretty decisively. Your predecessor outside of the Scottish National Party called that referendum a once-in-a-generation event. Do you agree or disagree with that, and how long is a generation in Scotland?

STURGEON: (Laughter). That's a good question. You know, I think most people think generation - 20, 25 years. The answer to the question, will be once in a generation, is, if that's what people in Scotland want it to be. The wonderful thing about the referendum - albeit, the result wasn't as I had wanted it to be - is that it empowered people in Scotland. It put us in charge of the decisions that shape our country, and that's how it should be.

SIEGEL: But the phrase once in a generation I think was heard by many people to mean that this isn't an every couple of years, let's take the temperature of Scotland to see if they want to leave the U.K again.

STURGEON: We can't - absolutely. I mean, it wouldn't be feasible just to every year keep asking the question again until we got the answer we wanted. So there will only be another referendum on independent, firstly, if something changes from the circumstances that prevailed last year that made people think, we want to look at this question again and then secondly, only if a majority of people want to have another referendum. It's not something that I can impose on Scotland if Scotland doesn't want it.

SIEGEL: By, if something changes, do you mean, if the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, for example?

STURGEON: That is one possibility. That's an example I have used. The U.K. is going to have a referendum on European Union membership. Because England is the bigger country in the United Kingdom, if England votes to come out, then that will carry the vote across the United Kingdom. So even if Scotland voted to stay in the European Union, it's possible we could find ourselves being taken out. And I think in those circumstances, many people in Scotland would think it might be time to look again at the question of independence.

SIEGEL: The circumstances being the result you've described or just there being a referendum in the U.K.?

STURGEON: No, no, the result I've described.

SIEGEL: The result.

STURGEON: There is going to be a referendum. I accept that.

SIEGEL: In this year's election, your party, the Scottish National Party, won 56 seats with 5.7 percent of the national vote obviously concentrated in Scotland - all of it in Scotland. By way of contrast, the U.K. Independence Party won one seat in Parliament with over 12 percent of the vote. And some people looked at those numbers and said, OK, Britain really needs electoral reform right now.

STURGEON: I agree. Although, before I go and expand that point, let me see. In Scotland, the SNP won 50 percent of the vote, but nevertheless, that 50 percent of the vote still won us 90 percent of the seats.

SIEGEL: Right.

STURGEON: I have always been a believer in a proportional representation, so even although my party benefited from the first-past-the-post voting system in this election, I believe that we should change that system.

SIEGEL: I should say, the first-past-the-post is how people in the United Kingdom refer to it. We just call it winning an election here.

STURGEON: Yeah, probably our...

SIEGEL: Whoever comes in first wins.

STURGEON: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

SIEGEL: And you would prefer more of a proportional...


SIEGEL: ...Representation system than that. Just a few years ago, a Scotsman, Gordon Brown, was the prime minister of the United Kingdom and a very significant actor in world affairs. Would you rather that no Scott would ever wield any more influence than, say, the prime minister of Denmark or Portugal never again be the prime minister of the U.K.?

STURGEON: I - many Scottish people live in England. Many English people live in Scotland. If somebody of Scottish descent living in England gets active in politics in England and wants to become prime minister, there's nothing to stop that happening. But you know, an independent Scotland, if we become independent in the future as I believe we will one day, would be a powerful voice in the world. And you know, speaking as a Scottish person who lives in Scotland, I'd far rather be prime minister and first minister of Scotland, but you know, far rather hold that job than be prime minister of the United Kingdom.

SIEGEL: I know you're a fan of "Borgen," the Danish...

STURGEON: I am, indeed.

SIEGEL: ...political program.

STURGEON: And "The West Wing," I hasten to add.

SIEGEL: And "Borgen," I should explain to our listeners, is kind of a Danish "West Wing." It has a cult following here among several of us at NPR.


SIEGEL: That's all about a Danish prime minister. It looks about right for the size of a country - Denmark?

STURGEON: Well, Denmark's a fantastic example of a small country, Scandinavian country, independent country, very similar, in many respects, to Scotland that is doing pretty well.

SIEGEL: What have you heard back from America? You've been to the Council on Relations. You've been to Capitol Hill. What are you hearing about the prospect of Scottish nationalism here?

STURGEON: I've had an incredibly positive and warm reception from everybody I've met in the United States this week. I have to say, people in the United States are incredible friendly, but I've been touched and, in a way, quite surprised at the degree of interest in Scotland. And I've been surprised - very pleasantly surprised by how well informed people are about what's happening in Scotland. And I think, just as I would want to see Scotland be a very good friend to the United States, what I've found here is that the United States wants to be a friend to Scotland as well.

And why should we be surprised about that? The links between our two countries are long-standing, and they're strong. There are more people in this country - of the United States that claim to be Scottish than there are in Scotland, so you know, those links - historic, cultural and very important economic links - will endure long into the future.

SIEGEL: Nicola Sturgeon, thank you very much for talking with us.

STURGEON: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Nicola Sturgeon - the leader of the Scottish National Party and first minister, leader of the Parliament in Scotland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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