Nicola Sturgeon: The first minister and me

By Shelley Jofre
BBC News

  • Published
Nicola Sturgeon and Shelley Jofre
Image caption,
Nicola Sturgeon and Shelley Jofre grew up in the same village in the west of Scotland

"Who is the real Nicola Sturgeon?" Panorama's editor asked me, after she led the SNP to its stunning general election victory in Scotland.

Perhaps not unreasonably, he expected me to have some special insight. Scotland's first minister and I have a lot of shared history. We grew up in the same former mining village in the west of Scotland and even went to the same school.

Media caption,

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, returns to her Ayrshire village roots

We didn't know each other then because she was the year below me. But our lives did overlap as teenagers in an intriguing way, so I've followed her progress from shy schoolgirl to polished political leader with interest ever since.

I wanted to understand how she rose from our wee Ayrshire village to become the most powerful woman in Scotland.

So I took her back to Dreghorn to meet old friends and revisit some familiar places. A trip that proved pretty revealing about what drives Sturgeon and helps explain how her political character has been shaped.

Teenage years

First stop. My parents' bungalow for a reunion with my mum, Kay Ullrich. She played a small but significant part in Nicola Sturgeon's political evolution. It was our door Sturgeon knocked on back in 1987 when my mum was standing as an SNP candidate in the general election.

Margaret Thatcher was on course for a third term as prime minister. An indignant Sturgeon - who felt Tory economic policies were ravaging Scotland - plucked up the courage to ask if she could help my mum's campaign.

Sturgeon reminisced with us about what drove a shy 16-year old girl to get involved.

"Labour had around 50 MPs [in Scotland] at that point and they couldn't stop all of this damage being done… so I thought we should be independent and get the government we did vote for."

Image caption,
As a teenager Nicola Sturgeon campaigned for Shelley Jofre's mother, Kay Ullrich

I knew back then my mum had no hope of winning a seat from Labour that they'd held with a huge majority since 1959. But the teenage Sturgeon thought otherwise.

"That first campaign was a heartbreaking experience for me because I thought your mum was going to win," she told me. "You know, she had right on her side… so when she came fourth and nearly lost her deposit I was a wee bit upset."

But with every defeat, Sturgeon got more determined. And there have been plenty. As a candidate she fought and lost seven elections before finally winning. She's a grafter, a fighter which, she says, has ultimately helped her and her party succeed.

"I'm very grateful that I suffered so many defeats as a politician before I experienced success. I look at what's happened to the Labour Party in Scotland… they've just got out of the way of understanding you have to work really hard, you have to earn people's trust and then you have to re-earn it day after day after day."

Image source, PA

Nicola Sturgeon

  • Born in Irvine, 19 July 1970
  • Joined the SNP aged 16
  • Graduated with a law degree from the University of Glasgow in 1992
  • SNP candidate for Glasgow Shettleston at 1992 general election but failed to win
  • Elected to Scottish Parliament in 1999
  • Elected SNP deputy leader in 2004
  • Appointed deputy first minister in 2007
  • First minister and SNP leader since November 2014

Trident essay

Next stop, the council estate where Sturgeon tells me she enjoyed a happy, carefree childhood. Her parents still live there, in the house where she grew up. They exercised their right-to-buy during the Thatcher years - a policy their daughter's party has just abolished in Scotland.

Sturgeon says there's no contradiction. It was an "outdated policy" that needed to go to protect social housing for those who really need it.

"Coming from a working-class background and being able to get on in life and do whatever you want, that's kind of ingrained in me," she says. "Making the most of the talents and abilities you've been given. That's just kind of the essence of who I am really."

Final stop, the large comprehensive we both went to, Greenwood Academy. It wasn't a natural breeding ground for future leaders or a school where I found expectations were high.

Image caption,
Nicola Sturgeon says her old schoolteacher, Roy Kelso, was a major influence

So how did Greenwood's most famous daughter end up more than a match for the Westminster elite during the recent televised general election debates?

We meet an old teacher, Roy Kelso, who it turns out was a key influence on Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon explains: "I was getting more interested in politics… and it's good to say he encouraged that interest in me, not in a party political sense but in the sense of getting more informed and educated about the things I was probably mouthing off about in class."

Just as we were about to leave, Mr Kelso pulled from his bag a surprise for his former pupil - an essay about Trident nuclear missiles that she'd written nearly 30 years ago. It could easily have been a speech from her recent election campaigning.

She had written: "I would strongly recommend on economic moral and political grounds that the government do not go ahead with the purchase and installation of the US Trident missile system."

A stunned first minister was clearly rather proud to discover that her views haven't changed.

"This is incredible. Well nobody can say I've not been consistent!"

Panorama: The Most Dangerous Woman in Britain? is on BBC One (except Wales) at 20:30 BST on Monday, 1 June and available later via BBC iPlayer.