03 Dec 2018

Scotland's first minister is no prima donna

Following a clash between Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and British ministers, a conservative columnist mentioned Sturgeon's “killer stilettos” and wondered if she refused a high-level meeting because she was “getting her nails done”.

Lydia Morrish
Lydia Morrish NewsMavens, United Kingdom
Scotland's first minister is no prima donna - NewsMavens
Nicola Sturgeon, Wikimedia Commons

Tensions amidst the UK’s journey to exiting the European Union are relentlessly high. Early November saw a week of resignations of high-profile MPs after UK and EU officials agreed the draft text of a Brexit agreement.

In the EU referendum in June 2016, 62% of Scottish voters, including a majority in every local authority area, voted to stay in the EU. Many of them feel that Scottish politicians haven't been consulted fairly during the Brexit process -- in August, nearly two-thirds of Scottish voters said the Westminster government was ignoring their concerns during these negotiations. Scottish National Party (SNP), lead by Nicola Sturgeon, also holds that Scottish parliament’s decisions were largely ignored by the Conservative party and left out of crucial Brexit dealings.

This is the backdrop of the call which Nicola Sturgeon received on November 15, when David Lidington (Prime Minister Theresa May’s de-facto deputy), asked if she was available to meet the next morning. She wasn’t.

Lidington said Sturgeon ”turned down” the meeting. Sturgeon hit back at the claim, addressing the aforementioned grievances, but also the fact that no agenda was given in the call which came at 18h, expecting her to be available tomorrow morning:

“I wasn’t prepared to cancel my constituency commitments at such short notice for [the Scottish Government] to yet again have to hear empty platitudes rather than be listened to,” Sturgeon responded on Twitter.

Sturgeon has since been criticized by conservative pundits and the press for not agreeing to meet with Lidington at short notice. One of the critiques, however, stood out in both tone and content.

Shoes and nails in national politics?

Brian Monteith, former Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament, wrote a column piece about the supposed rejection for Edinburgh Evening News on November 21. The original headline of the article was:

“Too busy, Nicola? Or just getting your nails done?”.

The headline itself reveals Monteith’s sexist attitude and intentions to demean Sturgeon. But the references to fashion being more important to Sturgeon than politics didn’t stop at the headline. Monteith lists things that Sturgeon has the help of a “shoal of advisors” on -- “her policy ideas, her press statements, her travel arrangements, her security, and her couture” -- putting her clothing choices on a level footing with her political duties. It is doubtful that either of these things would be said of a man, nor were we able to find an example of Monteith making a comment on a male politician’s nails or clothing choices in his back-catalogue of columns.

While Sturgeon is talked about a lot in the press in terms of her clothes, from tartan high-heels to raspberry dresses, it is not Sturgeon who has made her clothing a priority. It is commentators, fashion magazines and newspaper supplements that give importance to her style choices. To argue that Sturgeon genuinely cares about “couture” or having her nails done more than important political matters is misleading at best. It’s is also indubitably sexist.

As for having a team of stylists, it is also factually inaccurate. Sturgeon -- like virtually all heads of state -- has a team of special advisors, but not one tasked with choosing her “couture”:

"Brian Monteith is wrong, Nicola Sturgeon has not got a team of stylists,” an SNP spokesperson told NewsMavens.

Monteith did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

After publication, Monteith’s article was immediately referred to as sexist in Scottish newspaper The National and branded misogynist by Twitter users. Meanwhile, Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser was criticized by other MSPs for sharing the article online.

“It is completely unacceptable… to share sentiments reducing women in public life to their nails, shoes and make-up,” said SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth.

After the backlash, the headline was changed to “Too busy to meet the deputy Prime Minister, Nicola?”. The original was published at 6am on November 21. and an update shown on the column page happened at 10:59 am on November 22. References to Sturgeon’s shoes were also deleted from the article. This was a passage in the original version:

“The salary’s not bad either, entitled to more than the Prime Minister but ­representing only one twelfth of the public, there’s enough loose change from the £135,605 she draws to never run out of killer stilettoes. What could go wrong, one might ask?”

When the headline was changed, the “stilettoes” part was gone:

“The salary’s not bad either, entitled to more than the Prime Minister but ­representing only one twelfth of the public, there’s enough loose change from the £135,605 she draws to keep her in style. What could go wrong, one might ask?”

And not just that

The whole piece opened with Monteith implicitly questioning what is in Sturgeon’s “bones, guts and brains -- and if it’s a pretty sight or not”, and nominating her for “the prima donna of our times”. Monteith also accused Sturgeon of throwing a “public tantrum” by “spitting her tweets out of the pram”, following her reaction to the claim that she rejected to meet Lidington. What’s more, Monteith takes on a condescending tone when he says how Sturgeon is responsible for “big matters of state” in a line about how he expects she “has a very busy diary”. Would a male politician’s job responsibilities be discredited in this way? We expect not.

Along with the “prima donna” remark, these comments play right into the trope of women as “hysterical”, implying that their behaviour is too irrational for politics. Prima donna is the leading female singer in an opera performance, but it is also a phrase commonly used to describe somebody who is fussy, temperamental and expects special treatment. While it is sometimes used to describe men, it is far more often used to refer to women in a negative way. It is unlikely that these particular metaphors and such patronising language would be used in association with a male politician.


Monteith’s article puts down Sturgeon based on tropes that women are hysterical, distracted from their duties by fashion and beauty, and difficult to work with. It undermines the authority of female politicians by reinforcing the idea that women are less capable than men in politics.

Based on the headline, contents of the column and false statement that Sturgeon has a team of stylists, we rate this article as clickbait, biased reporting that contains disinformation and sexual objectification.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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