THIS week we continue our series interviewing the leaders of the main political parties seeking to return to the Scottish Parliament by speaking to the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.

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SCOTTISH democracy moves at a glacial pace – slowly over decades but with an occasional lurch in a direction.

Democracy is also a word Nicola Sturgeon returns to more than once in her interview for our series of profiles on Scotland’s five main Holyrood parties.

Ms Sturgeon has spent nearly half her life as an SNP MSP, the last six years of which as First Minister.

Should the SNP be returned to government next month, the party will be heading towards 15 years as Scotland’s ruling establishment – following decades of Scottish Labour hegemony.

For Ms Sturgeon, she sees unity in the country’s democracy.

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“Scotland is not so divided,” she says. “Spending five minutes on Twitter would give you that impression. Luckily I don’t spend more of my life on Twitter.

“Yeah, there’s differences of opinion on independence and a whole range of other things, but that’s natural.

“We have to work harder not to allow disagreements to become toxic divisions. And I think that’s a responsibility on the part of all of us.”

The SNP have had local authority coalitions with Labour, and voted on policy positions at Holyrood with Scottish Conservatives and others.

There is even talk of some shared positions, such as scrapping not-proven verdicts in Scotland’s courts or overhauling or replacing the council tax. So why hasn’t that happened in the first 14 years of SNP power?

Ms Sturgeon admits she would have been equally guilty when in opposition for calling for action without offering alternatives.

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“If you’re in opposition, it’s very easy to say what you don’t like - council tax, for example,” she says.

“But when you’re in government you have to come up with the alternative.

“And that’s where consensus often breaks down. Because opposition parties like to campaign against things, but don’t often want to take the responsibility of the hard work of putting the alternatives in place.

“I’m a great believer in robust debate. We live in a democracy. But I also think that the pandemic has taught us this: where we can find common ground, we need to work harder to build on that common ground.”

The pandemic has seen Ms Sturgeon, like other leaders, in front of the cameras near daily to inform the public. With 10,000 Scottish lives lost, have all the decisions taken in the moment of crisis been correct?

The First Minister accepts, with hindsight, the answer is no.

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“For as long as I live, not just for as long as I’m First Minister, I’ll live with the burden of those decisions and the impact of those decisions,” she says.

“If I could turn the clock back to a year ago, I would take different decisions around protecting care homes.

“Some of the decisions we took weren’t taken out of any neglect or any lack of care – we just know things now about how that virus spreads that we didn’t know back then.

“The experience has been horrendous for everybody. As a leader, it makes you re-evaluate your entire approach to leadership and politics.

“And one of the things that I am even more convinced of now is the need for politicians and leaders to be much more candid. You can’t always see into the future and know the impact of every decision you take.”

There have been, near continually through the pandemic, comparisons between Scotland’s approach and that of the UK. Was a four-nation approach the right one? Should Scotland have locked down earlier?

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Ms Sturgeon said the nature of the infection curve in March 2020 meant Scotland did, effectively, lock down earlier than the UK. But she says she would have been “ultra cautious” and shut down faster. And she argues Scotland’s closure of schools and ban on mass gatherings nudged the direction of the UK.

The early days of the pandemic also saw discussion on how society could be made fairer and more equal.

When asked – before the SNP manifesto launch – if there was one structural change to society or Scotland Ms Sturgeon would make with the powers the Scottish Parliament currently has, she answers in broad terms.

“Particularly in complex situations, I always resist the reductionism of ‘just pick one thing’,” she says.

“The pandemic has been such a massive disruption to our lives that there are many things that we will want to get back to normal as quickly as possible – being able to see loved ones, have parts of our economy operating normally.

“But there will be big things that we should pause, and try to avoid going back to normal very quickly.

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“I think we’ve got to take a bit of time to think about where we want these things to settle.

“There’s an opportunity to look at different things around the economy – better work-life balance, four-day working weeks for example.”

She continues: “We have all lived through the pandemic but the impacts have not been equal.

“We need to up our game in tackling these deep-seated inequalities, which is why tackling poverty, starting with child poverty, is such a key part in the SNP’s policy programme.”

The pandemic brought out new splits – including anti-science segments – within Scotland. And the continual debate about the timing of a second independence debate has not been unifying.

If and when a second independence referendum is held, and if the outcome is a reverse of the 2014 result, should those who voted no accept the decision? Ms Sturgeon says they will – that’s democracy.

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“People like me can’t say to the public on any issue, ‘right, you’ve had your say on that, you’re not allowed to continue to campaign for it’,” she says.

“That’s not how democracy works. It’s not a moment in time. And of course the polling on independence right now shows that 45 per cent Yes support in 2014 is now 50-plus support for independence today.

“And on constitutional issues in particular, there has to be an agreement that people have the right to decide, and that is the position on independence.

“If we’re in the situation in the future that Scotland votes democratically [for independence], then people will get behind the effort to make Scotland a successful, independent country.

“And we will continue to be a democracy, so people will continue to debate vigorously the things where we have differences of opinion.”

As well as the promised referendum, Ms Sturgeon sums up her party’s pitch as having the “experienced leadership” to get through Covid and offering a “bold policy programme” for recovery.

Voters will have the democratic choice on May 6 and in postal ballots now.