Two minutes in to talking to Sir John Curtice and it’s absolute chaos. The broadcaster, psephologist and professor of politics is in the middle of explaining some detailed point about elections, arms sweeping through the air (he’s a gesticulator, like all good psephologists) when one of his long thin arms accidentally connects with the small round tray of coffee a waitress is trying to deliver to our table. Coffee everywhere.

It's significant that, as the coffee pools round our feet and Sir John apologises, it doesn’t break his train of thought for a second. This is what he does: he fires out complex arguments, often in the face of interruptions, often on live TV, and it’s always coherent, and clear and, more importantly, supported by evidence and stats and free of hyperbole or gratuitous insults. As Sir John himself points out, this is not always what it’s like in public discourse these days. He’ll tell me about his views on that one later.

He'll also tell me a bit about himself, even though it’s clear he’d much prefer to be talking about historical trends in general elections since 1830 or some such subject. The personal stuff includes his Christianity, his cakes, the difference between parsnips and carrots, his health concerns and issues with his weight, his parents, and his views on the issue that has arguably now brought down not one First Minister but two: trans and women’s rights.

The Herald: John Curtice with his knighthoodJohn Curtice with his knighthood (Image: free)

But first: Humza Yousaf. When the First Minister resigns, I ask Sir John for his reaction and it’s pretty blunt. Mr Yousaf was, he says, a very poor politician and “bloody useless”. But the issue for the SNP now that their leader is going is whether they can actually find someone who’s any better.

“The new leader will have two jobs,” says Sir John, “One is to unite the party, but also to improve relations with the Greens so you’ve got to get Patrick Harvie and Fergus Ewing on board. That’s job number one, where you might want to go for John Swinney.

“But the second job is to get politically on the front foot, talk to the electorate and convince them you’re doing a good job and Swinney, even among SNP voters, only about 50% of them regard him favourably and we know that he struggled with that aspect of the job last time. As for Kate Forbes, she will divide the party over cultural issues. So the problem is can they find someone who can do both jobs.”

Sir John also thinks people may already be exaggerating the possible effect of the First Minister’s resignation on public opinion: he points to a YouGov poll out this week which showed the SNP still ahead in voting intention for the Scottish Parliament. “The expectation that the SNP vote is going to collapse is maybe a bit exaggerated,” he says. “If anything, Labour are overplaying their hand in going for an early Scottish election. The crucial point is it’s a reset moment and we don’t yet know what’s going to happen as a result of it.”

What is clear though is Sir John’s general exasperation with the abilities of Mr Yousaf and others of his political generation. “There are two things they lack: the ability to give a good speech and two, to articulate a vision of what they’re about. Sunak can’t do it, Starmer can’t do it, Davie can’t do it, and Yousaf can’t do it.” The three who were good, he says, were Thatcher, Blair and Johnson. “Johnson was brilliant at it, it’s just that unfortunately compared to the other two, he wasn’t terribly good at running the country.”

The Herald: Mr Yousaf was, Curtice says, a very poor politician and “bloody useless”Mr Yousaf was, Curtice says, a very poor politician and “bloody useless” (Image: free)

Yousaf also suffered badly, says Sir John, in comparison to Nicola Sturgeon. “Even after Sturgeon had been arrested,” he says, “when Sturgeon is doorstepped by a lot of journalists, she is in charge of that situation, she controls the interaction; when Yousaf’s in the same position, he’s not in charge. He doesn’t have her presence. Some of us are old enough to remember Nicola Sturgeon in her twenties. She had a certain kind of presence then but it wasn’t a commanding presence. It’s not natural, it’s learned behaviour.”

So I ask Sir John how we got here: from the peak of Sturgeon, through the arrests, through Yousaf, through the sagging poll ratings, to now, and in a sense he blames them both. Everyone’s talking about Yousaf’s resignation this week, but as far as he’s concerned the travails of the SNP are really about the resignation of his predecessor.

“It is only since Sturgeon has resigned, which is the biggest political mistake that’s been made in a very long time, that the SNP has gone down the swanny.” But is he really suggesting things could be different now had Sturgeon stayed on? “Put it like this: we can argue about the police inquiry and all the rest of it, this is the difference: Sturgeon is a politician unlike any of the four previous characters I mentioned, Starmer, Sunak, Davie and Yousaf. And the timeline is this: the SNP start at 43 per cent at the beginning of that leadership contest and at the end, with Yousaf installed as leader, they’re down at 38.”

It’s obvious we’re now really getting into the stuff Sir John loves: numbers, trends, clues. On the day we meet, he’s preparing for the TV coverage of the English local elections, which means three solid days of rehearsals and an epic shift in the studio from early on the Thursday til late on the Saturday; 57 hours straight. How does he get through it, I ask. “Adrenalin,” he says. “I’m just following the story.”


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But there’s a bit more to it than that, because there’s family history here. The gesticulating, the enthusiasm, the volubility, he says, is something he gets from his mother rather than his father, who was a quiet man. He also thinks some of the love of politics comes from early conversations he overheard between his mother and his uncle, who were councillors (Liberal and Labour supporters respectively). His first political memory, growing up in Cornwall, was the death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. He also remembers staying up late to watch the ’64 vote (unknowingly, getting in some practice for his grown-up life).

Perhaps surprisingly, John didn’t do well in school in the early years but he does remember the Eureka moment of a teacher saying he could disagree with him if he wanted to and it stuck. Ever since, he says, he’s always been inclined to row against the consensus and the status quo. “The dominant narrative,” he says, “is always worthy of challenge.”

Famously, Sir John is also careful to publicly maintain his neutrality. Would he ever reveal how he votes? “Not to a journalist!” he says. “Or indeed to any private individual. My wife and I rarely discuss it.” And he says the reason is clear: politicians find it difficult to avoid playing the person rather than the ball and if they knew Sir John was Tory/Labour/SNP/whatever, it would make his job considerably harder and a lot more unpleasant.

We talk a little more about his wife: Dr Lisa Curtice, who’s a curate in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and it’s an interesting mix of the personal and the political again. Sir John, on religion as well as politics, is a little reluctant to talk about his personal affiliations but he’s a Christian and a regular worshipper at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral on Gt Western Road. His wife is also now a curate in Renfrewshire which means covering a large area from Renfrew to Greenock.

Sir John tells me he likes doing the husband-of-the-priest thing, making cakes for church events and so on, but in a way the Scottish Episcopal Church is also at the centre of his work as an interpreter of public attitudes. The Scottish Episcopal Church was the first in the UK to allow gay marriages in churches – mostly, says Sir John, because it’s relatively small, relatively liberal and relatively middle-class. He also says that, apart from opinions on the banks, attitudes to same-sex relationships is the biggest attitudinal change that Britain has ever seen.

Which brings us to that other issue and destroyer of First Ministers: trans. One of the critical factors for Sir John is the fact that although many women have said their rights are threatened, if you look at the data – and Sir John is always looking at the data – women are more liberal on trans issues than men. “Most people’s view is that if a man wants to wear a dress, that’s fine. So social transition is not controversial; it’s just the question of the legal situation and going into loos and younger people. And when you look at the structure of the attitudes on transgender, it’s very similar to attitudes to same-sex relationships about 20 years ago.”

The question for Sir John is whether the trans debate is now having an “Aids moment” in the shape of transgender people like Isla Bryson, the male-born rapist who was sent to a women’s prison. “We know that attitudes on trans have moved against making it easier for people,” he says. “The critical feminists have the had the better of the argument. The question we have to ask is whether Isla Bryson is an Aids moment. The Aids scare moved public opinion for a while against same-sex relationships in the late 80s. The point is will it necessarily indicate the long term trend, as Aids did not, or is it the case that eventually we will get more liberal?”

The Herald: Nicola Sturgeon upset many feminists with her support for gender recognition reformNicola Sturgeon upset many feminists with her support for gender recognition reform (Image: free)

Sir John is aware some gender critical feminists won’t like him much for apparently comparing them to opponents of gay rights in the 80s, but he can take it mainly because, like the rest of us, he’s been navigating the current state of debate and free speech for a while now.

“It’s definitely got trickier,” he says. “I don’t think it’s just social media – social media does enable people to create their own bubbles, but I think the problem one is always dealing with on free speech is it’s always going to be free speech up to a point because certain things people say may cause harm. The question to ask is are we at risk of drawing the line a little too far in the direction of concern about harm? We’re now in a situation where people very rapidly go ‘homophobic, homophobic, homophobic’ so maybe we just hang back here. We’re become more liberal as a society but we’ve become less tolerant of illiberal attitudes.”

None of this stops Sir John saying it as it is of course. We talk again about Labour’s prospects in the coming elections and the 70-year-old psephologist casts his mind back to the 1997 election, which he’ll be talking about at an event at the Boswell Book Festival in Ayrshire next week. He says there are lessons to be drawn from ’97 for Labour today.

“There isn’t the enthusiasm for Labour there was in 97 and one of the reasons is Labour is so scared of losing, it won’t allow a sandpaper of distance to open up with itself and the Conservatives, including accepting what was a largely unfunded tax cut which was the latest cut in national insurance. The electorate has largely turned to Labour because for God’s sake, they surely can’t be any worse than the current lot, not because they’re convinced they can do any better.”

And Sir John is convinced Labour will win the election. “Take the worst polling error in modern polling history and add to it the best recovery from eight months out in a full length parliament, put those two things together you still get Labour about 5 points ahead. That means a hung parliament but then you have to factor in the fact that the Tories have no friends in the Commons with the possible exception of the DUP which means Labour don’t even need to be the largest party and they will form the next administration.”

Labour’s prospects at the Scottish election are trickier to predict. “If you make the assumption that Labour are going to win the UK election, and you then have doubts about their ability to deal with the situation in which they find themselves, you may find that by 2026, the Labour party is none too popular.”

The problem for the SNP is related but different, he says. “What does now seem to be true is that whereas hitherto, politics in Scotland on both sides of the debate was dominated by the constitutional question, we were completely polarised and politics was almost like it was in Northern Ireland. But on the Yes side , that has fractured somewhat because the SNP are no longer getting the support of virtually everybody who votes Yes.

“The other thing I’ve picked up is that whereas as recently as 2022, people’s willingness to vote for the SNP was unrelated to their attitudes to the state of the health service and so on, now they are. Therefore the insulation of the constitutional question that has been around them for a long time and indeed has become thicker and thicker over time has been punctured and at least some voters are saying ‘well at least Labour at Westminster gets rid of those bloody Tories and maybe that’s what I’m going to do.’”


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Once the dust settles from the local elections in England this week, perhaps we’ll start to see some more clues to what’s actually going to happen – Sir John is keen to point out that there are lessons to be learned from south of the border because Labour, he says, has been profiting in Scotland for exactly the same reasons as it has in England (Johnson and Truss).

By the time you read this, Sir John will actually have been through those English elections and finished the epic 57-hour shift in the election studios. He loves it really, but what also helps him gets through it these days is the fact that he’s a lot healthier than he used to be. “I got a very strong warning from my doctor that my blood sugar level was too high so I lost about four stone,” he says. “One or two people wrote to me saying ‘are you all right?’ Even my surgery said, is this deliberate? But even now I’m only just within what the official BMI should be.”

His answer isn’t running or cycling or whatever (in his only real fail for following the data, he says he refuses to do physical exercise for its own sake). His answer is healthy eating and cooking, usually the fruit and veg he gets from his allotment by the River Kelvin.

He tells me a little bit about what he does down the allotment: summer fruit, winter veg, rhubarb, blackcurrants, raspberries, gooseberries, potatoes, swede. He also gives me a little bit of advice for my own veg-growing (never manure for carrots, always for parsnips).

But the really interesting thing is what happens when the man who grapples with statistics picks up a spade: he can’t escape himself. Yes, the allotment is a place to relax, a place of escape, he says, but “you’ve got to do the right thing at the right time so there is still pressure. It gives you something else to worry about.” Even down on the allotment, wellies in the mud, the data rules.

Sir John will be discussing his chapter on the 1997 election in British General Election Campaigns 1830–2019 at the Boswell Book Festival on May 11 at 6.30pm. For more information, see