Community peace is a casualty of Sturgeon’s type of rule

Community peace is a casualty of Sturgeon’s type of rule

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 20, April, 2020

NICOLA STURGEON has pulled off the feat of shrinking the size of the Scottish political stage in order to accommodate her own needs as a ruler. Most decisions are taken with a single, overriding calculation in mind. How will it enable her to strengthen her authority and impose her personality on Scotland and beyond?

It is astonishing that the triumph of a personal autocracy has occurred in what was billed twenty years ago as an innovative new form of politics in Britain. Scottish devolution was supposed to be a shiny contrast with the creaking Westminster order encrusted with barnacles and unresponsive to change.

Transparent, collegiate, people-centred, civic-orientated – devolution was meant to be all this and more. A jewel in its crown was the freedom of information provisions enabling official documents to be released to the public upon application within months of them being drawn up.

Accessible democracy becomes a liability for any government that is more conspiratorial than consensual. Sturgeon duly used the Covid-19 pandemic to rush through a packet of emergency measures, the most eye-watering of which has been the suspension of freedom of information laws until the crisis is deemed over.

As she would have likely anticipated, she wasn’t hauled over the coals by the media at the daily crisis briefings. Investigative reporting has gone out of fashion as all but a few journalists show far more interest in mind-numbing constitutional manoeuvres than in digging out official information showing Sturgeon’s approach to power.

She has perfected a cosy arrangement with lobby journalists in London, the television studio pundits and much of the Scottish media whereby she offers regular sulphurous onslaughts against London rule in all seasons. Her broadsides are manna from heaven for a commentariat that is just as deeply antagonistic to the Tory Party. There has been no lessening of hostilities as a result of the pandemic either from her or the media war horses who give her the floor on morning television shows to inveigh against the government.

Under her the SNP has gone the way of so many nationalist movements before it from southern Africa to Latin America. It has quickly reverted from a cause with a territorial aspiration to one where lip-service is aggressively paid to what increasingly ends up as an empty slogan. For some time it has been obvious that Sturgeon’s thoughts revolved so little around independence that she could not be bothered even to string together a workable plan of campaign to try and realise this primordial objective. Instead the demonisation of a foe, the Conservatives, was meant to divert and wholly absorb the party activists.

A media losing sales, viewers, and reputation because so many of its luminaries enjoy the easy pickings that can be had from monstering Boris Johnson (and his predecessors before him), has joined forces with a high profile regional politician who very publicly ‘othered’ the quarter of voting Scots backing the Conservatives when speaking at a rally in the centre of Glasgow on November 1 last.

Her readiness to be highly partisan before thousands of people suggests that when the news broke of a confrontation between one of her MPs, Steven Bonnar and a constituent last Thursday, it is unlikely to have caused her much concern. The MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Belshill had a Celtic football flag prominently displayed in the window of his home in the Lanarkshire town of Uddingston. Fur flew when a constituent and neighbour objected, saying:

“Is that needed? You're supposed to be a councillor.”

Bonnar responded: “I'm no a councillor, I'm an MP” before adding “F*** you, ya headcase” as a vicious argument ensued

It culminated in the two men challenging each other to a fight, an incident which was caught on video and uploaded to YouTube.

Her recently-appointed communications chief Murray Foote occasionally complained about sectarian footballing enmities spilling over into politics when he was editor of the large circulation Daily Record. But it is unlikely if, in his new found role as Sturgeon’s media manager, thus ugly spat concerned him. In the past, he might have editorialised about the danger of recklessly imprudent MPs pouring petrol on the flames of simmering disputes over religion, Ireland, football or obscure local quarrels in a part of Scotland long known for its communal tensions. But I suspect trying to trip up the London government over its handling of the pandemic was quickly restored as a priority.

Much of the media has long ago decided to treat SNP dirty washing with languid boredom. Obviously the titanic power struggle between Sturgeon and her predecessor as SNP leader, Alex Salmond, which ended up in the courts, was an exception. But Sturgeon knows that the top media figures with whom she converses about the iniquities of the Johnson regime are unlikely ever to shift gear and quiz her about the unlovely weeds sprouting furiously in the SNP garden.

If Sturgeon was to find a place in her shadow Westminster team for the anti-monarchist and Celtic-fixated Bonnar, let’s say as spokesperson on community relations, it would probably only divert most of the media for a very short period.

With a background in financial services, the MP had already made his mark in January when he used sleight of hand to avoid taking the oath to the Queen upon being sworn in.

He had succeeded in reaching Westminster because Sturgeon had decided that cementing her own power-base was far more important a priority than delaying Brexit. Thus, along with the ill-led Liberal Democrats, she agreed to back early elections in December 2019 which resulted in the SNP gaining over a dozen seats. It is unlikely she placed any credence in a Labour-SNP pact ever emerging. Her own priority as a political boss who needed desperately to secure a victory with a controversial and disruptive trial approaching, was uppermost.

In the sixth year of her leadership, the lesson had long ago been driven home to her elected colleagues that they would be largely left alone as long as they did not challenge her authority or the priorities she had chosen for the party. Whereas she might be alarmed at the prospect of an articulate, combative and self-reliant figure like the ex-diplomat Craig Murray joining the parliamentary ranks of the SNP, she is unlikely to be bothered by the presence of undecorous figures like Mr Bonnar.

After all, his street-level aggression is merely a local echo of her own longstanding confrontational stance with Westminster over a lengthier period. Why should she ditch or restrain the wretched Mr Bonnar when she has gone to considerable lengths to cultivate Sinn Fein, which in Ireland has made his territorial aggression pay huge dividends?

A shrewder and more responsible SNP leader, thinking of the long-term might have asked him to consider the career of Michael McMahon who represented the same part of Lanarkshire for the Labour Party at Holyrood from 1999 to 2015. He was President of the Parliament’s Celtic Supporters Club, and a supporter of Irish reunification, but he probably would never have dreamt of having an altercation with a constituent from a different ethno-religious tradition and worked with all sides, including the Orange Order, in order to strengthen community cohesion.

The emergence of a dubious figure like Bonnar is a consequence of Sturgeon having successfully shrunk the Scottish political world to her own narrow dimensions. The place has been drained of real talent across public life. It would be too much to claim that it is mainly her doing but she has been the prime mover in creating a semi-authoritarian statelet.

When much of post-virus Europe looks embarked on a major political shake-up, Scotland seems locked down and at a stand-still under a martinet with few redeeming features. Like Putin in Russia, anyone who crosses her even from the same nationalist camp, is dealt with harshly. But punks who cause no trouble unless it is to the peace of their constituency have little to fear from Boss Sturgeon.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divides his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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