AS THE SCOURGE of Covid is halted in its tracks by medical breakthroughs pioneered in Britain, the watchword from the media and officialdom is that life is unlikely to return to normal for a long time, if ever. There is a concentrated drive to persuade citizens to get used to far greater restrictions and to an existence where state paternalism has great sway over them.
If a new era of diminished expectations is on its way, it is certainly reflected in the Scottish election, now just days away. Sturgeon makes vacuous promises about narrowing equality as the health and educational prospects of lower-income Scots fall ever more behind those of the well-off. Neither government nor opposition have unveiled anything approaching a New Deal for Scotland. Only Jamie Blackett’s All for Unity party has produced a manifesto with detailed proposals to transfer powers from the political class back to ordinary citizens. Naturally, as so much of the media has such an active stake in the Scottish status quo, it flatly ignores plans to counter abuses of power and instead makes sporadic puerile digs at the party’s founder, George Galloway.
It is Sturgeon who has gone to the greatest lengths to lower expectations particularly among nationalist-minded voters. On 30 April she told an interviewer that getting Scotland over Covid was her priority, a referendum on independence would get in the way of that, and ‘patient persuasion’ was needed to convince enough people of the case for independence. She has deliberately shrunk from using the Holyrood election as an opportunity to test the degree of backing for independence.
A presidential-style campaign has instead been built around her as a pragmatic and virtuous figure who has steered Scotland through a crisis and is a reliable custodian of the nation in all seasons. This ‘Safety First’ message plays well with natural loyalists, trusting folk who rely on television news for their information and who were much impressed by her daily personalised Covid briefings on the BBC. But much of her operational support also now consists of people with no discernable qualities. They are opportunists, career-minded managerial clones, and downright wastrels. These essentially parasitic types accumulate in nearly all regimes with long years of power behind them like barnacles encrusted on the hull of a ship.
Remarkably, while being a gimlet-eyed custodian of party affairs, Sturgeon has allowed numerous scandals to fester, some of which have burst into the open during this spring. It has been impossible to shut out from the election campaign a range of public procurement disasters that have happened during her six years in office. Shoddy administration, sharp-practice in awarding contracts and the failure of anyone to resign over incompetence and worse, has meant she has been sailing into head winds.
New details have emerged during the campaign about the public money showered by Sturgeon on Sanjeev Gupta in return for creating industrial jobs that are unlikely ever to materialise as his empire lurches towards collapse. A Highland hunting lodge was practically made over to the Indian tycoon who soon displayed no inclination to invest the well over £500 million pounds that he had been given for the economic uses intended.
The messy informal practices of the Sturgeon administration would produce weeks of damning headlines if they were occurring in London. It is remarkable the extent that ethical standards of governance have become so compromised during her years in charge.
A full-time politician from her late twenties with only the briefest of law careers before that, she has shown impressive stamina and will-power as a political boss. Single-minded ruthlessness and uncommon skills as a talker who is able to drown out challenges with a torrent of oratorical self-justification, have given her a Teflon image, someone whose misdeeds and failings never quite catch up with her. For years her defiance and brazenness went down well in nationalist ranks. But now schism reigns because she has forgotten one elementary fact in the eyes of the purists of the movement: she is the custodian of the cause, selected to deliver independence by the quickest possible political means, and not an autonomous actor free to handle power in any way she pleases.
The recent dearth of gestures made by Sturgeon to reassure the nationalist faithful that no let-up will occur under her in the quest for statehood, has been striking. The Rev Stuart Campbell from his influential online pulpit, Wings over Scotland, expressed the frustrations of many who have broken away from the SNP and in many cases aligned with the one-month-old Alba party:
“The truth of the matter is that Nicola Sturgeon has poisoned the Yes movement. Every part of it is now at war with every other part, and so bitterly that it’s hard to imagine the peace and unity of 2014 returning even if and when she’s finally dragged kicking and screaming out of Bute House.”
Tenuous common ground has been established with ‘Yoons’ or pro-UK Scots who agree that her increasing obsession with divisive forms of identity politics based around re-defining gender by law, are casting a dangerous pall over life in Scotland. Clearly, the pressure is starting to take its toll on her. She seems hesitant and incoherent when grilled in interviews, especially about economic matters, her zest on the campaign stump largely gone. News that a string of SNP-held seats are in danger of being lost to her opponents will not have raised her spirits.
She may be relying on the acquiescence of those who grew accustomed to the lead she was taking right through the Covid emergency. This was Nicola’s war on the virus, however pyrrhic or elusive were the victories, her strategy being largely borrowed from London and slightly tweaked.
There were pro-UK Scots who blocked out what they disliked about the conduct of the SNP when in power out of a sense of relief that leadership appeared to come from Sturgeon in such a dreadful time. She also still hopes to capitalise on her opposition to Brexit that previously went down well with a lot of urban middle-class professionals. And – by warning English visitors to keep their contact with Scots to a minimum – she has not neglected the backwoods constituency, exemplified by Ian Blackford, the SNP’s her Westminster leader.
But wealthier cosmopolitan Scots are not immune from the wrecking of public services or the decline of living conditions in the two main cities, largely under SNP control. It also becomes harder for Sturgeon’s supporters to insist that she has had a ‘good pandemic’. The many bereaved relatives of victims who were sent back to care homes might think differently. So might those in commerce as £2.7 billion of UK emergency relief funding continues to be withheld from Scottish businesses, many of which now face closure.
Whether or not Sturgeon finds herself outnumbered by pro-UK forces in Holyrood after 6 May might well depend on the extent to which the outlook of wavering voters is influenced by the coverage of the two main television platforms, BBC Scotland and STV. Both arguably have functioned as key props for Sturgeon long before the campaign got underway. Issues that have the potential to damage her such as the Gupta affair or the black hole that has arisen over the procurement of ferries, have been kept from sight in news bulletins. It was noticeable how keen both these broadcasters were to run with the wallpaper saga and other alleged misdemeanours of Boris Johnson, during the last full week of campaigning (without being interested in the £1.5m spent on Bute House). The Alba party has received very little coverage on STV or BBC Scotland despite the number of elected representatives who have joined it from the SNP. It is the same with All for Unity even though its founder George Galloway is the best-known pro-Union politician in Scotland according to one poll.
It is very likely that both these parties combined will obtain far more voters than the Scottish Greens but its leaders have never been off news programmes and both have appeared on much-viewed leaders debates while Salmond and Galloway have been excluded. Even some of their fiercest enemies would concede they are fine debaters whose presence would increase ratings. Yet it is possible for SKY News on the Saturday morning this is being written to file a report from the electorally important battlefield seats on the Moray Firth where Salmond lives and dismiss him as ‘the man who refuses to go away.’
Surprisingly for some, media outlets in the rest of the UK known for their Unionism have been giving emphatic nationalists a platform. The ex-BBC presenter Lesley Riddoch had an article in the Spectator last week, playing up pro-Scottish separatist feeling among metropolitan London luvvies. Its editor Fraser Nelson talked of never having forgotten her nice ways towards him as he was starting out as a rookie reporter in Edinburgh.
The Herald columnist Andy MacIver has mentioned that Sturgeon has sent his children gifts. Andy Collier, one of her former spads wrote a tribute to her during the campaign which also appeared in the Spectator.
Just as Sturgeon now sees herself as greater than the national cause, many journalists believe they are far more important than the stories they cover. There is fascination among many in the media world with the techniques Sturgeon has acquired to dominate the political narrative. Only the shrinking number of investigative journalists or those lacking strong political allegiances show any energy in trying to hold her to account.
The SNP benefits from the fact that many in the UK media world are making the same political journey as Sturgeon and those around her. They frown upon efforts to centre politics and decision-making around Britain rather than around global concerns or EU-directed projects. Members of the media and information world overwhelmingly belong to the liberal if not the radical left. They do not find it outlandish that Sturgeon has made Scotland a showcase for social experimentation and instead show scorn for those nationalist opponents who contend she has substituted independence for an obsession with left-wing identity politics.
London publications and television platforms have invested heavily in Sturgeon as the Boris Basher they crave and are proving slower than some of the more incisive Scottish journalists to acknowledge that both she and her essentially now post-national project face mounting difficulties. She has appealed to emotion and encouraged people to develop the unconventional side of their characters. But it is highly unlikely that in the bleak period of economic adjustment following Covid that far fewer people than in the recent past will wish to flirt with radicalism for the sake of it. Nor will Scots facing unemployment and yet more cuts be as willing to put up with incompetence at the top of government when they have such an adverse impact on their eroding standards of life.
A peevish and drawn Sturgeon looks keen to get this election out of the way but even if she still rules after 6 May, her ability to remain dominant in Scotland and shake up politics in the rest of the UK appears to be increasingly in doubt.