IN APRIL 2022, the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Start the Week’ had an edition on ‘The age of the strongman leader’, the title of a new book by Gideon Rachman, starting from a poll finding in 2019 that 54 per cent of British voters agreed with the statement ‘Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules’. From this, there developed a discussion of an increasing disillusionment with democracy throughout the world and the increasing popularity of authoritarian leaders.
The focus was on ‘strong men’ who fitted this description, including Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson – if one really thinks that Johnson is a ‘strong ruler’. One question to be asked was: How might European liberalism assert itself against the new demagogues? The defeat of Marine Le Pen meant, said Tom Sutcliffe, mine host, that the discussion was indeed about ‘strong men’. This may seem a touch dismissive to those of us living in a polity dominated by a strong woman exercising authoritarian power. But more of that later.
The new style of male leaders with whom Rachman is concerned are rule-breakers who have developed a cult of personality: ‘it’s all about THEIR leadership’. They have image makers to portray them as strong – Putin’s bare-chested posed photographs in the wilds is an example. They embody ‘nostalgic nationalism’, aiming to make their nation great again after real or perceived weakness. Putin wanted and, alas, still wants to restore Russian greatness after the humiliation of the fall of the Soviet Union and Moscow’s loss of territories to home rule. His unprovoked attack on Ukraine is, for him, an important part of restoring Russia’s greatness. Erdogan sees Turkey’s secularism and democratisation under Attatürk as weakness after the glories of the Ottoman empire, especially under Suleiman the Magnificant (1494-1566). Orban looks back to the days when Hungary was a dominant power in eastern Europe.
This ‘nostalgic nationalism’, which is in effect neuralgic nationalism, harks back to the interwar years, when Italy and Germany had their own strong leaders as a result of both disillusionment with democracy and the perceived national insult of the Paris peace treaties. Mussolini’s appeal was based substantially on the ‘mutilated victory’, with Italy on the winning side in 1918 but failing to make the territorial gains it had been promised by Britain and France. Hitler’s platform was founded on the ‘dictated peace’ that punished Germany as a loser through territorial and material expropriations, culminating in economic disaster in the great inflation of 1923 and the great depression from 1929. In both cases, the democratic system appeared to be unable to defend the nation’s honour nor to combat the material hardship that afflicted the nation’s people. The emergence of a strong leader seemed for many to offer a way to salvation. If that meant that the strong leader cut corners and trampled on civil rights, then the eggs and omelette argument prevailed.
The radio discussion did not question this nostalgia and its foundations. The Russian empire, up to 1917, was huge, certainly, and the Great Russians ruled over a number of other nationalities on whom they imposed their own Russian culture. But its glory days were behind it after 1815, even as its expansion into Asia continued. Catherine the Great’s triumphs, in annexing the lands on the north coast of the Black Sea, including the Crimea, from the Ottoman empire were probably the zenith of Russia’s power and energy. The charming city of Kherson that she founded is, heartbreakingly, now again in Russian hands.
Ottoman Turkey had invaded south-eastern Europe both before and after taking Constantinople in 1453, and, under Suleiman the Magnificent, had inflicted defeat on the regional power of Hungary at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, leading to Ottoman partial domination of Hungary until 1699, after which Hungary was ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs. It took until 1913 for the last Ottoman possession in Europe, present-day Albania, to be released by Turkey after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. For a century before that, as it relinquished Serbia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey had become known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.
Yet another power perhaps also merited that description: Austria-Hungary (from 1867). It is no coincidence that these three powers, Russia, Turkey and Austria-Hungary, were among the losers in the First World War. At the end of that war, all three lost territory in various ways. Russia lost Finland and the Baltic States, which became independent, and other territories, including Ukraine, temporarily. Turkey’s further losses were in Asia, retaining only a toehold in Europe centred on Istanbul. Austria-Hungary was broken up, with both Austria and Hungary losing the lands they had held that were populated by other nationalities, mainly but not exclusively Slavs. The Treaty of Trianon of 1920 which sealed Hungary’s fate created what outraged Hungarian nationalists called ‘the mutilated country’. The loss of Transylvania to Romania was particularly resented.
Turkey and Hungary, then, undoubtedly have a history of nostalgic nationalism behind them, which Erdogan and Orban have manipulated for their own electoral purposes. Russia, of course, found political greatness again, over the course of the 20th century absorbing the Baltic States in 1940, and increasing its influence and power with the iron rule of the Soviet Union through its domination of central and eastern Europe until 1989/91. It is the losses from then that Putin feels particularly acutely, with Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States and the central Asian republics escaping Russian rule from Moscow. Russia remains territorially huge, but much of its Asiatic territory is ice cap, tundra, steppe, forest. The losses in the west were the ones that were hardest to bear.
The nostalgic nationalism of which Rachman writes is reminiscent of what we used to call in German history ‘looking forward to a better past’, the imperative that the demise of national pride be rewritten to provide a more satisfying backdrop to a future that will be successful through an abandonment of the flabby democratic virtues of strict adherence to the rule of law, with the evident current national crisis requiring a retreat from such principles as independence of the media and the separation of powers. This in turn weakens democracy and leads to creeping authoritarianism, with weak and divided oppositions ostensibly demonstrating the even greater need for the strong man – in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The system is based on social conservatism, with macho men promoting traditional values, as women in Turkey know to their cost. There is also a tendency to resist globalisation and to try to build walls to keep unwelcome competitors out, with an emphasis on the primacy of the nation state. Trump’s ‘Build that wall’ and Orban’s defensive fence are examples of this. During the Covid crisis, Scotland had its own version with nationalists at the Anglo-Scottish border waving flags and shouting at ‘English motorists’ to keep out of Scotland.
The ‘Start the Week’ panel did not think that a ‘strong woman’ was an issue because Angela Merkel had not shown authoritarian tendencies and Marine Le Pen had been defeated. But let us consider the Scottish case. Covid was the occasion for Nicola Sturgeon being able to assume more authority and stronger powers than any first minister had ever had. Closing hospitality venues or at least severely restricting their operating hours, and limiting their ability to sell alcohol, were Draconian by most people’s standards. Closing schools and insisting on the wearing of face masks were other far-reaching powers. But the ones that really counted, in terms of the exercise of political power, were the severe restrictions on Freedom of Information requests, proposals to subject the legal profession to political control and legislating to give the SNP regime permanent power to impose emergency conditions in future without recourse to the legislature. Add to these the power the SNP regime has over schools, universities, cultural and charitable activity and the media, through funding patronage, and Scotland begins to look like a polity on the way to authoritarian control.
The failure of Holyrood as a representative assembly is another factor. The first minister – and recently the deputy first minister – can attend for questions but fail to answer these questions while personally insulting the questioner. There is a Presiding Officer in the chair, but she chooses – as her predecessor often did – to allow the first minister to behave in this way without any attempt to bring her back to the issue of the question, far less to interrupt any hostile rant on which the first minister (or deputy first minister) has embarked. It is hard to avoid the impression that SNP special advisers have had a word with successive presiding officers about how to conduct themselves.
Are we in a national crisis? In a way we are, with the SNP establishment in Edinburgh acting as a disloyal opposition in the UK as a whole. Meanwhile, the opposition to the SNP in Edinburgh is weak and divided, enabling a minority administration with the support of a very minor party to steamroller through its policies, including the possibility of emergency powers which would amount to rule by decree. This is cloaked in a carapace of social ‘progressivism’, rather than social conservatism, with the emphasis on ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’, and the protection of women’s rights except when they conflict with transgender demands. But make no mistake, the secrecy, including a shockingly bad history of record keeping, and the control exerted over public and third sector bodies, and the chilling effect of de facto censorship of even private concerns, amounts to creeping authoritarianism.
In Scotland, we have the cult of personality and nostalgic nationalism that demands the rewriting of Scottish history to portray a glorious nation wickedly suppressed and oppressed by a stronger neighbour. There is a dominant party that has infiltrated the state apparatus as classically happens in dictatorships. Public money is used for party projects – including the £20 million of OUR money set aside for a referendum that only a restricted minority wants any time soon. It now also includes the £49 million of Covid support funds that has been used to bail-out the failed ferries project.
Strong leaders require strong public relations backing, and the SNP’s propaganda operation is massive in scale. Its activists are like sleepers throughout Scottish society, stirred into action on social media by a tweet from the leader or her husband. And that is another feature of some authoritarian regimes: the husband and wife partnerships at the pinnacle of the regime. We saw it in Soviet-era Romania, with the Ceausescus, and the German Democratic Republic, with the Honeckers. Some may even remember Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in the Philippines, who ruled from 1965-86 and whose son was recently elected President.
How Scots have regarded the Murrell-Sturgeon partnership at the head of Scotland’s political establishment as healthy is a mystery. But, together with the absence of a revising chamber and of parliamentary committees with real authority, and with totally inadequate record keeping, the entire SNP project lacks the features of a liberal democracy.
Scots are at the mercy of a system run by very small clique of Sturgeon family and longstanding friends. This is the Scottish elite that can act as it wishes without constraint. The only genuine opposition in Scotland is the Auditor General, Stephen Boyle, who has produced a series of reports critical of the modus operandiof the Sturgeon regime. We can only wish him a long and productive tenure of office. But we will need to be vigilant to ensure that his professional and impartial conduct of his office is not impeded by the regime or its followers. By this slender thread hangs the future of any semblance of democracy in Scotland.