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The unremarkable but relentless rise of Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon, Vol 1 – The Years of Ascent, 1970-2007 – by Ian Mitchell

A citizen’s biography of a driven woman in a drifting parliament

Independently published 13 December  2022, 327 pages, Paperback. ISBN 979 83682 99709

FOR THOSE  unfamiliar with his writing, Ian Mitchell is a Scottish legal expert whose published books reveal a man with a refreshingly broad set of interests. Now retired, his career involved lengthy stints working in apartheid South Africa and Putin’s Russia. Such experiences enabled him to observe how constitutional principles could be hollowed out by craven and reckless rulers. They serve him well in his task of chronicling how a hard-shelled ruler of a largely self-governing Scotland within a devolved United Kingdom, has governed .

This is the first of a 3-part study. It is not so much a biography of Nicola Sturgeon as a political biography of contemporary Scotland. The first part ends in 2007 when the Scottish National Party forms a minority government. Sturgeon is still seven years from becoming Scotland’s First Minister in what became a majority government following the Holyrood election of 2011.

She emerges as a solitary, introspective figure who left little or no mark on those around her until becoming an elected politician on the eve of her thirtieth birthday. She was joining a new parliament that was hailed as a force removing Scotland from the humiliating status of being subordinate to London. But flaws in the architecture of the new devolved settlement meant Scotland emerged from alleged provincialism only to plunge down a deeply parochial rabbit hole. Complaints about Scottish interests being overlooked by Westminster would very quickly be replaced by much more justified ones about a suffocating centralism directed from Edinburgh.

Much of the malaise stemmed from the electoral system. In a bid to equalise votes for parties with seats, individual constituency representation was devalued. It meant that nearly half the seats in the parliament at Holyrood, situated eventually at the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, were in the gift of party managers. They were allocated to rejected candidates or ones who had not even stood for constituencies. The MSPs were supposed to operate in an assembly geared towards consensus, unlike endlessly partisan Westminster. This was the dream of Donald Dewar the architect of the new supposedly progressive political order in Scotland. A short-sighted and negligent politician, he created a committee system supposed to be the bulwark of consensus whose heads were appointed by party chieftains, thus ensuring that the virtuous concept was stillborn. He imposed an ugly modernistic parliament building on the new members without real discussion, choosing the site and the architect himself. The cost soared from £40 m to £414m. In effect, it cost £90 for every man, woman, and child in Scotland and has been described as a monument to centralised decision-making.

The author makes a good case for arguing that a Machiavellian bureaucracy was able to neuter the parliament, install a closed system removed from the needs of voters, and impair the evolution of the devolution experiment in key respects. He believes this was due not just to Dewar’s botched constitution but to the character of many of the people involved. The two main parties, Labour and the SNP, sent a disproportionate number of people to Holyrood who had no interests, qualifications, or experience outside politics. They used parliament to declaim, exchange insults, and endlessly debate motions on issues that remained the prerogative of Westminster.

Ian Mitchell perhaps dwells rather too much on the dysfunctional and enervating features of this parliament as shown by tedious debates. But he draws an at times vivid portrait of a Holyrood dominated by ‘jobsworths and klansmen’. It succeeded in reinforcing the atavistic features of Scottish society instead of reinforcing the achievement-orientated ones. ‘Openness and transparency, the shibboleths of political correctness today’, expired within the first year of the parliament’s existence.

Mitchell ably shows how a ‘serious-minded, shy, bookish, quick-witted but socially unconfident woman’ soon thrived in the Holyrood bear-pit. Not only did she thrive but she shaped the character of the place even as an appointee of the party who would not win a constituency seat until 2007. She avoided making contributions on a constructive basis and revelled in antagonism. On p. 64 he writes:

‘Sturgeon had no respect for the political fiction in Westminster that “we are all Honourable Members”….She never seemed willing to try to persuade non-Nationalist MSPs of her case, only to browbeat, humiliate, or ignore them, as if her “prejudices” were matters of principle”. She adopted the tone right from the start.’

Dewar’s consensus model depended on courtesy in debate. Mitchell is puzzled about how Sturgeon acquired the reputation of being a formidable debater: ‘…abuse is not debate and a posture of in-yer-face loathing does not make a person “formidable”, merely unpleasant.’

Normally the author manages to display the cheerful manner of a pathologist casting a merry eye over a no-longer-twitching corpse. This is one of the few moments when his tone becomes harsh. Indeed, he manages to retain a serene and positive demeanour despite it being unavoidably obvious that the subject was a caustic and somewhat rebarbative political figure. He respects Sturgeon’s tenacity and her willingness to re-invent herself, casting aside dowdy work-station garb for expensive coiffeur and costumes and acquiring a husband, Peter Murrell, the head of the SNP party machine for many years.

Murrell had been appointed by Alex Salmond for much of the period during Sturgeon’s rise. She later said of Salmond: ‘I learnt pretty much everything I knew about the art of politics from him.’ But in time he would become her greatest foe, eclipsing even the Tories at times. She attempted to take him down once it became clear he did not share her absorption with an essentially post-national world order shaped around a bundle of niche human identities.

Ian Mitchell is at home with dissecting the wonky dysfunctional parliament which she came to preside over. But no doubt in the next instalments of his 3-part biography he will move on to explore the social media platforms where the SNP built up a cult following but also encountered opposition often more effective than that seen from the political parties in Holyrood.

When it lost office to the SNP in 2007, it was already clear Labour had badly mishandled the experiment in self-government. Its failure to exercise power in a decisive manner would be one of the few not demonstrated by the SNP when it began what has proved to be fifteen continuous years in power in 2007.

Ian Mitchell astutely handles events, processes and characters shaping the period of Sturgeon’s rise to eminence. He exhibits a limpid style of writing despite the more unwholesome features of politics regularly being on display as Sturgeon’s political career gathered pace. He also maintains a serene and even humorous demeanour despite it soon being obvious that his subject is a self-absorbed political figure content to preside over mounting divisions and indeed quite unfazed by the accelerating decay of infrastructure and public services.

This is a pithy and well-researched study of Scotland’s ill-starred devolution experiment and the figure who has acquired more power in her domain than any other person in British history for a long time. But the lack of reciprocity between those who made the laws and those who had to obey them did not begin with her. Instead she exploited a political system with serious design faults and shows no sign of growing exhausted even though many of her disenchanted supporters in the independence camp long for her departure.

You can buy the book here.

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