Image without substance: Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP

Image without substance: Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 3, August, 2020

THE SNP HAS BEEN in office since 2007, and Nicola Sturgeon has been a prominent figure – deputy first minister and then first minister – throughout that time, a period which has been dominated by the constitutional question. Ms Sturgeon’s stated view is that “independence transcends everything”.

As a means towards its end, the party has infiltrated Scottish life to an unprecedented extent. Third sector organisations, schools and universities, among others, know where a substantial amount of their funding comes from and conduct themselves accordingly. The arts are not immune: the then culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, explained a couple of years ago that artists should have “a common understanding of what the country wants”, which, loosely translated means ‘what the SNP wants’. Some private businesses have been leaned on. A couple of years ago, the director of the Highland Spring mineral water company, Les Montgomery, spoke out of turn:

“Businesses are fed up. The Scottish Government should be getting on with the job they are there to do. Focusing on employment, investment, those kinds of things. Independence isn't the job that the Scottish Government is supposed to be doing.”

After SNP depute leader Keith Brown suggested Mr Montgomery speak with his officials, he publicly recanted, twice. Stephen Daisley has written in the Spectator (6 July, 2017) about this and other instances of political pressure and about how businesses – including Barrhead Travel and Tunnock’s – have felt the wrath of nationalist supporters for expressing scepticism about Scottish separatism.

This is the increasingly authoritarian system over which Nicola Sturgeon presides. She is an unusual figure in Scottish politics, which has long been dominated by men in pretty much uniform great suits. In contrast she is the product of image consultants, who have transformed her from a small, slightly plump and dowdy young woman into a svelte and stylish middle-aged leader in high heels. The capacity of her wardrobe must be enormous, for she is always turned out very smartly in a huge variety of suits, tops, dresses, trousers and coats, in a wide range of bright colours, many, apparently from an Edinburgh designer shop called Totty Rocks. This, and her sculpted hairdo – carefully maintained during the Coronavirus lockdown – is the product of a style makeover around the time of her assumption (unchallenged) of the role of leader of the SNP and Scottish First Minister in November 2014. 

Photographs of her in earlier years show her with an untamed mane of hair; the colour has varied from dark to fairly light, and more recently to a bronze tone. She has increasingly added copious dark eye makeup to her look. She sometimes wears a bracelet, a necklace or a pendant, as well as her wedding and engagement rings and an Apple watch, but always seems to wear the same pair of ear studs. Apart from the very occasional foray into inclement conditions, where an anorak and high boots are her attire, her totteringly high-heeled shoes come in a variety of colours to match her outfit. But who really is she? 

Ms Sturgeon joined the SNP at the age of sixteen and first came to public attention in SNP party political broadcasts in the 1990s, as a personally diffident but clearly determined Scottish nationalist. She has been a member of the Scottish Parliament since 1999, first as an SNP list member and then as a Glasgow MSP. She served in the SNP Shadow Cabinet from 1999-2007, and then in the cabinets of the Salmond governments of 2007-14 when she was also Deputy First Minister. She was initially (2007-11) Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing and then held the cabinet post for Infrastructure (2011-14). As Salmond’s deputy from 2004, she led the SNP at Holyrood while he remained a Westminster MP until his election as an MSP in 2007. Salmond entrusted her with leadership of the SNP’s campaign in the referendum on Scotland’s future in 2013-14. Yet it was not she but he who resigned on the morrow of the vote after the ‘Yes’ side lost it. Had their roles been reversed, I doubt she would have been the one to resign.

Ms Sturgeon gives the impression of being an open and accessible person, mixing easily with crowds of supporters and, as politicians do, hugging children. She has given hostages to fortune by posing for selfies with some of the more unsavoury members of the SNP’s support, the ones who believe in ‘direct action’ on bridges and at the border with England. She is the darling of SNP conferences, now elevated to a position of adulation among the faithful. She has friendships within the SNP, many – such as those with Fiona Hyslop, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Shona Robison, Angela Constance, Alasdair Allan and Angus Robertson – having lasted for decades. On the other hand, she is a very private person and has a reputation for being aloof. It is known she lives in Glasgow with her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP Chief Executive. He is a shadowy figure whose published biography remains brief and with little in the way of personal detail. There is even talk of injunctions to suppress mention of it. 

It is surprising that nothing is made, by opposition politicians and journalists, of what we may politely call the unorthodox arrangement of having a married couple at the pinnacle of party and state. We have seen it in Soviet-era eastern Europe, with Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in Romania and Erich and Margot Honecker in the German Democratic Republic. In both these cases there was a unity of party and state and the position of the married couple at the pinnacle of the state was, or seemed, unassailable – until 1989. It is, however, difficult if not impossible to think of a democratic polity in which such an arrangement has existed. In Scotland, the dominance of the married couple means there has been, at the very least, a blurring of the lines between party and state. This is enhanced by Ms Sturgeon’s use of her SNP party email account for official business. It is what emboldens Ian Blackford MP to presume that he, as SNP leader in the House of Commons, speaks for “the people of Scotland”. 

Murrell was already in post as SNP Chief Executive when Ms Sturgeon became SNP deputy leader. He had worked in Alex Salmond’s MP constituency office in Banff & Buchan and then took over from Michael Russell as SNP Chief Executive in 1999. It is intriguing that he should have had Salmond as, in effect, his patron in his earlier years, given the mistrust that now exists between supporters in the SNP of his wife and supporters of Alex Salmond, who feel he has been wronged by the SNP and, by implication, Ms Sturgeon. But George Kerevan, former SNP MP, tells us that Salmond and Murrell ‘have long since ceased to be on speaking terms’ (‘SNP at the Crossroads’, Conter UK, 7 July 2020). The most outspoken of Salmond’s supporters has been Kenny MacAskill, now SNP MP for East Lothian and a former Justice Secretary under Alex Salmond, with whose services Ms Sturgeon dispensed. In January 2019, in the wake of the Scottish Government’s botched handling of sexual misconduct allegations against Mr Salmond, he said that he doubted the public sector, business or the media would countenance having a husband and wife team at the head of an organisation, suggesting it was time for Mr Murrell to ‘move on’. With overt criticism of Ms Sturgeon virtually impossible within the SNP hierarchy, the blame for the Salmond débâcle has been focused on Leslie Evans, Scotland’s chief civil servant. It is a matter for speculation how far critics of both Murrell and Evans have used them as, to some extent, proxies for attacking Sturgeon herself.

Murrell may not exactly be a Svengali figure, but there can be little doubt that he has been the prime mover in Ms Sturgeon’s personal image makeover. His frequent appearances on social media in 2015-17 and to a lesser extent since then have had the purpose of burnishing her image, tweeting her sayings and commenting on her activities admiringly. He coined the term ‘Nicolopter’ to describe the helicopter in which Ms Sturgeon visited multiple constituencies in a single day in the 2017 general election campaign. Whether he encouraged her to mingle with crowds and submit to endless ‘selfies’ with admirers is not clear. There may well be PR people and SPADs, rather than Murrell himself, who have prepared Ms Sturgeon for a punishing round of public speaking engagements, but there can be no doubt that her skills in that department have been honed, presumably by someone versed in the arts.

Murrell is at the centre of the SNP’s web, controlling its organisation, campaigns and propaganda. This ostensibly mild-mannered man has presided over propaganda campaigns based on a huge corpus of lies and the fomenting of hostility towards the UK, its government and all its works – and towards those Scots who oppose Scottish separatism. Tall tales have been manufactured about how Scotland has been ‘robbed’, ‘stripped’, ‘raped’ of its riches, has been ‘ignored’ by Westminster and ‘talked down’ by those who, in reality, oppose not Scotland but the SNP. Murrell may not personally have invented all of the lies and propaganda, but he is at the pinnacle of the operation that has done so and whose entire campaign is based on them. He has done nothing to stop SNP activists spreading these lies in the housing schemes of Scotland’s cities, particularly, and on social media. It would be naïve to imagine that his office, his lieutenants and indeed he himself have not encouraged the spread of these lies as a powerful campaigning tool. The buck stops with him.

It would, however, be equally naïve to imagine Ms Sturgeon is innocent of responsibility for these lies. She has perhaps not invented them, but she tolerates their propagation by her MSPs and MPs and, like her husband, does nothing to rein-in party activists who spread misinformation – about Scotland’s finances, for example. She accepts in public that Scotland has a deficit that is too large, but couches her words so that party activists can understand them as meaning that that deficit would be lower in a separate Scotland, at a time when Scotland would have lost the £10 billion and more that Scotland receives every year from the Treasury to compensate for the gap between Scotland’s self-generated income and its expenditure – the Scottish public sector deficit. She campaigned in the December 2019 general election on a platform of ‘stopping Brexit’ and of a separate Scotland ‘remaining’ in the EU, when the EU Commission had made it clear that it was not a possibility. Two of her senior MPs, Kirsty Blackman and Ian Blackford, repeated the lie about voters’ choice being ‘between a Brexit Britain or an independent Scotland in the EU’, both on BBC ‘Newsnight’ in November 2019. In her interview with Andrew Neil at the same time, Ms Sturgeon claimed that, at least, a separate Scotland would join the EU very quickly when there is no evidence to suggest such a thing. Distraught Remainers believed her and voted accordingly.

(For a different perspective of the Sturgeon/Murrell duopoly – from a Yes campaigner – read this bombshell analysis by Robin McAllpine afterwards: The foundations of Scotland's democracy have crumbled and you should worry)

From time to time, the mask slips. At an ‘All Under One Banner’ rally – a rag, tag and bobtail assemblage of separatist enthusiasts – on 2 November 2019 in advance of the General Election, her persona became that of a rabble-rousing authoritarian leader when she shouted at her supporters "The Scotland we seek is open, welcoming, diverse and inclusive – and no Tory is ever going to be allowed to change that… Boris Johnson has his strings pulled by Donald Trump". There followed the usual mythology about the health service being sold off – when the NHS in Scotland is entirely devolved, and it is on the SNP’s watch that a private American health care company has been able to conclude contracts with Scottish health boards. More recently, the vicious online treatment meted out to Sarah Smith, the BBC’s Scotland Editor, in May 2020 for daring to suggest that Ms Sturgeon was ‘enjoying’ the access of power that the coronavirus pandemic had conferred on her was given the green light by Ms Sturgeon’s own gratuitous tweet of injured innocence. As Brendan O’Neill of Spiked online observed on 19 May 2020, “You have all been warned: question Sturgeon and she will help whip up a Twittermob against you. And next time you may not be so lucky to get away with it by simply retracting your comments”.

Scottish journalists have, with a few honourable exceptions, been reluctant to confront Ms Sturgeon with the facts that undermine her case. They were shown, in 2014 in no uncertain terms, how the SNP leadership regards critical journalists. The mob of SNP activists that descended on the BBC’s Pacific Quay headquarters was not for the faint-hearted. The recent online treatment meted out to Sarah Smith more than hints at why journalists are reticent. A clearly scorched Ms Smith apologised four times for having misspoken. After an attempt in May 2020 to have a ‘clap for Nicola’ event fizzled out, STV News online showed its complete subservience to the SNP on 24 May 2020 by tweeting an amateur video showing very small children – at a guess, in the three to ten age group – offering a paean of praise to Ms Sturgeon:

“The children of Scotland would like to say ‘thank you’ to Nicola, our First Minister of Scotland. We are so grateful, thank you for always keeping us safe, working so hard, for being strong for us. Thank you for caring for every individual life and for always thinking about the children of Scotland. Thank you, Nicola, thank you, thank you, thank you….”

Would any Scot have imagined, ten years ago, that Scots would ever descend to this level of indoctrinated servility?

Yet as long ago as May 2016, the late lamented Kenneth Roy – as principled and fearless a journalist as Scotland has ever produced – began an article in Scottish Review with 

“The near-idolatry of Nicola Sturgeon reached new heights of reverence last weekend with identical treatment in Scotland on Sunday and the Sunday Herald…. Four days ahead of the Holyrood election, they may have been establishing her… as a woman of destiny who will lead us to the promised land, a female Mandela.”

This followed the careful fashioning of what can only be called a personality cult after Ms Sturgeon’s assumption of the SNP leadership. Ms Sturgeon’s own pretensions are slightly more modest. It was enough of a surprise to hear her describe herself as ‘Chief Corporate Parent’ in Scotland in October 2018, but then, in the same speech, she went on to describe herself as ‘Chief Mammy’. Whether her ecstatic audience was representative of wider Scottish opinion is anyone’s guess.

Yet now it seems that journalists elsewhere in the UK are asking uncomfortable questions of the SNP leadership. On 18 May, Clare Foges wrote a critical article on Sturgeon in The Times  called ‘Nicola Sturgeon is pulling the wool over our eyes’, and saying “The first minister’s grandstanding on Covid-19 masks the SNP’s dismal record on health and education in government”. Brendan O’Neill of Spiked online published “Nicola Sturgeon is turning into a demagogue”, arguing that the Sarah Smith incident “confirms Sturgeon’s authoritarian streak, and the Scottish National Party’s illiberal instincts. The SNP increasingly comes off as one of the most illiberal parties in western Europe”. Peter Hitchens has, in typically pungent manner, dubbed Sturgeon the “tinpot despot”. 

While it remains to be seen how much damage Alex Salmond can inflict on his predecessor and her husband with the revelations he promises in the book of his trial that he is currently writing, there can be no doubt that he will go for maximum revenge. Until the coronavirus crisis recedes, and Sturgeon’s perpetual place in the limelight diminishes with it, we will not know how incendiary Salmond’s onslaught will be. But the very fact of its imminent unleashing has created within the SNP two factions (at least): those who believe that Ms Sturgeon can do no wrong and those who deplore her hesitation on the key policy, taking Scotland out of the UK, and see in Salmond a more positive and pro-active player. There can be no doubt that his vainglorious chutzpah in 2014 attracted at least as much support as it alienated, among those who felt invigorated by his gambler’s attitude to the future of a country.

Salmond continues to have a staunch following in the SNP, with former ministers in his cabinets such as Kenny MacAskill and Alex Neil expressing doubts about the Sturgeon regime, along with veteran former party deputy leader Jim Sillars. Mr Neil’s comment about the Salmond trial, “The central allegation of the defence was that there was a political conspiracy to do in Alex Salmond” approximates to a declaration of war on those behind the charges, in particular Leslie Evans and potentially Nicola Sturgeon herself.

Salmond’s strongest ally among SNP MPs is Joanna Cherry, who has never been close to Sturgeon and is said to have ambitions to lead the party. He can also count on the former SNP MP, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, Angus B. MacNeil MP, and his ally, the vocal Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny, as well as the maverick former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray. There may be other SNP MPs and MSPs who are Salmondistas rather than Sturgeonites, but they appear to be keeping their powder dry for the moment. 

The SNP under Nicola Sturgeon is a governing party in name only. It poses as a permanent opposition party – in opposition to the UK, its governments, its structure, its constitution, its capital, its leaders, its people. It remains an agit prop campaigning party, reminiscent more of the Bolsheviks than of any other party. As Clare Foges says, “No matter what else is on the agenda, progressing the independence cause always comes out on top”. This is why the extended control that Nicola Sturgeon has exerted over Scots during the pandemic is so important. Her daily public appearances have, cumulatively, given the impression of an absolute monarch instructing her people. Certainly, she talks a good game, and has done so particularly in the Covid-19 crisis, but, when asked what Ms Sturgeon has actually achieved, even hard core nationalists struggle to provide an answer.

The pandemic, with the central role of the UK Treasury in supporting businesses and individuals across the UK, not least in Scotland, demonstrates more clearly than anything else has done how disastrous it would be for Scotland to leave the UK. Many of us have argued that a separate Scotland would have a lower standard of living than Scots have now inside the UK.  David Smith, The Times’ economics editor went further on 18 December 2019: “An independent Scotland is not economically viable”. Three weeks later, on 11 January 2020, the respected Fraser of Allander Institute warned that nationalist claims or hopes that Scotland’s large deficit could be eliminated by growing the economy “aren’t credible”. Scottish ministers could not simply “wish away” an independent Scotland’s economic deficit with “wacky” theories:

"Some have argued that the GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) numbers can be dismissed, or wished away by a newly independent Scotland simply printing money. Ministers and their advisers will know that such arguments aren’t credible."

And there we have the key. The goal on which Ms Sturgeon has based her career is illusory. She came into politics just at the time when Scotland’s superior deficit performance was coming to an end, in the late 1980s. The SNP’s activation as a campaigning party had been based on ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’ and the huge revenues oil brought in in the 1970s and into the 1980s. As David Smith says, “Economics does not always play as big a part as some of us would like… but the economics of Scottish independence are clear. It is about 40 years too late”. The SNP’s tragedy is not only that this is the case, but that its leaders know it is the case. This is why the SNP leadership will do anything but talk about economics, and, when they do, they have to lie about it, as Mike Russell did recently, tweeting: “Scotland pays out more [to the UK] than it gets back. Time to stop the fibs, Boris and face reality – the reason you won’t let us choose our own future is because you are scared of what it would cost you”. The Ferret fact-checking site – by no means hostile to Scottish nationalism – found that his claims were ‘False’. 

Yet the SNP has to persist with telling the lie about Scotland being better off outside the UK, because that is what their propaganda has told Scots. To try to avoid the subject altogether, they have in recent months jacked up attacks on the UK, and have built their campaign anew on hatred of the ‘corrupt’ UK which they compare unfavourably with a ‘moral’ Scotland. 

The SNP and Nicola Sturgeon are caught in a bind, and they know it. If they told the truth about Scotland’s finances, support for their secession project would melt away, leaving a hard core of true believers who would live in a cave in a Scotland outside the UK rather than in a house with all mod cons inside the UK. But if they tell lies about it – as they do, suggesting preposterously that 5 million people support the other 60 million – not only will they be found out as liars, but in addition there is a terrible risk. Suppose Ms Sturgeon gets her referendum and wins it. The reality of Scotland’s weak economic position would be revealed in all its stark reality, and with it a decline in living standards in Scotland. How then would Ms Sturgeon and her allies face their resentful pro-union opponents – and, even worse, their betrayed separatist supporters?

Jill Stephenson is Professor Emeritus of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh. 


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