Scotland is paralysed – and Sturgeon's undemanding fan base may explain why

Scotland is paralysed – and Sturgeon's undemanding fan base may explain why

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 16, April, 2018

ONE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS in my new novel "Flight of Evil" is Clova Bruce, a nationalist with a background in the musical entertainment business. 

She is too easily written-off as her unruly private life gets her into hot water. But after dodging prison, she bounces back. The trust of the political faithful in her is renewed as she makes a second bid to topple the cerebral Unionist Gavin Ogilvy who is in charge of Scotland at a time of huge upheaval elsewhere on the island. 

Bruce is not based on any living person unlike some other characters in the book. But she realises what some of the cannier members of the SNP, in politics for the long haul, have worked out. To be successful it is necessary to cater for the emotional wants of the rank-and-file. They need to be placated with spectacle, diversions and of course grievances. With her background as a stage performer and festival organizer for a time Clova Bruce is able to provide all the schlock the members crave. But in the end she has an epiphany. Speaking to another nationalist she says: 

"Far too many of our activists see nationalism as a hobby. It became a magnet for obsessives and egotists who wanted to strut their stuff. In a quieter age, they might have been trainspotters or stamp collectors.  The new noisy era of self-dramatisation turned them into folk who imagined they could somehow create a new country." 

The disciplined and conventional Nicola Sturgeon is no Clova Bruce. But by 2015 she had acquired the star status, which the fictional character enjoyed, and despite overreach and electoral reverses, she may not lose it for some time. 

The four-fold increase in SNP membership has produced a party top-heavy with late middle-aged or elderly folk. Many seek emotional fulfilment through being largely passive activists and they are content to rub along with the leadership as long as their need is satisfied. 

While Sturgeon stumbles on different fronts – a standstill economy, failed Brexit strategy, an ailing public sector – she performs (with some success at least in the eyes of her fan-base) the role of National Mother. She was not the special guest on Scottish Television's the Hogmanay special this year, but she made sure to wish five million Scots well as she tweeted: "Whether you’re out and about tonight @edhogmanay or elsewhere - or, like me, at home - have fun and stay safe. And spare a grateful thought for all those at work - especially our emergency services. Happy Hogmanay. See you all in 2018.” 

She is a watchful presence, never forgetting to praise the success -–or worthy endeavours – of Scottish sports champions. Her public relations machine makes sure that centenaries like that of the writer Muriel Spark are not neglected by her. She even managed to write a foreword for the Chinese edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The lack of any foreign affairs responsibilities has not prevented Sturgeon trying her hardest to be 'somebody' on the world stage. She basked in the recognition when this winter she was invited to join an international task force on health policy along with notables like Larry Summers, ex-head of the US Federal Reserve. 

The well-endowed health quango will of course pay for her travel as she jets off to meetings but she has billed the Scottish taxpayer for increasingly hefty sums. In 2017 she and her official entourage headed for California to sign a climate change agreement with Governor Jerry Brown. Then it was across to New York City to take part in a glossy event, called "Women in the World", proclaiming the eclipse of patriarchy. 

This year she is freshly back from a week in China, it is hard to see the benefits other than a series of photo opportunities with second-ranking Chinese officials. Her visit coincided with the decision of her government to take charge of a planning application from a Chinese firm to develop a wind power site in East Lothian. It is highly unusual for such a move to be made before the local authority has come to its own decision. East Lothian council had bought the land from an energy firm in order to go ahead with an industrial project meant to provide local jobs, but the intervention of Sturgeon’s administration, rules out this possibility. 

The SNP lost the East Lothian seat to Labour in the 2017 general election so this unpopular exercise in centralised power has no electoral downside. In the eyes of the sedentary mass membership the image of Sturgeon jetting across the world is what counts. It amply confirms that she has put their cause on the map and that Scotland matters globally.  

When at home, Sturgeon and her team roll out a series of stunts and morality plays that invariably show plucky progressive Scotland take on the octopus of English power at Westminster. 

The appeal of another catalytic referendum on independence remains undiminished in many quarters. But the signs are that it is the desire to indulge in a splurge of festive campaigning extending over many months that galvanises the faithful. Sturgeon has oscillated in her attitude to the referendum. In 2015 she said that she wouldn't push for one unless backing in the polls was above 60 per cent, but it became "highly likely" in the immediate aftermath of the 23 June 2016 referendum. 

With electoral setbacks confirming that Brexit is not swinging voters towards independence, Sturgeon has pulled in her horns. Instead, there has been political theatre meant to use up the energies of supporters and distract attention from the Sturgeon administration’s lamentable handling of its day job. 

Thus in March she brought the troops to life with the claim that the UK Government’s EU Withdrawal bill threatened the devolution settlement. The First Minister had no desire to see powers exercised by Brussels leaving there. But nearly all that were leaving must be transferred to Edinburgh and if that wasn’t happening, then "devolution was in danger".  There was a large turnout on 3 March as "hands Off Our parliament" group erected a human chain around the building. 

Sturgeon thrills her following by constantly going out of her way to promote stunts that make Scotland already seem a place apart from the rest of the UK. Thus Celtic "alliances" or "axes" are constantly affirmed, marked by regular visits to the Republic of Ireland even though the volume of economic activity between the two places might hardly seem to warrant the intense diplomacy.  The budget of the culture department is growing, as local government cuts intensify, with money always being found for events that emphasise Celtic solidarity of various kinds. The purpose is to administer pinpricks to the idea of a British isles dominated by England. 

The newly launched "Scotland is Now" campaign, which offers yet another re-branding exercise in a bid to raise Scotland's international profile, is arguably part of the same soft Anglophobic mission. On the foreign promotional trail very little will be said about the fact that at home the Sturgeon administration is floundering and bereft of real achievements.

There is no good economic news in Scotland however her media handlers spin it. It is the highest tax, lowest growth and dearest education area in Britain and Scotland is well on its way to pricing itself out of global money markets by the extent of its borrowing

Brexit is disingenuously blamed by the SNP for the malaise but voters are just not convinced.  Election results suggest that the charge of the opposition that problems are accumulating because the SNP has ducked the normal responsibilities of governance, increasingly hit their mark. Sturgeon hopes that a floundering Scottish Labour Party and a Conservative one which she is determined to continue labelling toxic, will never be strong enough to oust her. 

The SNP has bedrock support comprising just over 33 per cent of those who vote. Sturgeon’s loyalists refuse to judge her by the customary criteria on which politicians are rated, that is governing prudently and efficiently. Paradoxically, this causes longer-term problems that mean her regime will be unlikely ever to raise its game. Being in permanently campaigning mode, it is failing to attract people genuinely interested in doing something meaningful with the powers accumulated since 1999. Smart practical patriots with ambitions not just for themselves but for Scotland in general have always been conspicuous by their absence inside the SNP. 

There must be nationalists who wish to shake up the sclerotic public administration. But purposeful technocrats do not put themselves forward or, if they do, as in the case of Andrew Wilson, the author of the much-delayed "Growth Commission report", they fare badly in SNP internal elections. 

The 'deep state' remains unreformed and the gravy train has become even more a feature of Sturgeon's rule as she penalises the private sector and goes for poorly devised and unwieldy public projects. 

Deceptively progressive wheezes, like creating a Citizen’s Wealth Fund, which would give every Scot a guaranteed minimum income, are pushed by exhibitionists like Sir Harry Burns, well rewarded by her administration for his troubles. But even Sir Harry is careful to avoid becoming lobby fodder for the SNP at the Scottish Parliament.

Any practical visionary who wants to succeed in Sturgeon's world has to spend years flattering and placating the membership. It’s a wearing business. I suspect Angus Robertson has no great nostalgia for doing the rounds of party branches as deputy party leader. It is no surprise that there’s a very thin line-up in the race to succeed him.

For intellectuals or people of action who wish to make the SNP an engine of radical change, they face crossing a wilderness bereft of ideas. There are no summer schools, policy journals, and conferences with genuine debate. There can’t be because one of the first things Sturgeon did was to introduce a rule banning elected members from speaking in critical terms about their colleagues. 

Government service is easier for mediocrities in Scotland than in perhaps most other parts of the democratic world. Media scrutiny is not intense. Backbenches contain few MSPs eager for competence in the top offices. Sturgeon is charitable to handpicked ministers as long as they display loyalty. 

But as I argue here it is a compliant mass party which cuts a second rate administration so much slack. Nationalist politics are now a substitute for recreations or pastimes for large numbers of people. As long as Sturgeon can indulge these people with treats and diversions, she is probably untouchable. Meanwhile, what can be seen as Scotland’s lost decade inexorably draws closer to being a lost generation.  

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who lives in Edinburgh. He published ‘Scotland Now’ A Warning to the World’ in 2016. His 14th single-authored book and debut novel, ‘Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue’, came out in March.

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