The Arrogance of those in power too long

The Arrogance of those in power too long

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 11, March, 2019

WE HAVE SEEN THEM in various countries: the leaders who hang onto power for too long. Francisco Franco in Spain was a case in point, as Caudillo, head of his authoritarian regime from the civil war of the later 1930s until his death in 1975. Joseph Stalin, too, lingered on in the USSR, from the late 1920s until his death in 1953. Mao Zedong (pictured) ruled China after his victory over the Nationalist government in 1949 until his death in 1976. There is no regular mechanism for unseating dictators, and so they remain in power until they die, unless they are overthrown by foreign intervention or by a domestic coup

The latter was the case in Portugal, where the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, which had lasted from 1928 and which had been perpetuated by Marcelo Caetano after Salazar’s incapacity by a cerebral haemorrhage in 1968, was overthrown by the ‘Revolution of the Carnations’ on 25 April 1974. It was so called because the rebel soldiers wore a carnation on their uniform or sported a carnation in their rifle barrels. The new regime was led by General António de Spínola, who had concluded that Portugal could not win the colonial wars in Africa in which Portugal had been involved for many years and which were generating severe financial problems as well as a long casualty list.

In our own country, under a parliamentary democratic system, we have seen, through the examples of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, how a leader in power for several years can become divorced from reality and develop delusions of grandeur. In the case of Mrs Thatcher, her announcement of the birth of her son’s child with “We have become a grandmother” was probably a grammatical slip born of excitement, but it seemed to indicate a sense of personal grandeur. The five-year parliamentary term is probably not long enough for this to happen, but, when an administration extends to ten years, its leaders become convinced of their infallibility and seem to become insulated within a bubble of advisers who reinforce each others’ opinions. The myth of the Roman convention of having a slave accompanying a victorious general in triumph to whisper in his ear, ‘Remember that you are mortal’ is a nice conceit, but leaders who remain in power for too long would not tolerate such a thing. 

In the USA, the potential problem of over-stayers seemed to have been averted at the start, with Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe explicitly adhering to the two-term doctrine – that no American president should serve for more than two four-year terms. This was breached by Franklin D. Roosevelt, first elected in the depression, in 1932, and re-elected in 1936. With war raging in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt stood and was re-elected in 1940 and again in 1944, although he lived to serve only for 82 days of his fourth term. To resume the two-term convention, the Twenty-Second Amendment of the American Constitution was adopted in 1951. At least we know that, whatever happens in 2020, Donald Trump cannot serve more than a second term as president. We have not been able to say the same for Vladimir Putin.

It is perhaps the misfortune of successors to a long-serving leader that they can be tarred with the brush of a predecessor who remained in office for too long. This was perhaps the case with Gordon Brown, the second most powerful figure in the Blair governments, who inherited the prime ministerial mantle from Blair in 2007 when the New Labour government was already showing signs of fatigue. True, a new broom should bring a lease of energy, but Brown had been Chancellor for ten years and was an important part of the architecture of the Blair system. 

One could possibly say much the same about Nicola Sturgeon. She had been Alex Salmond’s deputy throughout his second period as leader of the SNP, from 2004-2014, and had held various ministerial portfolios in his governments. Some of the chickens from her time as health minister, from 2007-12, are now coming home to roost. Salmond’s time in office, from 2007, had not obviously run its course by 2014, but his loss of the Scottish referendum in that year brought his tenure to an abrupt end. The evidence that there was still life in his regime was the remarkable show of strength by the SNP in the general election of 2015, under Sturgeon’s leadership. Like Brown, she had not had to face a leadership contest. 

The SNP under Sturgeon performed strongly in the Scottish parliament election of 2016, narrowly failing to repeat the majority it had achieved under Salmond in 2011, in a system designed to prevent any party from achieving a majority on its own. But the signs are there. Ms Sturgeon’s administration is increasingly accident-prone – or, perhaps better said, showing itself to be increasingly unable to solve intractable problems in Scotland’s health, education and transport services and in the economy, where sluggish growth, even by UK standards, is a drag. It has overreached itself with schemes to increase its own power, in the Named Person fiasco and in the very unpopular and now aborted plan to absorb the British Transport Police in Scotland into its centralised Police Scotland force. It has ignored the opinions of its own advisers – but not those in the inner circle – on a number of occasions, with fracking perhaps the most high profile of them. 

Ms Sturgeon’s regime has squandered money in areas that are reserved to Westminster but into which the SNP has intruded in its determination to create a separate Scottish polity without consent. There was the unusual case of money donated to help ‘Syrian women peacekeepers’. The most recent example is the donation of £220,000 to refugees in Venezuela. This is no doubt a worthy cause, but it flies in the face of reason when international aid is a reserved matter and Her Majesty’s government is the second most generous donor of foreign aid. Setting up Scottish ‘hubs’ in Canada and Paris recently is another attempt to mark out a separate identity from British embassies and trade missions.

The arrogance of power detaches leaders from reality. We have had recent examples of this. Ms Sturgeon does not drive, and is ferried about by chauffeur-driven car – when she isn’t being conveyed by what her husband, Peter Murrell, chief executive of the SNP, hubristically calls the ‘Nicolopter’. The contrast between this life style and the imposition on ordinary people of a workplace parking levy is clear. The bizarre attempt to try to argue that Ms Sturgeon’s dealings with Alex Salmond last year were in her identity as party leader, not as First Minister, only demonstrates the problematic position where party and state are being effectively conflated. We see this daily, with those who criticise the SNP being routinely told that they are ‘talking Scotland down’. The SNP itself tweeted on 6 March that ‘Theresa May tried to claim that Scotland has no mandate for a referendum on Scottish independence. FACT: Scotland has a mandate to pursue independence’. ‘Scotland’ has not sought any such mandate. It is the SNP that thinks that is has one. This elision of party and state appears to be completely deliberate. It is also deeply dishonest.

The evidence of the arrogance of those in power for too long has come in two rather bizarre instances. 

First, few days ago, Ms Sturgeon tweeted a picture, saying: ‘I’m biased I know, but my mum @joan_sturgeon is very talented crafter [sic]. This lovely tote bag is a sample of her work. You can see more of her work’ at (Facebook address given). 

Second, last October, an organisation called ‘Who Cares? Scotland’ tweeted a little speech by Nicola Sturgeon:

“I stand here as First Minister of Scotland. I have many responsibilities but there is none more important than my responsibility as chief corporate parent of Scotland. As chief mammy!”.

What is a ‘corporate parent’ (let alone a ‘chief mammy’)? A little video gave us a clue. Here are two stills from it, with Ms Sturgeon visiting ‘looked after’ children. 

For once, words fail me.

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