How authoritarian is the SNP’s rule in Scotland?

How authoritarian is the SNP’s rule in Scotland?

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 1, February, 2021

JUST WHAT kind of regime does Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP lead in Scotland? It is no longer what we would consider a normal parliamentary democracy to be. It is true there is still a political opposition, but a very weak and divided one. There are still elections. But there are no effective checks and balances to restrain Ms Sturgeon, as there are at Westminster, through its revising chamber, a more robust select committee system and a robust system of audit. In Scotland, there is no revising chamber, the Holyrood committees are toothless, and the limited independent audits carried out on government departments or policies are smothered at birth. 

A minority SNP administration has been able to behave like an authoritarian regime, because of the support of the nationalist and socialist Greens. The extent to which the SNP propaganda machine has deluded large sections of Scottish society with extravagant  and dishonest promises that could not be met, and with Greuelpropaganda (horror propaganda) about the Westminster system and those who operate it, has ensured the SNP retains much support of the emotional kind that nationalism tends to evoke. 

It is true that some of its own once staunch supporters now talk of not voting for their SNP constituency candidate, because of the scandal of the Salmond Inquiry and the failure to move towards another referendum. But that will scarcely dent the SNP’s loyal if blinkered voting base. For example, the journalist Neil Mackay has recently excoriated the SNP in the Herald for incompetence and corruption – but he will apparently still vote SNP! 

In writing ‘Dictators trembled at Ceausescu's fall – democrats should shudder at Sturgeon’s rise’ (Think Scotland, 25 January 2021) Tom Gallagher has made a persuasive comparison between the Murrell’s Scotland and Ceausescu’s communist Romania – and, certainly, the complete dominance of a married couple at the pinnacle of authority is a major similarity with SNP Scotland – the same could be said of the Honeckers in the German Democratic Republic. 

There is also in SNP Scotland a strong element of ‘personal rule’, which German historians have associated with the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918). This meant that the monarch’s view was pre-eminent, that his hand and his alone was on the tiller, that he was front and centre of government, and that ministers (let alone voters) did not need to be consulted. The Kaiser surrounded himself with friends and courtiers who flattered him and did his bidding. If the monarch wanted, in the late 1890s, to build a navy to challenge the British navy on the high seas, then it was done. If he wanted to show the strength of his ‘mailed fist’ by sending a gunboat to Agadir, to attempt to teach the French a lesson, then he would do it, as Wilhelm II did in 1911.  

Some critics have attempted to label the SNP ‘fascist’. This is not appropriate. It is true that the Führerprinzip(leadership principle) applies in both cases. The leader is supreme, and there is no check on his/her authority over the party. The cult of the leader is evident, for example in the picture posted on Twitter by a young man of himself with a life-size cardboard cut-out of a picture of Nicola Sturgeon in a red dress, saying “She’s my idol”. Some time ago, a similarly entranced woman tweeted: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Sturgeon comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, SNP, SNP”. Again, a video was posted of Ms Sturgeon with ‘looked after children’, hugging one, with the legend: “This could be the first time that they’ve actually had a parent look after them and show them affection”. No, it’s not a cult. 

Further, there has undoubtedly been a merging of party and state in Scotland, as was the case in both Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Germany, with Ms Sturgeon using her party twitter account to transmit official government messages. Her attempt to designate a meeting with Alex Salmond as a ‘party matter’, even though her husband, the SNP’s CEO, was excluded from it, is indicative of the confusion that causes. 

Her husband, Peter Murrell, tweets official policy from party HQ. The SNP’s MPs, especially Ian Blackford, claim to speak for “the people of Scotland”, when they speak only for their party or their own constituency. Government ministers, like Michael Russell, use their personal accounts for official business, which is convenient for Russell when he is telling lies about Scotland’s finances – he can’t be accused of lying on his official government account. 

Yet, while the supporters of the nationalist ‘movement’ (a term used by the Nazis – especially in the late 1920s, their party was ‘die Hitlerbewegung’, the Hitler movement) gather together in large numbers and claim to ‘march’ around town centres in a propaganda demonstration, showing a degree of popular support for separatism, they are not similar to the fascist paramilitary organisations – whether with brown, black, blue or green shirts - that disfigured the streets of many European countries in the 1930s. These were in the main regimented groups, as the name ‘paramilitary’ suggests. No-one would apply that term to the dishevelled bands of blue-painted flagwavers who stravaig around Scottish town centres on a Saturday afternoon, incommoding shoppers and disrupting traffic. Still, who knows what might happen in a separate Scotland if these SNP devotees had the upper hand? I would certainly expect the tumbrels to come for people like me. 

The similarities that seem more plausible between the SNP and other regimes are those that were evident in dictatorships generally. The accent on bringing the young up in the faith is one. Hitler, Stalin and Mao all had staged photographs taken of themselves with children and all had strong indoctrination programmes for children. Ms Sturgeon’s version of this was, pre-Covid, the staged selfies with kids as well as with adults. In 2014, there was talk of ‘Wee SNP Kids’. I recall a photo of the then married couple, Stewart Hosie MP and Shona Robison MSP, with a group of them in Dundee. For mock elections involving real parties, Peter Murrell’s office prepares packs of ‘merch’ (merchandise, I presume) with SNP paraphernalia – flags, pens, etc. Most scandalously, enthusiasts produced a video a couple of years ago of a group of small children – some very small indeed – who had been coached to intone propaganda:  

 

The children of Scotland would like to say ‘thank you’ to Nicola, our first minister of Scotland. We are so grateful. Thank you always 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. 

 

The adoration of the leader by small kids who scarcely knew what they were saying is indeed redolent of totalitarian dictatorships. There have, further, been changes to the school curriculum, especially in politically sensitive subjects such as history. That’s what happens in a dictatorship. Instilling a love of one’s country is one thing. Propagating a cult of the leader – who has styled herself ‘chief mammy’ of ‘looked after children’ – and targeting perceived national enemies are the dictator’s tactics. 

Other characteristics of a dictatorship amount to what in Hitler’s Germany was known as Gleichschaltung (co-ordination), which meant bringing the police under central control, exerting control over the media and the universities, and rendering the judiciary compliant, among much else. We can see these elements to a greater or lesser extent in SNP Scotland. The creation of Police Scotland from eight regional forces was done in such a way as to facilitate political control by the SNP administration. This resulted in the centralised force having to pay VAT, under EU rules, where regional forces had not. The union Unison proposed an elegant solution that would have avoided paying VAT, but it also compromised central political control, and so Ms Sturgeon’s regime rejected it. 

It is clear that the broadcast media in Scotland have been leant on, to the extent that there has been a virtual news blackout on the Salmond Inquiry on STV and BBC Scotland, while threats of withholding advertising revenue have rendered the press mostly compliant. Universities know where most of their funding comes from, and behave accordingly, their spokespeople supporting SNP policy and dissidents being (mostly) discreet. As Kevin Hague tweeted last year, “I live in a country where individuals’ failure to agree with the party of government’s desire to break up the UK leads to businesses being boycotted, people being professionally snubbed and charities being told to step into line if they want government funding”. 

This last point refers to a tweet by Angus B. MacNeil, SNP MP, in July 2019. STV News reported that a charity had said that “The Scottish Government should be “braver” in its support for a so-called drug “fix room” in Glasgow”. Mr MacNeil’s response was: “Maybe the charity in question needs to be “braver” in support for Scottish independence to sort the issue?” This tells us everything we need to know about how the SNP operate. 

As for the judiciary, the blatant example is that of the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe, who, with the senior civil servant, Leslie Evans, has refused to answer legitimate questions put by members of the Salmond Inquiry at Holyrood and who has colluded in the withholding from the inquiry committee of important written evidence. The judgment by Alistair Bonnington, a former honorary law professor at Glasgow University (note: former, not current) is: 

“The fact that people in very senior positions are advancing at best amnesia and at worst idiocy as explanations for their failure to tell the whole truth makes one wonder if we have in Scotland a “team of total diddies” at the top”.

In medicine, too, a consultant who put concerns about infection control in a Glasgow hospital on record reported: “When I started in 2014, I had raised some issues in writing, and I was phoned by a more senior person to say to me “you’re new to Glasgow, but here we don’t put things in writing because…the enquiries and things. So, do not put things in writing” ”. This appears to be the culture in SNP Scotland. It is the story of the Salmond Inquiry, where witnesses’ memories of meetings are implausibly defective and their failure to keep minutes or at least diary entries is surely culpable. There is more than a whiff of the Mafia about the Salmond Inquiry and, by extension, SNP rule in general. Alistair Bonnington’s view is that “The Stalinist way, after all, is the SNP modus operandi”.  

Where do we stand in Scotland? In a country where the leader of a devolved administration makes it clear that the Prime Minister of the UK is not welcome in ‘her’ country. In a country where secrecy and the withholding of evidence are acceptable. In a country where the ruling party has infiltrated most areas of civil society and where it controls the political sphere. The Supreme Court called some aspects of the SNP’s Named Person legislation “totalitarian”. It is a word that I am reluctant to use. But it increasingly seems to be applicable to important aspects of Scottish life. As Alistair Bonnington says, “The experience of the Salmond Inquiry demonstrates that Scotland remains firmly in the Dark Ages. It’s perfectly plain that our leaders are very frightened that the truth might emerge here”.  

Do Scots really think that that is how their nation should be?

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

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