How power-hungry couples overreach – is Sturgeon approaching nemesis?

How power-hungry couples overreach – is Sturgeon approaching nemesis?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Wednesday 3, February, 2021

WHEN A MARRIED COUPLE effectively control politics and government, it is sufficiently unusual to evoke interest. When such a duumvirate leads to a collapse of governmental standards and impairs public morality, it breeds alarm.  This has only happened twice in modern European politics – first in communist Romania and, in our own time, in Scotland under a poorly-designed form of autonomy within the United Kingdom.

Such concentrations of power are not confined to politics: business, academia, church affairs, sport and the theatre attract people whose runaway ambition is not always matched by a sense of responsibility towards those in whose name they exercise authority.

In comparing the behaviour in power of the Ceausescus and the Sturgeon-Murrells, it needs to be acknowledged that the sequence of events which exposed their shortcomings, varies. Their faults are hardly identical but the similarity in the ways they hoarded power, made decisions, promoted personality cults and struck down rivals so as to dominate society, are striking.

Like Nicola Sturgeon in 2015, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1965 inherited a state expanding in power and influence which had been created by an energetic predecessor. His death created a vacuum which was rapidly filled by Ceausescu who, very quickly became known as Conducatorul (the Leader). He sidelined rivals, put powerful allies in the place, and altered party statutes so that all power radiated from him. 

In both Scotland and Romania nationalist regimes increased their freedom of action thanks to the problems and mistakes of overseers who wielded superior authority.  In the Soviet Union, the toppling of Khrushchev in 1964, had created a vacuum at the top of the Communist Party (CP) which was not immediately filled. Later, the British state struggled to preserve its authority in the face of a volatile society divided along a range of fault-lines. By gifting an independence referendum to the Scottish Nationalist (SNP) government in Edinburgh in 2014 when constitutionally there was no need to do so, Prime Minister David Cameron showed the incoherence of the state in the face of one of the most intractable forms of identity politics confronting Britain.

Sturgeon on the surface was weaker than the communist boss of a party-state enjoying a favourable political environment. Shortly after her elevation, she won a knock-out victory for the SNP at the 2015 general election. With 57 MPs, she lost no time in imposing her authority by passing an edict cracking down on any dissent or unhappiness being aired by parliamentarians. The party was firmly in her grip and it was her husband, the chief executive of the SNP, who would oversee party discipline.

Favourable events enabled both politicians at an early stage to project their influence beyond the confines of their own states.  In August 1968 Ceausescu astonished many in the West when he refused to join the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact states in sending forces to quell Czechoslovakia’s experiment in liberal communism. British Premier Harold Wilson was so impressed that he was prepared to give active backing to Romania’s show of defiance (and a decade later the Ceausescus would arrive on a state visit, staying at Buckingham palace).

Tony Benn when British minister of technology in 1968 wrote later of Ceausescu:  he “was very modest mannered, very penetrating in his ability and I liked him.”

Nicola Sturgeon strove to obtain similar plaudits when she tried to place herself at the head of the resistance to Britain leaving the European Union. The referendum in 2016 which saw a majority of voters back the ‘leave’ option on a high turnout, was greeted with dismay by Britain’s neighbours, some of its allies, and by influential international bodies already busy creating global arrangements to curb the power of nation-states.

Rather unusually for the leader of a regional tier of government, Sturgeon managed to acquire international prominence by her stance on Brexit (which the SNP had neglected to actively oppose during the referendum campaign).  The EU mainly kept her at arms-length despite endless visits by members of her government. But the political class in Ireland saw her as the leader of a new state in the making. She depicted herself as an internationalist first and at times expressed reticence about her party’s nationalist identity.

Her bid to engage with the world by means of fashionable gestures was reflected in Ceausescu’s noisy championing of a peaceful global order in which small states like Romania could act independently of the rival power blocs. His speech of defiance to the Romanian people on 22 August 1968 cemented his popularity. It is quite possible that if genuinely free elections had been allowed then, he and the CP would have secured a landslide. Intellectuals who had hitherto kept their distance, dropped their reserve; he was seen as the practical embodiment of the national spirit which had been suppressed through subservience to Moscow.

Sturgeon similarly won over lots of fresh adherents from the Europhile professional classes in Scotland and in positions of influence in London, people who hitherto had recoiled from breaking up the UK. The broadcasting media also became a largely uncritical ancillary. Frequent, usually soft touch, interviews increased her popularity across the UK. Like Ceausescu perhaps her greatest presentational gift was her self-belief. Her party and the world of journalism increasingly intersected. Both pursued campaigning agendas rather than reporting the news in an impartial manner or taking governing responsibilities seriously. Her love affair with the media continued when the BBC allowed her to remove the focus of attention from parliament where the SNP was in a minority, so as to hold often highly personalised and largely unchallenged daily briefings on her handling of the Covid pandemic.

The BBC’s rival STV would go one better.  On 24 May 2020 its main news programme showed a video of children who said: “The children of Scotland would like to say thank you to Nicola, our First Minister. We are so grateful, thank you for always keeping us safe, working so hard for being strong for us. Thank you for...always thinking about the children of Scotland. Thank you, Nicola”.  

Just as Ceausescu was being depicted as the Titan of the Carpathians, there were no lack of pundits and interviewers who were ready to depict Sturgeon as the ‘Queen of the North.’  She was depicted as an ice cool leader whose energy and competence were a dramatic contrast to a ‘bumbling’ Boris Johnson in London. Whereas every personal and policy detail emanating from Downing Street was pored over by a media, large swathes of which did not hesitate to depict Johnson in toxic terms, her own  personal and administrative record more often than not was completely ignored for most of the Brexit years.

Johnson was someone to be compared with the Kremlin types like Brezhnev, initially outsmarted by his Romanian challenger.

The fact that despite mistakes, the British government got crucial things right in its handling of the pandemic, not least in investing time and money to accomplish a vaccine breakthrough ahead of almost everyone else, is unlikely to dispel the cult of competence that has grown up around Sturgeon. Both she and Ceausescu were adept at concealing their glaring leadership failures by distortions, half-truths and bluster (assisted by lavish propaganda machines).  Her ideological zeal and undiminished hostility to any interference from the rest of Britain in her Scottish domain, were not encapsulated in a single act of defiance. Instead the equivalent of Ceausescu’s spurning of Moscow’s orders to crush ‘the Prague Spring’ was a marathon series of debates in the Scottish parliament from 2016 to 2020 in which dozens of resolutions were robotically debated opposing every stage of the process which resulted in Britain ceasing to be answerable to the EU in 2020.

Post-industrial Scotland of the nationalist era was less attractive to influential actors than fertile and oil-rich Romania at the end of the 1960s.  Far more doors were open to Ceausescu than to Sturgeon who had to remain content with meeting Californian governors, junior Chinese functionaries, and minor figures from the German government. Ceausescu by contrast secured for Romania ‘most favorable nation status’ granted by the US Congress in 1975. Under him Romania was a member of both Comecon and the IMF. He wanted to close the technological gap and create productive industries that, in the long term, would enable Romania to go beyond its status as a developing nation. For this were needed advantageous credit, flexibility on the international markets, technological and cultural exchanges, and access to international trade organisations.

Here there is a real point of contrast with Sturgeon. She has tried to promote a fictional image of  progress but under her a badly ailing economy faces accelerating decline. She has no interest in economic innovations and, instead has caused dissension in her own party and apprehension in wider society by trying to erect a new morality based on normalising ever more exotic forms of identity politics.

Ceaușescu only became gripped with the idea of enforcing a rigid orthodoxy on his people after a 1971 state visit to repressive North Korea. For nearly a decade Romania’s culture had been open to the West and, watching the films produced even up to the late 1970s, their flair, orginality and lack of heavy ideology would put many of the 21st century BBC’s offerings to shame.

He returned determined to model Romania on this outpost of Asian Stalinism.  He became obsessed with creating (in his words) ‘the new human type we intend to mold in our society’. Sturgeon’s absorption with creating (in the words of the journalist Kevin McKenna) ‘a narrow, state-approved orthodoxy’ has far less to do with economics than with creating uniformity of thought and behaviour, especially among the young. 

Out went advisers prepared to offer occasional candour about the wisdom of Ceausescu’s policies and in came sycophants ready to encourage his most unrealistic schemes.  Oil refineries were built before the price of oil rocketed which meant Romania had to throw away foreign exchange in exporting oil that was then shipped to Third World countries. Steel and aluminum plants were built whose products could find no sellers. Ideological goals now surpassed developmental ones. He wanted to create a proletarian society in what still remained a largely peasant one. Sturgeon’s dreams of a national makeover are less sweeping since much of her time is absorbed in presentation rather than planning.  She is, however, absorbed with creating an army of university graduates in subjects shaped by identity politics, and her neglect of the education of the rest of society displays a short-sightedness that matches his.

One advantage that enables her to keep discontent in check is that, unlike many heads of government, she has no need to worry about generating revenue to maintain essential services. Scotland benefits from a transfer of £2,000 per heador over £10 billion annually from London. 

Every Scot gets 117 per cent of the UK average spending per head, compared with 97 per cent in England Scotland has also benefited from the UK Treasury furlough scheme introduced to shield the economy and society from the impact of the pandemic, to the tune of £8.5 billion by November 2020. The citizens of few other European countries have been shielded by such economic firepower and social tensions are bursting forth in countries like Italy and Spain.

In the Romania of the 1980s Ceausescu was unable to shield the poor from economic adversity. In 1982 he announced that he would pay off the foreign debt by 1990. He accomplished it, but at enormous cost to the economy and wellbeing of the Romania people. He slashed imports from the West for food, medicine and spare parts and resolved to export anything that could be sold abroad. Draconian rationing was imposed as Romania became Russia’s chief provider of food.

The state was no longer able to claim that it was protecting its citizens from want. A tacit pact with the people was broken: they would display obedience and conformity in return for regular provision of their chief material needs. It was no surprise that sporadic revolts broke out starting among coal miners in 1979.

Fatefully, during the final phase of the Ceausescu era, the President’s wife Elena acquired so much influence over policy and senior appointments that she became her husband’s co-ruler. She had obtained minimal education but concocted a career as a scientist. (Her alleged prowess as a chemist is paralleled by the lengths Sturgeon has gone to depict herself as an authority on literature.)

Some of Elena’s decisions generated such ill-will that they led to the execution of both her and her husband in a society which (despite its image) is not a particularly cruel one. With the duo now taking decisions by themselves without consultation, the party’s nomenklatura started to be alienated. People with talent cast aside unless they were good at concealing their true views.

A similar set-up has rapidly taken hold in Scotland. Peter Murrell’s emergence from the shadows in 2020 and his contradictory testimony before the Holyrood committee investigating key aspects of the Salmond affair, have revealed him to be more like Elena Ceausescu than Cardinal Richelieu. He ensured new talent was blocked unless approved by the leadership team.  

It accounts for the meteoric rise of a disastrous finance minister Derek McKay who deepened the country’s economic woes.  Forced to stand down on Budget day last February thanks to being mired in scandal, he is similar to Nicu Ceausescu, the couple’s second son. Like Mackay he was groomed to take over but being sloppy in the handling of his duties and mercurial in his private life, he dropped from view. However, his family ties ensured that the privileges continued which is what has happened to Mackay who has earned £155,000 despite never being seen in parliament for the past twelve months. How Sturgeon thinks that protecting a favourite while warning people not to leave Scotland to go on holiday this year, can prevent anger overflowing, is hard to discern.

She may have now lost touch with reality to a certain degree thanks to establishing a court from the world of arts and entertainment who laud her every move and denounce her critics. In Romania the counterpart to these flunkeys was Adrian Paunescu a poet with far more talent. He organized ‘Song of Romania’ festivals  for youth which promoted  ultra-nationalism with elements drawn from the pre-1945 far-Right. 

How prominent SNP dissidents described the condition of their party at the start of 2021 is reminiscent of dissenting voices in the Romanian CP in the late 1980s.  Craig Murray, one of Sturgeon’s most formidable foes tweeted last week: “The SNP has been hollowed out and turned from a real political party, with policies debated and determined by the members, into a straight personality cult.” 

On 10 March 1989, the degree of elite unhappiness with the Ceausescus was shown when an open letter to the President by six party veterans was handed to the BBC. It asked: “why are you urbanising the villages when you cannot assure a decent life in the cities? A government which over the past five winters has been unable to solve the vital problems of the population, has shown itself incompetent and incapable of governing.”

The critics referred to Romania being reduced to Third World status which is a refrain increasingly heard about Sturgeon’s ‘banana republic’ of Scotland as public services corrode, jobs move away, state projects end up costly failures, and statistics (when published) show a collapse in healthy living.

Opposition to Sturgeon has flared up within her own movement far more quickly than was the case under Ceausescu. However, she has been more energetic in using the apparatus of state power to stave of nemesis.  Her most vocal critic the senior lawyer and feminist Joanna Cherry MP has been sanctioned twice for daring to speak out about her leader’s insistence on promoting one of the most  radical approaches to the transgender controversy witnessed anywhere in the West. In 2020, party rules were suddenly altered so that she was ineligible to contest a seat in the Edinburgh parliament. On 1 February, she was sacked as justice spokesperson from the Westminster shadow cabinet even though she had been more effective than most other members.

How the Ceausescus finally fell and the lessons for  a Western country that has fallen under an oriental form of political despotism will be considered in the next and final article on the personalisation of power – and its shortcomings.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of Scotland Now, a Warning to the World (2016). His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54

Photos of paintings of the Ceausescus from the author’s collection. 

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