Eamon de Valera and Nicola Sturgeon – a difficult comparison

Eamon de Valera and Nicola Sturgeon – a difficult comparison

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 9, February, 2021

EDWARD GARNIER, a former Conservative MP and now a peer, is an experienced lawyer who, at one stage was advising John Major in his bid to oppose Brexit.  In the House of Lords last month, he urged Boris Johnson to show more resolve in thwarting Nicola Sturgeon’s bid to break up the United Kingdom.  He called her ‘Glasgow’s de Valera’ as if to suggest she was an implacable and formidable foe.

Mounting evidence suggests that increasingly the biggest danger she poses is not to British unity but to the unity of her own Scottish National Party (SNP).  She rules in an imperious manner (in part through her husband). She is evasive about how and when to make a push for independence. This suggests, to a growing number of her own side, that she prefers to be a powerful regional queen bee than the builder of a  nation-state.

In this of all weeks, few need reminding of her continuing ruthless behaviour towards her former mentor Alex Salmond. Perhaps more damaging ultimately than that is her importation of the culture wars into the heart of the party, creating a mood as rancorous as that to be found in the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was in charge.

It is helpful to place such a controversial figure in comparative perspective. Eamon de Valera (1882-1975) outwardly seems a good choice. He won over what were often described as ‘the plain people of Ireland’ with a nationalist message of resistance to London control over Ireland. In 1922, at a crucial point in the independence struggle, he broke with moderates in Sinn Fein led by Michael Collins, to hold out for full self-determination which, at that time, the British were strongly disinclined to concede. A short but savage civil war followed in which more Irishmen were killed by their own former comrades than were killed by British forces in the preceding conflict.

De Valera in his turn split with the purists of Sinn Fein in 1926 because he wished to pursue the parliamentary route to power. He won a majority of his nation over in 1932 and for the next forty years he bestrode the Irish political stage as Prime Minister and later as President.

Sturgeon may yet get to savour the full taste of the bitter cup of division in her movement but I suspect it will be far more difficult for her to move on to be a consensual symbolic figurehead as the best-known modern Irish nationalist managed. The appeal of exercising an international role seems to take precedence than making a lasting impact at home. De Valera may have been President of the League of Nations in the mid-1930s but his primary attachment always remained to Ireland.  He might well have agreed with British Eurosceptics who contended that power was best exercised for the good of society in the national context. During two concluding stints as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in the 1950s, he displayed strong reservations about the incipient European integration process which he saw as a threat to the sovereignty which he had fought hard to achieve for most of Ireland.

Assessing a career in politics that spanned nearly fifty years, it is also possible to argue that attachment to his country took precedence over anti-British sentiment. Born in an agricultural labourer’s cottage in Co. Limerick, British-ruled Ireland saw him rise to become a junior lecturer in mathematics by the time of the 1916 Easter Rising which first catapulted him to fame. It was a sign of the upward mobility that was somewhat conspicuous by its absence for many years after Ireland became independent. He wished to preserve the Christian and then strongly rural features of society rather than plunge Ireland into the radical cultural maelstrom that seems to appeal to Sturgeon.

He showed himself tactically astute and pragmatic in seeking to obtain full sovereignty for Ireland. Perhaps the equivalent of Brexit in his early years as Taoiseach was the British abdication crisis of 1936 which shook countries where the British monarch was Head of State. A year later Ireland acquired a new constitution and also an elected President and in 1938 Britain handed over to the jurisdiction of Eire (then the name of the state) strategic Irish ports that could have been of great assistance in the battle of the Atlantic of the early 1940s.

De Valera’s ability to keep most of Ireland out of World War II enhanced his reputation at home and enabled him to be viewed as a far less divisive figure. Despite paying a visit to the German legation in May 1945 to offer his condolences on the death of Hitler, the British came to see the former armed agitator as a substantial figure. A rapprochement occurred with Churchill who hosted him for a lunch in Downing Street in 1953. 

Try as one might, it is hard to see Nicola Sturgeon proceeding along a similar course unless the occupant of Downing Street was someone like Alistair Campbell or Shami Chakrabarti. Arguably, she has not made the momentary difficulty of Brexit for the British state an opportunity for her vision of Scotland. She proved short-sighted or inept tactically at different points in the Brexit drama and, despite high poll ratings, her separatist movement is far more disheveled in appearance in 2021 than it was in 2016.

She has also rejected the strategy of becoming a unifying figure during the pandemic. She has made far more trouble for the Johnson government than de Valera did for Churchill after May 1940. The balance of opinion is that Irish neutrality was tilted towards the Allies then. There were no provocative gestures as when Sturgeon threatened to release sensitive vaccination data to the EU just before Commission boss Ursula von der Leyen’s unfortunate decisions at the end of January, threatening a fragile Ulster peace process.

Sturgeon has positively encouraged a cult of personality to emerge around her during the Brexit and Covid crises whereas de Valera showed no equivalent hunger for constant publicity. He was a dull speaker but his speeches (usually written by himself) were listened to with respect because they showed he had a coherent view about the direction Ireland should go in.  He devoted far more of his efforts to administration than Sturgeon who places far more emphasis on the presentational aspects of her duel with whoever is in charge in London.

De Valera’s image as an active social reformer only lasted a few years and by 1945 there was mounting disenchantment with his domestic record. His policy of economic nationalism, based on pursuing self-sufficiency, proved to be a recipe for stagnation. High levels of post-war emigration, however debilitating for Ireland, turned out to be a safety-valve, averting social unrest. Arguably, the equivalent safety-valve blocking anger at the negligence and incompetence of the Sturgeon administration is the huge subvention from the British Treasury which keeps the coffers of an inefficient devolved state full. 

After six years in office it is hard to identify a coherent long-term objective held by Sturgeon unless it is to make Scotland more responsive to her brand of identity politics. This is being accomplished by various means but the most damaging is a process of dumbing down in national life that is proving immensely harmful in the education system. 

Perhaps she has been wise not to be explicit about  her key domestic objectives even though she has more funding for concentrating on socio-economic improvements than de Valera ever had. The restoration of the Irish language, the ending of partition, and the weakening of Britain’s economic hold over Ireland were his main goals. But they were pursued with decreasing vigour and, by the time he gave up the leadership of his party, Fianna Fail, in 1959, they were as far from realisation as ever. Ireland by then was governed by a somewhat narrow and provincial elite. Cronyism flourished but not to the disturbing levels seen in Scotland where any achievements of the SNP (such as they may be) have been to impose its influence on huge swathes of national life.  

De Valera managed his party with more discretion and restraint than Sturgeon has so far done. He conveyed an avuncular image and even critical biographers have found little evidence that he treated the state as if it was his own private property. If he had a propaganda machine, it was modest compared to the one that Sturgeon has assembled (and which it is increasingly hard to find a parallel for in other democratic societies). Only last week it emerged that a collection of her speeches was being produced  by a publisher which received generous funding over the years from Creative Scotland (the Arts Council in Scotland). As someone has already observed, imagine the furore if the Arts Council of England was funding a book of Speeches by Boris Johnson?  

Writers and artists were among the fiercest critics of de Valera’s policies and impact on Irish society. This is in  marked contrast to Scotland where a large contingent of writers, comedians and actors prefer to heap praise on Sturgeon and avert their gaze from her failings and methods. 

It is clear that Nicola Sturgeon is a problematic figure for Scottish Nationalism who has taken liberties with the power she has enjoyed to the huge detriment of the cause she claims to embrace. The time may not be far away when comparisons between her and imposing figures in the annals of West European nationalism will be viewed with incredulity. 

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of  Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism, Hurst publishers 2005. His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54  

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