Do the demons Sturgeon wrestles with originate in a 2014 Rally?

Do the demons Sturgeon wrestles with originate in a 2014 Rally?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 16, February, 2021

HISTORIANS MAY YET conclude that it all began to go wrong for the SNP when, on 22 November 2014, 12,000 people crowded into Scotland’s main events venue, the Hydro in Glasgow, to hail the newly-elected leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon.  She had been a loyal understudy to Alex Salmond as he successively took on first a Labour and then a Conservative government. By the time he passed the baton to her, he had become arguably the most successful insurgent in British politics for almost a century.  The Scottish Question had been brought to the forefront of UK politics and 45% of people, on an 85% turnout, had voted for separation. 

In the fervour of a nearly two-year referendum campaign, Salmond had won over to the cause of separating from the UK, multitudes who had not previously given it a second glance.  The spotlight had rarely moved from him, but today a look at the SNP’s official website, shows him to be yesterday’s man.  

He inevitably drifted into the background and Sturgeon took charge of party affairs (through her husband, the SNP chief executive) and devolved government.  At the Hydro she asserted that ‘this is a great time to be alive in Scotland. Our democracy is more vibrant than probably anywhere else in Europe’ and that ‘more powers would give Scotland a better chance of unlocking its potential’. 

Less than a year later she cemented her position by leading her party to a colossal victory in the British general election.  The SNP won 57 out of 59 seats, far more than the combined total it had achieved in the previous eighty years of its history. 

For such a triumph not to go to one’s head would require an unusual degree of composure.  And hubris is what seems to have taken possession of Sturgeon.  Soon forgotten was her pledge at the Hydro to be the builder of a new and better Scotland.  Instead, she was plunged into a fierce conflict over Brexit in which she became, by the end of the four-year melodrama, perhaps the most recognised face on the Remain side.  Most of her supporters were in no hurry to obtain explanations for her fierce opposition to Britain reasserting its political sovereignty.  They were content with a Scottish leader lambasting the age-old Tory enemy, in power but divided and in turmoil about how to settle the Europe issue. 

Alex Salmond resurfaced in the autumn of 2018 when he found himself facing a state investigation into allegations of personal impropriety during his years in office. The lawfulness of the inquiry was successfully challenged by him in the courts at the start of 2019. He was then arrested and charged with 12 charges of sexual harassment and one of attempted rape, only for him to be acquitted by a jury (the majority of whom were women) in March 2020. Several inquiries are now underway which are looking at the role of Sturgeon in the decisions that led to the trial of her predecessor. 

Both of them are at war and, in a party with a membership approaching 90,000 many activists are taking sides.  Brexit has retreated into the background.  The Covid pandemic has been unable to stem interest in the escalating dispute, despite the complete lack of attention given to it by Scotland’s main public broadcaster. Meanwhile, independence campaigning bodies rise and disappear. Last year it was ‘All Under One Banner’. In 2021 the new agitational body is ‘Now Scotland Now’. 

However, it is now personal loyalties – and enmities - which increasingly define Scotland’s dominant party.  Voices among its 108 parliamentarians in Edinburgh and London calling for cool heads, keeping the focus on independence, and reconciliation, are not plentiful. 

This schism at the top of the party is a resounding failure for Scottish Nationalism. Continuing electoral success and the near certainty that the SNP will emerge the largest party in the forthcoming Holyrood election do not seem capable of staunching the bloodletting. Even if there were successes in government that could be pointed to, they would be unlikely to muffle the civil war with allies of both protagonists hurling accusations of vendetta, assassination, and cover-up at each other. 

Sturgeon appears outwardly stronger.  She exercises the power of patronage which gives her a hold over senior civil servants  whose pay was substantially increased last year.  She is still seen as an effective vote-gatherer by many SNP MSPs, often people with no obvious talents and no record of holding their government to account. But she and her husband have been tactically inept, especially in the misleading and contradictory information given to the Scottish parliament and its inquiry. 

A less embattled and more supple leader would have sought to defuse the feud (or would have avoided initiating it in the first place).  It has now reached the dimensions of a grudge match, reminiscent of the merciless war between two not dissimilar regimes, the Iran and Iraq of the 1980s, which bled them of credibility. 

Hatred turns out to be a powerful fuel driving Scottish politics. Rage directed at the Conservative Party had been the previous totemic issue but it has slipped into the background as internecine quarrels prevail. 

Ominously for Sturgeon, some of her main supporters display an unreasonableness which is likely to doom any attempt by Sturgeon to unify the party if she is left unscathed by parliament and the courts. Salmond by contrast, has been careful to keep his powder dry and focus entirely on what he sees as her abuse of power. But while he waits for his moment to strike to most effect, she has opened up new fronts.   

Sturgeon, having previously been silent on the issue in what is already a 35-year stint in politics, has made trans-gender rights a touchstone of her radicalism.  No other head of government in the West has been as outspoken in promoting such a divisive cause.  Arguably it is one which does little to advance the position of genuine trans people but enables men to invade and take possession of previously women-only spaces. . Given what has happened to JK Rowling and numerous others, I find it hard to fault the analysis of the actor James Dreyfus who has stated that the drivers behind the heavily politicised trans movement more often than not are ‘angry, young anarchist people’ who harbour hatred of women and ‘what they represent.’ 

At first sight, it is remarkable that Sturgeon has embraced a movement where most of the militancy stems not from people affected by gender dysphoria but from men who demand that they be given every assistance to live life as women.  The trans lobby insists that state bodies and the media silence those who disagree.  Sturgeon seems prepared to overlook how a cause has been seized by ultras, not a few of whom have been encouraged by a party machine in the hands of her husband, to stand for election for the SNP. 

The inevitable backlash has emanated not from grizzled male traditionalists of whom there are few in the SNP but from women parliamentarians like Joanna Cherry and Joan McAlpine who fear that women's rights will suffer a massive reverse in Scotland if biological males are allowed to refute DNA and chromosomes and take their places in women's prisons, changing rooms, and sports teams. 

Gender controversies now assail the SNP more than any other party in these islands, adding a fresh layer of destabilisation to Sturgeon’s leadership on top of the duel with Salmond.  Perhaps she assumes her hold over the party was so complete that she could supplement its nationalist dimension with an activist/Woke one. But while the actions of the 4 SNP members of the Holyrood inquiry into Sturgeon’s handling of the Salmond affair, suggests a readiness to close ranks and protect their leader, she has clearly gone too far for others. 

This may well also be the ultimate verdict on the bill which redefines a lot of speech as ‘hate crime’ and allows for prison terms even if it occurs in the privacy of one’s home. A draconian law which has no parallel in any other global democracy is the brainchild of a middle-class identity politician, the current justice minister Humza Yousaf. He has many counterparts in political activism in English local government and the quango world, angry young figures who seek political fulfillment by demolishing an entire cultural order. But none has risen so high or enjoys the ear of a politician as powerful as Sturgeon. He started out as an Islamic activist seeking to position his religion at the centre of Scottish politics. He took advantage of the furore over the killing in America of George Floyd last May to make an incendiary speech in the Scottish parliament on 10 June in which he raged about ‘most senior posts in Scotland’ being ‘filled almost exclusively by people who are white’. He barely disguised his unhappiness that over 95 per cent of Scots are white and insisted that from now on, people would need to prove their anti-racism by their deeds. 

The Sturgeon-Yousaf axis in the SNP, reinforced by a recent influx of members with socially radical ‘Woke’ agendas, seems to be chiefly motivated by altering the character of Scotland whether or not independence is attained.  There has been no stronger foe in the media of the Woke-inspired legislation emanating from the SNP than the veteran journalist Kevin McKenna. He fears that Yousaf’s legislation risks criminalising women for declaring that ‘while gender may be fluid, sex is binary.’  

Rather than being a vigorous protector of the party’s nationalist soul, Sturgeon seems eager to turn it into a vanguard movement that is tireless in advocating social experimentation. It suggests that she sees her role in politics as not being to build a new state but to dismantle a social order which had a design for living that however flawed, proved meaningful for millions down the generations.  It has led to one of Scotland’s best-known nationalists, Jim Sillars, saying that he can no longer vote for his party.  

Meanwhile, another veteran politician, George Galloway is helping to put the new party he founded, All for Unity, on the map by speaking out forcefully about a minority of radical activists being able to threaten long-held liberties thanks to having the ear of the politically powerful in Scotland. 

The ecstatic reception that Sturgeon received at the Hydro in 2014 may have fueled a messianic belief that she could take such a compliant and trustful party in any direction that she wanted to go.  Seven years later, paying dutiful lip-service to nationalism but showing far more passion about trans rights, she baffles and annoys many in her movement.  In an increasingly unsettled party, many members don’t know what she really believes in and have no idea where she is taking the SNP.   

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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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