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After Sturgeon: A new era in Scottish politics?
There must be a serious analysis of the record to move to a better future
The need for politics
This project is an attempt to generate a critical analysis of the SNP leadership from a pro-independence perspective. The core of my approach has been to illustrate the deficiencies in the independence strategy, the inconsistencies in the prospectus and the way in which the illusion of a referendum has been utilised as an electoral ploy. There has been a need to swim against the tide and cut against the grain to show why great declarations about the imminence of independence were misplaced. And to insist that perpetuating myths in this regard would only exhaust an already dilapidated movement.
That approach remains as we cover Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. This newsletter will not join the chorus of uncritical praise for the first minister. She is, of course, an intelligent politician. Her popular appeal is unrivalled and has been the envy of many at home and even abroad. She has stood head and shoulders above her opponents. She displays genuine tenacity and resilience, not least during the pandemic. An inspirational figure to many, the personalised and sexist language which has been deployed all too often against her should have no place in politics or society as a whole. There is a bitterness into which some can lapse which is counterproductive and often non-political.
At the same time, none of the above should prevent a fully-fledged and robust analysis of the record. The debris left in the wake of her leadership requires an honest and sober examination. The very last thing the independence cause needs is yet more deference. That only serves to paper over the seismic faults in strategy that leave the independence movement at a dead end.
As of now:
The existing “revamped” prospectus for independence, farmed out to the corporate lobby, doesn’t stand up to even mild scrutiny. The new “White Papers” amounted to no more than short-lived publicity stunts which came to a halt without notice or explanation.
The ill-conceived “de facto” referendum debacle has come to a dismal end after months of confusion, sowing further demoralisation and exposing the tactical weakness of the leadership of the national movement.
The Supreme Court battle was badly prepared for and a gift to opponents of independence. An unforced error, the verdict failed to galvanise the independence movement, instead entrenching disbelief in the viability of the project.
A referendum is off the table indefinitely.
The SNP has been left in a state of disarray. The manner and timing of the first minister’s resignation have generated a chaotic atmosphere around the party.
In sum, the route to independence and the social forces required to achieve Scottish statehood are much diminished almost a decade after September 18th 2014. Nicola Sturgeon, it should be stressed, is not solely responsible for this. There are immense structural barriers to achieving independence. These exist no matter who heads up the SNP. But her leadership is in the end responsible for a series of strategic errors shaped by a degree of calculated cynicism. The unfounded and nonsensical claims swirling around social media stating, “she has brought Scotland so much closer to our independence,” must be properly repudiated if the movement is to rediscover the self-respect, independent thought and intellectual depth required to forge a path forward.
Whether you support independence or not, an environment in which sycophancy is rewarded has weakened policy-making and the quality of public life in Scotland. For the strata represented by establishment cultural figures, social climbers in the managerial sphere and the legitimating organisations which orbit the Scottish governing class, Sturgeonism has provided the basis for reproducing the status quo and the network of patronage upon which it rests. Naturally, it is in this milieu where unconditional praise since the resignation is most animated.
Meanwhile, the organising principle in the Scottish government has been to outsource projects and service delivery to private consultancy firms and corporate interests. For working-class Scotland, very little has been achieved. The educational attainment gap, meant to be the first minister’s defining mission, has grown. Homelessness is at record levels and the number of children living in temporary accommodation has soared. Brutal cuts to the public sector and local government reflect a full-throated economic liberalism. This is also the basis for the George Osborne adjacent Growth Commission and the currency capitulation in the form of Sterlingisation. The litany of failed policy initiatives which never lived up to the headlines they produced is long.
To move forward, a new political culture which puts the foam-finger waving adulation to one side in favour of a politics which is popular, challenging and radically democratic will be needed. And that can’t happen without a serious appraisal of the Sturgeon era.
The mechanics of the resignation
Last year I devoted an entire edition of Independence Captured to outlining the reasons why we should expect Nicola Sturgeon’s departure from frontline politics. In short, it was the only way the “independence” strategy made any sense. The Supreme Court would rule against Scottish self-determination. After the “de facto” referendum, the first minister would resign, claiming she did all she could on the national question, and that now was the right time to hand over the reins.
Hints were carefully dropped in interviews with Vogue and the Guardian introducing the “life after politics” narrative. International trips became opportunities to establish contacts for a future career. The time was coming. Insiders knew this to be the case. Just as they knew a referendum was pie in the sky. Meanwhile, outsiders were fed a diet of crude “indyref” propaganda and told that the first minister was going nowhere fast.
What no one predicted was this kind of resignation: a hastily arranged press conference in the midst of what can only be described as a breakdown in government operations. The flagship national care service bill is falling apart. The deposit return scheme is a source of embarrassment. The Ferries scandal is ongoing. The loss of potentially tens of billions to the Scottish purse as a result of ScotWind privatisation is front-page news. Key infrastructure projects, like the dueling of the A9, have hit the rocks. The fallout precipitated by the gender recognition reform bill ushered in perhaps the most difficult period of the first minister’s tenure.
None of these, however testing, are cause to resign so abruptly. There are deeper strategic problems around the national question which are also part of the equation. The plan to leave on a high, or in glorious defeat, after a “de-facto” referendum came up against internal opposition and external ridicule. The March “democracy conference” to discuss the way forward has now been “postponed” while the leadership contest takes place. Yet mere months ago Nicola Sturgeon framed the event as the centrepiece for the future of the national movement:
“Now that the Supreme Court’s ruling is known and de facto referendum is no longer hypothetical, it is necessary to agree the precise detail of the proposition we intend to put before the country. Given the magnitude of these decisions for the SNP, the process of reaching them is one the party as a whole must be fully and actively involved in.
“I can therefore confirm that I will be asking our National Executive Committee to convene a special party conference in the new year to discuss and agree the detail of a proposed ‘de facto referendum’.
“In the meantime, the SNP will launch and mobilise a major campaign in defence of Scottish democracy because we should be in no doubt that, as of today, democracy is what’s at stake.”
The “major campaign in defence of Scottish democracy” like all similar annoucements over the years, failed to materialise. But it generated the headlines the moment required. This example is instructive when it comes to understanding the logic behind SNP “strategy.” In essence it boils down to a public relations operation based on day-to-day survival without thinking through the long-term ramifications. That goes for matters relating to both independence and domestic policy.
Yet even this, the core of the SNP infrastructure had broken down by the end. The party lost the ability to communicate its message around independence effectively. I warned in the first instalment of Independence Captured that the intransigence of the UK government had the potential to scatter the independence movement and undermine the SNP leadership unless appropriate countermeasures were put in place:
“The Tories have no incentive to grant a referendum. Their vote in Scotland is crystallised around support for the Union. Perhaps it would damage the longer-term prospects for the Union. But at the same time, it also creates divisions over strategy in the SNP, or better still from their perspective, makes them appear impotent.”
The Tory strategy, utilising the institutional power of the British state to deny Scotland a referendum, has been even more effective than that. It has contributed to displacing Nicola Sturgeon altogether. With the first minister’s stated plan to turn the next general election into a “de facto” referendum flailing in the wind, the SNP lost any initiative they once had. And with that, the leadership had lost the ability to make an even halfway credible proposition around delivering independence. Previously they could wax lyrical about mandates and referendums. But with the path to a referendum closed, the lynchpin in their winning formula was left substantially weakened.
So what was left? In the context of widespread failures of governance, the first minister couldn’t turn to the national question as a way out. Now, independence simply offered more headaches. The March conference chief among them. Nicola Sturgeon’s personal exit plan - dressed up as a route map to independence - had lost its way. Running out of road, an early resignation became more appealing.
This has left the independence cause in perilous circumstances. Meanwhile, the case itself, largely unmade, is a mess. Key contradictions remain, not least the clash between indefinite Sterlingisation and EU membership. Without an independently run central bank, joining the EU is impossible. The weak and divided movement, the flawed prospectus and the victories handed to the British state are all now in the inheritance of the next leader. A far cry from Nicola Sturgeon’s public coronation in a packed out Hydro in 2014.
This forms part of the first minister’s legacy. But the present deleterious position is made all the more unedifying as it does not come on the back of a hard-fought independence campaign which provided a serious challenge. That never existed, and Nicola Sturgeon never led it. Rather, the set piece around the Supreme Court followed by a plebiscite election was designed as a means to provide an exit for the SNP leader.
Remember, the SNP were under no particular pressure to go to the Supreme Court. The leadership could have strung the “indyref 2” story out for a few more years if they wished. In my view the decision was made in accordance with the personal plans Nicola Sturgeon had made to move on. All the while activists eagerly waiting on new Yes Scotland style initiative were left without direction and treated as passive observers.
It is not that the SNP leadership don’t support to independence in theory. But equally, they don’t believe it is viable at the present time and have been spooked further by Brexit. Currency, borders, EU membership, NATO, and the views of the State Department and the European Commission represent arenas of political and economic conflict that Nicola Sturgeon has sought to avoid. She has tried to assuage each and every one. At the same time, ideas like Sterlingisation which are designed to reduce disruption would only bring about economic misery. In the end, Scottish independence unleashes confrontations and elevates the kind of risks that most politicians fear. Certainly, these lie outside the comfort zone of the outgoing first minister. As they do each and every candidate that will come forward for the SNP leadership contest.
But it is to that person, whoever it might be, that these problems now belong. The outgoing leadership could defer and delay while keeping the dream alive with the false promise of a referendum. They had a good run of it. Now, with a referendum ruled out, the next leadership team will have no such luxury. Knowing this, Nicola Sturgeon has opted to leave the scene.
Sturgeon’s neoliberalism and democratic decline
Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity is only partly down to her presentational skills and ability to connect with the electorate. The overarching context is one of democratic decline and a widening gap between citizens and institutions. In the Scottish context, the crisis-prone and deeply unpopular Conservative government provided a permanent focal point around which to agitate over the lifespan of Sturgeon’s period in power. The low benchmark set by the UK government allowed for a performative anti-Toryism to flourish at First Minister’s Questions, on television debates and through SNP broadcasts and social media. In the meantime, Scotland became a laboratory for neoliberalism.
The first minister successfully ventriloquised popular opposition to the excesses of the UK government, while enlisting the corporate lobby to run affairs. She primarily represented and acted for elite interests, while maintaining an authentic link with large parts of the population as a whole. This, in a nutshell, is the meaning of Sturgeonism.
While loyal supporters rummage around to find some clearly identifiable reform in favour of the working class, power has been skillfully manoeuvred away from the independence movement, SNP members and citizens into a largely unknown and unaccountable Scottish establishment. Thus, Scotland’s green assets are packaged up and sold off to international capital. Scottish wind is privatised. Instead of civic institutions, universities or trade unions designing the National Care Service, that is outsourced to the likes of KPMG through the instruments of the British procurement system which prioritise private interests. The wind turbines operated for massive profits by multinational companies will sit alongside Freeports, a Thatcherite initiative organised by Rishi Sunak and embraced by the first minister. Conference votes on rent controls and the Scottish National Energy Company also came to nothing. Even the SNP’s own Trade Union Group has had its resolutions excluded from the party conference.
Yet Sturgeon’s neoliberalism would receive little in the way of challenge, even from the Scottish left. There are various reasons for this. As previously intimated, the standoff with the Tories combined with independence theatrics provides useful cover. But there is within all of this another interesting dynamic which has emerged alongside the decline of mass political organisation and the dislocation between citizens and governance. The reality of the failures in social policy and the deliberate hollowing out of grassroots input can be easily ignored by influential parts of “progressive” Scotland, who project onto Nicola Sturgeon a set of values. As the authors of Scotland After Britain The Two Souls of Scottish Independence explain:
“Much of activist and professional-managerial Scotland has developed a ‘parasocial’ bond with Sturgeon, seeing her ‘struggles’ as their own, and wishing to defend her from being ‘victimised’ by criticism. This illustrates a much wider transformation in the public’s role in political representation: far from holding politicians to account, the politically invested minority treat certain politicians (regarded as different from run-of-the-mill careerists) as friends requiring moral support. Similar fandoms emerged around Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left, and Boris Johnson and Donald Trump on the right. These highly personalised and often emotionally charged investments are usually impervious to facts; the true political record will always paint a more nuanced picture.”
You can see this kind of phenomenon writ large in the response to the first minister’s resignation. Eulogies are personal and jive with a resignation speech which had little to say on policy achievements while playing more heavily on “human” themes. Lost is any real sense of what went wrong, whose interests were served and who paid the price along the way.
Unfortunately, many commentators and social media personalities are compelled to join in. That is where immediate social currency can be found. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP media managers more generally have understood this element in modern politics. They quite deliberately lifted the first minister and her image above the party, the national movement and the parliament. Even after she announced her departure from frontline politics, some took to Twitter to say independence would now be delivered “for her.”
It surely verges on the grotesque to reduce the future of the nation to one powerful individual in this way. But it is a useful measure of how far the independence movement has fallen. It is a shadow of its former, irreverent, self. The lack of independent thought is striking, though that is borne from defeat. To resurrect a meaningful political culture, the real record must be examined. It is vital that this kind of approach is taken in the coming months. For that is far more constructive than producing hagiographies which disappear the key areas where lessons must be learned.
Facing reality to build a better future
Independence supporters must now face the reality of the strategic failures which nest behind the surface popularity of the erstwhile SNP leadership. Either the mistakes will be properly scrutinised, and a long-term plan developed for the resurrection of the project, or the same errors and misjudgements will be repeated going forward. This is not a simple or easy process. Along the way, it is my view that opponents and supporters of independence must be able to come together on a range of class issues. Especially as independence is now a distant prospect.
Independence Captured aims to make a contribution towards developing the analysis required to help promote the kind of critical debate and discussion that befits a cause as important as independence as we face an uncertain future. A proper examination of the Sturgeon era is not an optional extra in that process. Indeed, it is central to it.
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