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At the departure gate
It is logical to conclude the First Minister is preparing her exit
This week an important meeting took place. Hundreds gathered to hear Mick Lynch alongside a range of leading figures in the trade union movement in Glasgow. I couldn’t attend, but reading the reports, and speaking with a few who did, it was a special night.
The working class movement has arrived once again.
The air crackled with hope and possibility. It brought together that sense that the trade unions are back as a force to be reckoned with. The strikes have been forward looking and enjoyed huge public support. Workers have taken wildcat action in Amazon too. The atmosphere has changed, and confidence is rising.
Everyone involved knows this is a fight for the future. Having spoken to people who are on strike, and having helped in the solidarity efforts, it is clear that events are not simply reducible to immediate demands around wages. A more ideological element is involved. In the words of the RMT’s Eddie Dempsey:
“If we woke up tomorrow and the billionaires were gone, there’d be no change to the running order of our daily lives. If the same happened to the workers, the country would grind to a halt. And they know it.”
There is a sense of this being the opening phase of a major battle for the kind of society we want to live in. Why should the real wealth creators, the working class, be punished as prices surge? Why should the very people who kept society going through the pandemic, now be forced into years of penury? Latent in this fragile, yet burgeoning, movement is a vision for change that reaches into the fundamentals of how the economy and the political institutions work.
In 2014 I would have written these very words about the independence movement. In that period, the meetings and events had the same air of excitement and expectancy. As I have argued in this newsletter, the political struggle for sovereignty was seized upon as the most effective vehicle for the democratic and class demands of the time. While I remain passionately in favour of independence, we can’t say that about the situation now, as the SNP leadership have systematically evacuated the cause of its more radical impulses.
That said, the paralysis which has defined Scottish politics for so long might be on the verge of a drastic upheaval. The confluence of a protracted economic crisis, an atrophied SNP and there not being a referendum could upend the general laws which have applied since 2014.
This process is already underway, because the SNP leadership are failing to tap into the mood of discontent by refusing to offer a visionary and trailblazing vision for independence, while at the same time being unwilling to mobilise any serious form of activism. That, is simply absent.
For the minds of the SNP leadership are elsewhere.
When you gather together the available evidence, it seems unavoidable to conclude that a major departure is in the works. That of the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. This, of course, is not an unheard of theory. But I think there is now a very strong, indeed overwhelming, case to show that the process has already begun, and that the post-Sturgeon era will be upon us perhaps sooner than many think. Not tomorrow, and not next year. But in time for a new leader to be selected for the next Holyrood elections.
Far from gearing up for what would be a momentous and years long process to establish a new Scottish state, even after a pro-independence vote, the First Minister is working instead towards the exit door. Even if you disagree, it is a worthwhile thought experiment, as it is quite revealing of how the SNP are operating at the present moment. If I am wrong, fair enough, but you have to call things as you see them.
A few weeks before the last independence referendum I was talking to a fairly well connected person in the Yes campaign. We chatted about state of our vote, increasingly confident that we might, as a movement, pull it out of the bag against all the odds. It seemed as though the momentum in the last stretch was with us, if we could focus on shoring up the base we had been working to expand since 2012.
But something was said in the course of that conversation which stuck with me ever since: “many in the SNP are thinking more about the transition to Nicola than anything else.”
The public perception of politics, and the private strategies of politicians inhabit different planets. For example, the so-called strategy for independence could be viewed as a plan of action to take the movement forward. Or it can be interpreted as part of an exit mechanism for the leader of the party.
What matters most to a political leader, once the decision has been made to move on, can be summed up in one word: legacy. Independence, for obvious reasons, has to be part of that. But as we have covered here pretty extensively, it is also never meant to be realised. Insurance polices aimed averting the actuality of a real rupture with the United Kingdom have been lodged.
Thus, there has been next to zero resistance to the UK Government saying “No” to a referendum. The Supreme Court is all but a forgone conclusion, but even if a surprise verdict is reached it will only allow for a non-binding vote that won’t be recognised by the UK, or for that matter, the transatlantic and European institutions. No one takes the “de facto” referendum at the next general election all too seriously. Even if by some miracle a legally binging referendum that could deliver independence were to happen, the SNP have a prospectus that will ensure the UK retains economic power.
The endgame is the ability to plausibly say that the First Minister has taken the movement forward to the next outpost. That she did all that was possible, only to be foiled by Westminster. That she will leave the party and the cause to someone who can take it to the next chapter. That she has never been more convinced that Scotland will be independent. And at the same time, she will be embraced as a stateswoman by Western liberalism and its associated institutions, rather than rejected a “nationalist populist.”
Think about how much more preferable this is than having to confront the reality of taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom, and all that entails. This is a First Minister who has made her mind up, and who is working to a carefully choreographed departure. Consider how much more sense the independence “road map” makes if it is viewed as part of a more personal strategy to furnish the SNP leader with the necessary context for moving on from it all.
On that note, it is becoming more obvious that “moving on” is a more prominent feature of the SNP leadership’s media strategy. Examine this passage in a recent Guardian interview:
While insisting that she has “certainly not ruled out standing again”, she is also clear that “whenever I do stop being first minister, I’m still going to be relatively young. This would not always have been true of me, but a life after politics doesn’t faze me.”
She is looking forward to some privacy – “just not feeling as if you’re on public display all the time” – but can’t imagine an international role that takes her too far from Scotland “because I’m a homely person”. With all the usual caveats and sub-clauses one expects from a political leader in interview mode, she concludes, “The world is my oyster,” which may at first seem jarring from the woman who has just placed the UK on red alert for a second referendum.
Certainly has not ruled out standing again? Such a comment seems to intimate, in a fairly overt way, a coming departure. The desire for privacy and to explore other options in the world is also on display to add some texture as to why someone might want to leave high office. That is all fair enough, of course. But this doesn’t just “jar” with the notion of a looming independence referendum, it indicates a distinct lack of faith in the project.
A leader who is focussed and dug in for a long, difficult and determined battle to secure independence just wouldn’t talk in these terms. You don’t have to be a trained media advisor to know that when you open your future up to speculation in this manner, the discussion moves to who might be in the running as a potential replacement. Indeed, it already is a very public debate.
In addition, the legacy building is already underway. The First Minister cannot be judged on education, as the attainment gap widens. She cannot be judged on any substantial reforms. She can’t be judged on her industrial strategy or on infrastructure. Looking back, there is little to rave about when it comes to policy.
This is why you will see a drip feed of stories, interviews and features focussing on Nicola the woman. The angle is not to dwell on the litany of policy failures and missed opportunities, but on her personal abilities as a politician. Here there is a richer well to exploit. She has been widely praised for her undoubted communication skills, especially during the pandemic. She has remained steadfast as the mad men rose around her in the form of Johnson and Trump. She has a relationship with the electorate that most politicians can only dream of.
On the basis of that last point, Ms Sturgeon is within her rights to say that her political opponents hope she walks away, because they can’t beat her in elections. There is an undoubted truth to this. For while the lack of real progress for Scotland’s working class and for the independence cause is palpable, she rarely puts a foot wrong in interviews, at FMQs, or when engaging with world leaders. She can appear next to Nancy Pelosi in Washington one day, and at a the launch of a community initiative in Glasgow the next. She does so with apparent ease. She is, for a certain strata, an icon for women’s leadership and the definition of the consummate progressive politician.
This is stronger ground. And this, is where the hagiography begins. It will be lapped up by the professional middle class and the associated institutions. This helps to open doors to future career options and speaking tours, not to mention book deals, high profile volunteering projects and the social networks required set up foundations and other projects.
That can’t be taken for granted, and takes planning. Lots of high profile political leaders never manage to make the transition. Assuming that life after politics is full of opportunity is mistaken. Thought is required. There can be no half way house when it comes to a coherent exit, and the curation of what the legacy will be. This is not a decision that can be made some time in the future, on a whim. It involves a route map, with various staging posts and conviction about the direction of travel from the start.
Planning is also needed when it comes to succession. For as appealing as a life after being First Minister sounds, there is one thing that we might speculate would prevent Nicola Sturgeon from standing down. That is if her departure would leave the party in the hands of her opponents. Here again there is room for manoeuvre in a way that didn’t exist even a few years ago. Dissident voices are scattered, disorganised and politically disorientated.
The preference will be for a dyed in the wool “Sturgeonite” and an SNP veteran. Angus Robertson, having won his seat at the last election, offers such an avenue. He has undoubted weaknesses. But he might come to be viewed as a “safe pair of hands”, able to offer some stability in the midst of the post-Sturgeon come down. That would satisfy the First Minister. But there are perhaps other options too that might emerge, that would do. Lots of work will go on to ensure a smooth transition. Tricky? Sure. But if there was ever a time to prosecute such a move, it is probably now given the lack of internal opposition.
As we see in the Guardian interview, the First Minister can start the process of departure in a more public way. She can hint at stepping down, and talk quite openly about her future beyond leading the SNP. The Vogue interview focussed on some key topics: climate change, women, leadership, and of course, life after politics. With Ian Dale at the Edinburgh Fringe, she admits she has not made a decision about standing again in the next Scottish elections. “Who can say what they will be doing in the next 4 years,” she asked the audience. But perhaps she does know.
This is media management. It is meant to water a seedbed of messages about the future. Of course, it is all caveated with having successfully delivered Scottish independence prior to stepping down. But let’s not be naive about the difficulties with such a proposition, nor about the use value of such a comment when it comes to administering the eventual departure onto pastures new.
The First Minister’s rise to the leadership of the SNP doesn’t seem too long ago. In the intervening time, support for independence has flatlined. The case is no further forward. The movement is a shadow of its former self, suffocating from a lack of inspiration, leadership and political development. The power granted to the SNP leadership by Scotland’s working class will have been channelled into sustaining and extending corporate interests. The next leader will face some difficult challenges as a result, and certainly not a packed out Hydro festooned with foam fingers.
It may not look like it to the most avid of supporters. Perhaps it is a reality they simply cannot confront. But don’t bet on the next First Minister of Scotland being Nicola Sturgeon.
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