Nicola Sturgeon: a dud who sparkles in fraudulent times

Nicola Sturgeon: a dud who sparkles in fraudulent times

by Tom Gallagher
article from Wednesday 26, August, 2020

ONE OF THE CURRENT TRUISMS is that Nicola Sturgeon is supremely good at politics. The most visible figures in the political commentariat, such as Kenny Farquharson, Chris Deerin, and Alex Massie volubly assert this view. It is one shared also by others with less visibility and who reject their neo-nationalism, such as Ian Smart and Effie Deans. Smart blogged on Sundaythat “even her bitterest opponents would concede she is a politician of the first rank.”

What exactly does her prowess consist of? It is undeniable she is verbose, unruffled, assured, single-minded and determined. She is duly judged as a star in the field of political communications. But it is only in the information age that projection of image and control of the daily media narrative have been judged as that important. 

If Clement Attlee or Ernest Bevin were up against her in London, I suspect they would be found wanting by the media for being dull, terse, uncommunicative, and occasionally splenetic. It is not necessary to rehearse Attlee’s achievements and it is all too easily forgotten that Bevin was decisive in building the West’s Cold War defences against a dangerously expansionist Soviet Union. 

Few journalists ever bother to ask how, with the extensive powers at her disposal, has Scotland been changed during her many years at the heart of government. Where are the public sector initiatives, or infrastructure projects which will be pointed to as emblems of her time at the helm? The built landscape of Scotland has been remarkably unchanged in the nationalist era. For a party with such an electrifying line in rhetoric, it has only stirred itself in the most modest of ways.

One public procurement disaster has occurred after another. Incredible amateurism has been exhibited as her state has stepped in to try and build ferries, or revive the fortunes of an airport near to where she was born, by nationalising it. A new children’s hospital in Edinburgh remains closed because of serious design flaws. Another new one in Glasgow that has opened turns out to be a danger to the health of those admitted. The inability to tackle failings in the health and education sectors has ruined the reputations of successive ministers. Plunging educational attainment, record waiting times for medical treatment, a deepening mental health crisis, as well as some of the worst rates for drugs deaths in Europe, do not suggest a nation on the march. 

In the Covid pandemic, much has been made by the media of her refusal to fall into line with London. But in reality her displays of independence have been deceptive. She had the powers to better shield Scots from the virus but her attention span has been spasmodic. The political duel with London over Scotland’s future remained a dominant concern. In the initial period of the pandemic she even insisted the Covid briefings she obtained should be verbal and unrecorded. This will hamper any later enquiry about how decisions were taken and who did what, where and when. 

There has been criticism and some awkward moments. But the local media was usually deferential during her daily press briefings and the London media (to which she gave close attention) relied on the narrative that emerged from her press briefings to portray a feisty, activist regional leader usually on top of managing the pandemic while drift and confusion seemed to reign in London. 

Even if the media had been more alert and sceptical, it is unlikely if Sturgeon’s poise would have been undermined. She is bound to be assured and unruffled when the political cards are stacked so much in her favour. Her husband has tightly controlled the day-to-day running of the party which she heads, for most of this century. Westminster continues to supply a great deal of Scotland’s financial needs. There is remarkably no comeback from London when it emerges that the additional billions sent to Scotland during the pandemic has not been used by her government in the way that it was designed for. 

Besides she has her own de facto propaganda ministry composed of a phalanx of well-paid officials (along with well-wishers and sustainers in print and broadcasting) whose job consists of portraying her running of the devolved institutions and political campaigning in the most favourable of lights. 

 

In nearly every part of the world the state’s response to Covid has been found wanting. But there are probably few other places where the ruling party, many years in office, has seen its popularity ratings soar despite decisions having been taken that impinge on the lives of many, from sending hospital patients back to care homes without being tested to banning travel to certain destinations and imposing local lockdowns on what appeared to be impulsive grounds. 

The chief motivation behind Sturgeon’s approach to Covid, as with her stance on Brexit from 2016 to 2020, seems to have been the needs to differentiate herself from whatever the British government is doing. Her pugilistic stance is manna from heaven for journalists looking for a story involving two political adversaries which can be repeated for weeks on end with only slight tweaking.

Her minimalist approach to government while turning the rhetoric to 11, involving a retreat from serious administration and reform, basically parallels trends in journalism. As sales and advertising revenue has slumped, much of the Scottish media has cut back on reporting of everyday events, especially law-breaking. Instead, the focus is increasingly on opinion pieces on politics and lifestyle as well as news and views, about and from celebrities. Click-bait did not exist a dozen years ago.

Supporters of independence in the arts and entertainment field have not ceased to offer their opinions during the Covid crisis. The hype and artifice from this quarter has been enormously useful for keeping the main narrative focused on Scotland’s political destiny. Fascination with the constitutional drama also dominates serious political reportage in Scotland. The how, when and if a future referendum will happen – and how the issue shapes politics in Edinburgh and London, has spawned numerous op-ed pieces in Scotland whereas active politics has been suspended in many other countries. It’s an issue which separates Scotland from the rest of the island and only occasionally does it emerge, usually from a poll, that for most Scots it has a very low ranking in their list of concerns.

The 4th Estate of journalism may be shrinking in terms of readers, viewers and revenue but in a way much of its base has simply regrouped and switched to government. The SNP operates as a permanent opposition force in non-stop campaigning mode. Since propaganda rather than sound governance preoccupies it, journalists and those in the publicity sector are made a great fuss of by the party. The media also likes assertive left-wing leaders. Stalin was lionised as ‘Uncle Joe’ by the Daily Express in World War II and her own 2018 description of herself as ‘the Chief Mammy’ of Scotland often crops up in the press.

Much of the media, especially on the political left, now also shares her didactic and hectoring manner. At times, she can sound like a self-righteous Guardian op-ed contributor who insists the progressive path to a heavily regulated society is really the only one that should be on offer. Newspapers with such a crusading ideology naturally play down instances when disaster has occurred if put into practice. 

Sturgeon too is a master of evasion. Recurring difficulties have occurred because she has appointed people based on loyalty to her rather than broad competence. This appears to be the case in the civil service where the parliamentary investigation into the events that led to the trial of her predecessor Alex Salmond have shown complacency and carelessness. 

The litany of scandal and under-performance in her 5-year administration reached its apogee with the case of Derek Mackay. For most of this time he was an over-promoted finance minister – who had left university without a degree – and was being talked of in the media as her successor when he resigned this March on the day he was due to present the budget – after it was found he was sending suggestive texts to a teenage boy. Sturgeon sought to repair the damage by appointing a 29-year-old successor, Kate Forbes who seemed no more suitable for the post than Mackay but whose gender and youth made headlines. 

Her standing in Sturgeon’s eyes will be enhanced not by her stewardship of the economy but by her ability to place the blame of a poor economic outlook on the shoulders of Westminster and Conservatives. On 26 August, the release of new GERS figures from the Scottish government showed that the Scottish deficit was approaching 30% of Scottish GDP. Predictably it was Brexit that was blamed for these figures by Forbes even though few other parts of the UK enjoy weaker trading ties with the EU than Scotland does.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the neglect, faulty priorities towards, and mismanagement of the Scottish economy by a devolved administration whose economic and tax-raising powers have increased significantly of late, has greatly contributed to this malaise. A lawyer who practised for a short while before entering full-time politics, Sturgeon has shown no aptitude for, or abiding interest in economics even though competence in this area is vital for devolution to be a success. 

Instead, she is someone who believes in relentless politicisation of both public life and private space as the controversial new Hate Bill shows. Her ideological zeal is a continual trademark with hostility to London being apparent in all seasons (even though her own commitment to independence is doubted by ardent nationalists). There is much vague posturing about the timetable for referendum. But she is single-minded in taking steps towards establishing a tightly controlled regime where it is hard to distinguish between the role of the party and that of the state. Meanwhile, health and education sectors continue to be bywords of inefficiency. As for the economy, it is increasingly bound up with the public sector but is now seeing accelerating capital flight due in no small measure to uncertainty over Scotland’s political future. 

This is an unimpressive record – one that in a country where a leader’s fitness for office would be decided on competence in discharging her duties, would see Sturgeon struggle to survive. But Scotland has changed and is now one of the main global arenas where identity politics is of all-consuming interest. Feckless in fields where success once helped to stabilise democratic politics, Sturgeon possesses the low cunning and ruthlessness to shine in the dismal and dangerous field of identity politics. There are too many others like her both near and far which means the world is more prone to disruption than it has been for a long time. 

Perhaps only if and when some kind of normality returns to the West, will it be acknowledged how much of a liability Sturgeon has been to Scotland in what otherwise could have been an improving age for the country. 

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. He has written 16 single or main-authored books on European and British politics and contemporary history. 'Scotland Now: A Warning to the World' appeared in 2016. His latest is Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die (published last month). He tweets at @Cultfree54

Photo of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon talking as Grand Marshall at the Glasgow Pride 2018 festival by Delphine Dallison - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70872999

 

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