Ceausescu’s messiah complex: could it happen in Scotland now?

Ceausescu’s messiah complex: could it happen in Scotland now?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 19, January, 2021

PLURALIST democracies as well as communist People’s Democracies have legally codified rules setting out how their political systems are supposed to function. The separation of powers is supposed to be the bedrock of liberal democracy. For communist systems Socialist legality is what counts. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were dragged before a firing squad and executed on Christmas Day 1989  because their accusers said they had discarded the party rule book and oppressed 22 million Romanians in numerous and terrible ways.

Power had slowly drained away from the Ceausescus as the Cold War drew to a close, leaving some of their former entourage to conclude the top comrades must die if the system was to survive and adapt in new times. Plainly, the stakes are much less grim for Nicola Sturgeon, the ruler of devolved Scotland,  but there are plenty of comrades who feel that her time in charge should also now end because of the way they feel she has abused her position. 

What has emerged about  the circumstances that led Alex Salmond, her predecessor as leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister, to face serious criminal charges of sexual abuse in 2020 – that he was subsequently cleared of – means she has a growing number of questions to answer about her own role.  In theory she should have had no input, but what is becoming apparent from an investigation by a Holyrood parliamentary committee is that, along with her civil service chief, she did indeed have an instrumental part in driving forward a process which could have led her then 65-year-old former mentor spending the rest of his life in prison.

What is remarkable for any country that regards itself as a conventional democracy is that her husband Peter Murrell also seems to have played an outsized role in this affair.  He was forced to admit in September 2020 that he had sent electronic communications urging that the police be pressurised to step up their pre-trial investigations into Salmond's alleged misconduct. Further inconsistencies have emerged, requiring him to make repeat appearances before a committee to which Sturgeon’s government originally pledged full cooperation to get to the truth, but is now frustrating that goal at every turn.

The SNP has been run by Murrell since 1999 and his wife has been a government minister since 2007 and First Minster since 2014. During the last five years there has been a concentrated drive to make party, government and country almost indistinguishable. It is an astonishing state of affairs in a country which, as part of the British nation-state, was to the fore in pioneering modern democracy.

The comparisons now starting to be made with the most uninhibited display of power seen in post-1945 European communist states, that of the Ceausescus in Romania, are derided by those loyal to Sturgeon.  But former champions of Sturgeon in the media like Mandy Rhodes now admit things have gone terribly wrong at the top of government.

One of Salmond’s chief defenders in nationalist ranks, Craig Murray, has even gone as far to blame Scotland’s top law officer the Lord Advocate of corruption for blatantly using his office to interfere in political matters.

The  gradual concentration of power in one nationalist family is reflected at a lower level by a proliferation of couples who hold elected posts from Westminster and Holyrood to local government level. The examples are too numerous to list but they indicate that a party which styles itself as progressive and even avant-garde is addicted to the type of family political compacts once thought to have belonged to an earlier and more restrictive political era.

Because there were no checks and balances on rulers, communist rulers – not just the Ceausescus, performed symbolic acts that seemed to belong to a Europe of unchecked monarchical power. Thus in 1974 when Ceausescu had himself proclaimed President, he was photographed carrying a sceptre – a symbol of royalty. Amidst the welter of sycophantic messages, a clearly ironic one came from the surrealist painter Salvador Dali that included the words: “I profoundly appreciate your historical act of inaugurating the presidential sceptre.” It was duly printed  in the party daily Scinteia, on 4 April 1974.   

One explanation for why Scottish democracy is in such parlous state is that too many Scottish commentators and political activists are self-referential.  Politics are increasingly seen as an elemental battle against Westminster and the Tories, both usually shorthand for England – which means that ethical issues to do with  standards of conduct at home, are regarded as of little account.  There is indignation within Scotland’s nationalist world about any comparisons with inter-war fascism, but increasingly as the implications for individual careers and the quality of governance of Sturgeon’s idiosyncratic style of rule become clearer, some nationalists are throwing caution to the winds.

Thus, Robin McAlpine, a prolific commentator with grassroots influence in the nationalist movement has openly written about a collapse of ethical standards emanating from the top of government which has deformed key institutions in which public trust is vital for a democracy to work. He wrote on 14 January: “In a position of power, you should never create laws or procedures for a purpose related to the pursuit of an individual; it represents a gross misuse of those powers.”

Standards of governance have had much further to fall in Scotland than in Romania where before communism was imposed in 1945 meaningful democracy was already lacking and very often subjects had few rights against their ruler. Until recently, most Scots would have bridled at being described as the subjects of a political ruler but that is increasingly how many feel.  The reach of Sturgeon extends far into dimensions of Scottish life where previously politics had little place – the school classroom, the main public broadcaster, the BBC, the charity sector, numerous private firms – and even the private home, if a new bill creating a sweeping range of ‘hate crimes’ ever passes into law.

In my view a hybrid political system is in the making which is suspended between pluralism and totalitarianism. Interestingly, George Galloway, former MP and a founder of Alliance For Unity, which is mounting a vigorous electoral challenge to the SNP this year is familiar with the Romanian regime of suffocating personal control which Sturgeon’s rule is starting to be compared with.  His co-authored book Downfall showed how a hard-working but insecure and humourless leader with little real education and from an obscure background, nevertheless climbed his way to power as his country was experimenting with a new political order.

As a young Labour MP at the start of the 1990s, I suspect he did not imagine political power would be as concentrated in any part of Britain as it had been in Romania. Nor I suspect did many readers who read his fast-paced account of the rise and fall of the Ceausescus.

Arguably, political standards in Scotland are collapsing far more abruptly than they did in Romania during the second half of the last century. Sturgeon’s handing of the Covid pandemic has revealed a messiah complex as potentially all-encompassing as that of Ceausescu’s. The self-aggrandisement which led growing numbers of colleagues to finally tell Ceausescu the party’s interests had been eclipsed by his own will to power, is very much on display in Scotland.

In further articles I will try to show two things: 1) the steep cost for a nation when it is subject to the whims of a pair of rulers who increasingly dwell in a fantasy world of runaway personal vanity and nationalist delusion; and 2) just how the Ceausescus got away with manipulating the naivety of many in the West for so long.  Those in Scotland who are alarmed by the collapse of democratic government into unbridled personal rule might well heed some of the lessons from Romania’s tragic 20th century story.

To be followed by part 2.

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  

Photographs from the author of paintings showing the young Ceausescus at a demonstration and the couple celebrating Nicolae Caeusescu's birthday with medieval monarch Stephen the Great reaching out from the canvass to toast his patriotic successor.

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