Rise of Nicola Sturgeon: Shallow empress of north Britain

Scotland’s insurgents offer no original formula for politics. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is, in reality, a shallow political hack with no coherent vision. Her primary drive is to end the durable British experiment and entrench a bossy, introspective state in the north irrespective of whether it is economically viable or not

Nicola Sturgeon is usually bested in debate with serious opponents
Tom Gallagher
On 22 April 2015 12:33

A new phenomenon is enlivening the jaded UK election campaign. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, is not even standing for election but she has dominated a lacklustre affair at key points.

Bold, successful and committed, she has bowled over a shallow metropolitan media which has concluded that she might be reconfiguring democratic politics from her Scottish outpost.

She is aged only 45 but has been continuously in politics since the age of 16, and for the last 8 years has been at the top of the Scottish government.

A legend was born in the only election debate involving all the UK party leaders. On 2 April they gave her a free ride and a veteran journalist shrewdly observed that it should have been called the, ‘We Agree With Nicola Show’.

Labour in Scotland faces eclipse on 7 May, possibly for a long time. But what if the change is more apparent than real? Instead of a brave new departure, it is a resurrection of the old order with some garish and sinister features.

The Scottish National Party is imbued with the economic impracticality, careerism and desire to micro-manage lives not of old Labour which prevailed in Scotland but New Labour of the Blair era.

The similarities have been concealed by the militant opposition of the SNP to Tony Blair’s foreign policy. But, in reality, the state has been mined for party and indeed private advantage. The dynastic politics of New Labour have been faithfully built upon by the SNP.

From plentiful supporting evidence, suffice to say that it is Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, who is the party’s chief executive.

Internal party democracy has been ripped up and replaced by autocratic management by the leadership. Media technocrats and others with talent, ruthlessness and money have been recruited, and they overshadow most ministers.

The manifesto, launched with melodrama and symbolism that other European nationalists have sometimes used for shock and awe, is a vacuous document just like the 2013 White Paper with which the SNP hoped to storm to victory in the referendum on independence.

Its drafters seem to feel insulted that they have to provide some economic rationale for their vaulting goals. As a result, the economic agenda and how it can be paid for comes right out of the realm of fantasy.

Yet for the past 6 months, since becoming party leader, Sturgeon has been riding high in the polls. It makes no difference that when challenged, in studio debates and in the Scottish Parliament, she is robotic and shouty. Time and again she has been bested by the good set of opposition leaders whom Scotland actually has.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that she has changed her mind about whether Scotland should embrace fiscal autonomy and be £7.6 billion worse off than it would be  with the block grant it gets from London, (enabling spending per head to be 20 percent higher than in England.)

But it doesn’t matter. Many Scots, perhaps because their country doesn’t have to find the wherewithal to survive, have also taken leave of their economic senses. It is now one of the global strongholds of populism. Sturgeon appeals to several million Scots currently gripped by a sense of entitlement and who display a mix of angry ethnic and class resentments if it isn’t met.

She has no need to be forensic or intellectually consistent. Scotland’s oil is depleting but it acts like a cold water Gulf state: It doesn’t need to raise revenues or account to voters for what is spent.

The SNP thrives due to the absence of real central authority in the UK. Britain resembles imperial China under an enfeebled dynasty. The SNP conveys the image of mounting a provincial putsch against a rotten centre just as tough warriors swept down from the northern fastnesses to overwhelm decadent rulers.

Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg are child rulers also devoid of any long-term vision, never mind a killer instinct. Cameron has inflated the potential influence of the SNP, while Miliband has squirmed for weeks about whether he plans to rule with its conditional support.

Scotland’s insurgents offer no original formula for politics. Sturgeon is relaxed about Scotland being a province of the EU with far less power than it now has in devolved Britain. Her primary drive is to end the durable British experiment and entrench a bossy, introspective state in the north irrespective of whether it is economically viable or not.

Her party is obsessed with social levelling and state control of private life, but anyone who points out the uneasy parallels is ‘othered’ and deemed a crackpot to show the price that will be paid for candid criticism.

State nannies for every Scottish child are enshrined in law. On the way is a law which will make it illegal for wealth to be passed on to one child as this violates the principle of equality. Economic decline, the flight of talent, and curbs on free speech are likely to follow such measures.

If the separatist drive succeeds, a phantom independence at the international level, but accompanied by a cold war with the rest of the UK over the distribution of assets built up over 3 centuries will be hard to avoid .

And yet among numerous people from  the land many of her followers revile, Sturgeon is hailed as a Joan of Arc figure for, striking fear into the Westminster establishment. Many English people have fallen for the rhetoric of cross border friendship and solidarity that has been emanating from the SNP this month.

After the 2 April debate, many beyond Scotland searched on Google to see how they could vote for the SNP. Affection for a party based on grudge and grievance appears to be a pan-British phenomenon.

But the 80,000 new members include people who are clearly impatient with the niceties of democratic behaviour. In a typical example, a Labour MP has been regularly heckled and photographed by activists as she canvassed doors, with her SNP opponent describing this as ‘community justice’.

On 20 April, Sturgeon felt it necessary to tell activists to treat journalists ‘respectfully’ and that they should be allowed to ‘scrutinise our manifesto’. What does it tell you that she felt it necessary to say something that should really go without saying at all?

Britain thrived, while much of continental Europe periodically succumbed to civil war, revolution and tyranny, because no party ever enjoyed as much dominance as the SNP does in Scotland and the freedom of political activists to campaign was determined by the law.

Now, Scotland is rushing towards a form of absolutism likely to end in tears before too long. Currently the reaction of many in England is twofold: big state advocates say can we please have some of that too; alternatively, people alienated from cartel politics say good riddance to Scotland, let it head out of the UK.

England is stuck with Scotland whether or not it remains in the UK. But there is no sign that craven political leaders and a mediocre commentariat will bother to raise their game as Nicola Sturgeon currently walks all over them.

Professor Tom Gallagher is currently writing Scotland at the Crossroads: A Nation Divides which is planned to appear at the end of the year

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