Sturgeon, Johnson and the curse of nationalism
Published by The i paper (27th March, 2023)
This week sees the end of an exceptional political era. Nicola Sturgeon is standing down as Scotland’s First Minister after 3,046 days in post. Her reign began in the far-off days of coalition government in Westminster, outlasting four Tory leaders in Downing Street and becoming such a significant figure her departure was hailed by former US president Donald Trump with a typically-nasty tweet about the exit of a ‘failed woke extremist.’
She retained power with determination and poise through tumultuous times that included the Brexit fiasco and a pandemic, yet leaves with a net approval rating and at a time largely of her own choosing. Sturgeon’s impressive political skills are beyond dispute. ‘Eight election victories in eight years as first minister, that’s the verdict that matters to me,’ she declared in her 286th and final session of question time at Holyrood last week.
Yet beyond her ability to see off rivals and cling to power, this iron-willed woman – who served a previous seven years as deputy first minister before taking the top job unopposed – leaves behind a dismal legacy of failure on public services and poverty, a mess for her successor who inherits a wounded party, and sliding support for their central cause of independence.
No doubt nationalist fans would blame others for lower life expectancy north of the border, staggering rates of drug deaths, dire health outcomes, rising medical wait lists, increasing poverty levels, school failures and stalled efforts to fight climate change. Sturgeon’s ‘number one priority’ was to close the gap in educational outcomes between rich and poor areas but it ‘remains wide’, says a watchdog. And yes, she tinkered with income tax.
Yet Scotland’s most distinctive policies such as free tuition in higher education and abolishing prescription charges were down to her loathed predecessor Alex Salmond. And they are aided by English taxpayers, who let Scots spend an extra one-fifth per head on public services than themselves due to an archaic formula designed as a short-term fix almost half a century ago.
Sturgeon’s track record is all the more dispiriting given the power she has enjoyed, which might have permitted her party to drive through radical reforms. Instead, the one time she attempted something genuinely daring with gender self-identification, she was outflanked by opponents.
Now her departure exposes not just deception over falling party membership that forced her husband to resign as chief executive of the Scottish National Party and raised questions over her own claims, but also deep fissures buried beneath the surface on fundamental issues ranging from their core position in the political spectrum through to the strategy for winning separation.
Sturgeon used political skills combined with rigid discipline to unite disparate forces behind the saltire on the supposed road to independence. Now the route seems blocked and divisions have erupted. Hamza Yousaf, the frontrunner to succeed her who brands Westminster ‘a foreign government, backs her approach including teaching gender identity in schools, yet Kate Forbes, his closest rival, said she would have opposed the self-identification bill if not on maternity leave.
An evangelical Christian, she opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and even bringing up children outside marriage – while serving as finance minister and seeking leadership of a party that proclaims itself as a progressive force.
Let us hope this is the beginning of the end of the SNP domination – and not just because it has been such a lacklustre government. For nationalism, rooted in a culture of blame, disunity and grievance, is inherently malign.
As George Orwell wrote in the final months of World War Two, there is a big difference between patriotism, a defensive devotion to one place, and nationalism, an ugly cult based on superiority that places one tribe ‘beyond good and evil’, tolerates no dissent, and is ‘inseparable from the desire for power.’ His searing essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ claimed ‘every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being in the right.’
Scottish devotees claim their brand of nationalism is different since it is positive and progressive, although anyone who has crossed swords with their online trolls might beg to differ. This is a party united by battle against London. Its leaders claim to be ignored despite devolution and extra dollops of cash, then blame anyone but themselves for woeful political and social failure.
Ironically, they share much in common with their bete noire Boris Johnson, who clad himself in the mantle of nationalism and grievance politics to promote his own lust for power as leader of the Brexit revolt. As Orwell wrote in that 1945 essay, ‘the dominant form of nationalism’ in our country ‘is old-fashioned jingoism’ – and this found modern expression in Johnson’s bashing of Brussels and boasts of British exceptionalism.
Now Sturgeon is leaving the political stage. And Johnson last week saw his fight to reclaim power suffer gratifying setbacks, leaving him exposed as an increasingly-lonely figure in a party desperate to move on from his deceitful behaviour and self-serving theatrics. First came a pitiful performance before the Privileges Committee defending his disgraceful partygate behaviour, then Rishi Sunak routed his handful of remaining Brexit insurgents to iron out flaws in the Northern Ireland protocol. Even some former allies breathed sighs of relief that the technocrats have taken over their party again after witnessing his bombast and ego in full flight again.
This pair of political leaders that dominated politics in Westminster and Edinburgh over recent years are polar opposite characters at the helm of very different political forces. But they were united by success in rising to the top of politics on the back of a creed that seeks to divide and separate people, intensifying divisions for their own sakes at a time when we need to find ways to unite as we confront huge issues at home and abroad. We should not mourn either departure from the political stage.