Ruth Wishart’s column in The National is always a treat. By turns couthy as your granny and snell as bleak December’s winds, Ruth regularly serves up fine blend of sentiment and insight.laced with knowing humour. This week’s offering is very much in that mould as she casts a surprisingly unjaundiced eye over what we perforce must refer to as the Salmond/Sturgeon affair. The result is a very fair summary of the situation that avoids the mire of disputed detail to focus on the general impact of the affair on our nation’s public life and democratic institutions. The very institutions that are even as I write being assailed by the British state and its agents in a campaign which can no longer be called sleekit.
Ruth Wishart’s verdict is that the whole thing is a nightmare for pretty much everybody it touches. Other than the aforementioned British state and agents thereof who are drooling disgustingly in their porridge while reading each morning’s headlines. And who could possibly disagree with that verdict? Apart from Nicola Sturgeon, of course. Open questioning by Scotland’s First Minister of formal verdicts brought by a Scottish court of law is among the novel ‘features’ that have been introduced in the course of the seemingly interminable and intensely unseemly rammy twixt former and current First Ministers. See what I mean? Nightmare!
Back to Ruth Wishart who notes how the nightmare that has blighted Alex Salmond’s life now haunts social media and gnaws at the fabric of the Yes movement like ravenous carpet moth larvae.
A nightmare which has led to open warfare on social media with supporters of both camps running a high temperature. A profoundly depressing development. And a profoundly ironic one given that the dream which shall never die is almost within Scotland’s grasp.
It’s that last that I take issue with. The notion that the dream of restoring Scotland’s independence is “almost within Scotland’s grasp” is no less misguided for being all too common among Yes supporters. It’s one of those things that commentators trot out without thinking. The received wisdom.
Not everybody declines to consider this claim, however. And those who do find it more than somewhat wanting in substance. On due reflection, the representation of independence as being within reach is hardly less ridiculous than the self-evidently inane claim that we have “never been closer” to that dreamed of goal. The latter inanity necessarily implies that we are closer to having Scotland’s independence restored now than we were on the morning of Thursday 18 September 2014 when polls opened for what I still refuse to call the last independence referendum. Only an idiot would make such a claim. With irony as heavy as a coal train those idiots have self-identified.
It is illusion. And what is illusion used for in politics other than to make a situation look less bad than it actually is; or a political leader more successful than she would otherwise appear. With the scales from our eyes littered at our feet we see the reality of a project completely stalled. We see the empress only partially clothed – her modesty preserved only by the cover of Covid.
All of which is relevant to an understanding of the perceptions and attitudes which inform the two now firmly entrenched camps exchanging salvoes on social media. The the rapidly expanding space separating these two camps is the gulf between fantasy and reality. It is the difference between an image airbrushed and glossed by artful spin and a life laid bare by the scouring of public scrutiny. In Salmond we see the man behind the politician, exposed in a way that is almost excruciating to watch. In Sturgeon we see only the stage-strutting, lectern-hugging, selfie-taking, kiddie-cuddling, opposition-thrashing, pandemic-managing veneer concealing the beast beneath.
This is neither to elevate Salmond or do down Sturgeon. The former is flawed in ways we know well. The latter is almost certainly no less flawed but in ways we have yet to discover. So what? We celebrate political leaders for what they achieve despite their susceptibility to the failings and follies that beset us all. Sometimes we celebrate achievements only made possible by some manifestation of those human frailties. We each of use choose what weight we attach to the defects and deficiencies of others. The difference in this instance is that while Nicola Sturgeon can still benefit from doubts about her concealed character, Alex Salmond must carry the full burden of his less admirable characteristics.
These two giants of Scottish politics divide the independence movement because each is a repository of hope. Hope is the common factor here. Desperate hope. Quite possibly delusional hope. Hope that is no more than a dully glowing ember. Hope that still burns with a bright flame. Hope for the dream that will never die – but which can all to easily be thwarted by disunity, disharmony and despair.
Trying to play the disinterested observer; striving for dispassionate analysis, I cannot help but conclude that the hope invested in both these politicians is unfounded. I am reluctant to pin my hopes for Scotland’s future on either of them. For different reasons I cannot envisage either providing the leadership that Scotland’s cause so urgently requires. Sturgeon doesn’t want to and Salmond won’t be allowed to. A simplistic summary, but one which gets to the nub of the matter.
The danger is that while the Yes movement is looking to these two for leadership the individual with the potential to provide that leadership may go unnoticed.
Ruth Wishart ends here column with a bit of a cliffhanger. She writes that Nicola Sturgeon will have the last word “for the moment”. I fear the implied absence of closure may be apt. I worry that, contrary to intuition and logic, the Yes movement may be irretrievably riven by a common hope. I just hope I’m wrong.