We are all suckers for a list. The top ten this. The twenty best that. the seventeen (why?) most listed things. We can’t resist them. If you want clicks, make a list. It pretty much doesn’t matter what is listed. Or why. Just give them a list and you’ve got them hooked because they’ll always want to know what is top of that list or whether their own favourite thing even appears. Lists are everywhere on the web. If there was a list of the most ubiquitous things on the web – and there almost certainly is – then lists will surely be in the top ten. Maybe even in the top five. Doubt me? Wikipedia even has a list of lists which lists lists which themselves may be or contain lists.
Even George Kerevan is at it! His column in The National today is built around his list of “serious policy issues” which must be addressed “if the indy movement is to recover ground” in the wake of the Scottish Government’s horribly bungled pursuit of Alex Salmond. An episode that is bound to rank highly on any list of atrocious political misjudgements. In order to avoid getting drawn into the black hole of Wikipedia’s list of lists from which there may be no escape, I thought I’d take a look at George’s list. Maybe make a list of the things I think he gets right to sit alongside a list of the things he gets wrong.
Issue #1: A cult of personality has crept into indy politics as a result of the Sturgeon-Salmond battle.
There can hardly be any doubt that something akin to a cult of personality exists around Nicola Sturgeon. But I dispute that it is a product of the “Sturgeon-Salmond battle”. I would say rather that the extreme polarisation which characterises this whole affair is a product of the reverence afforded to both these towering figures in Scottish politics by certain of their supporters. At the very least the problem was exacerbated – particularly in the case of Sturgeon – by a regard which brooked no criticism whatever of the personality at the centre of the cult. Less impassioned commentators watched in growing horror as what should have been a teacupful of trouble develop into a full-scale tropical storm as defence became preemptive attack and preemptive attack became first strike and retaliation became indistinguishable from provocation. This could not have happened unless there was a pre-existing cult of personality such as might preclude rational assessment of the situation.
George commits the fallacy of false equivalence when he insists that the two sides are equally to blame. This takes no account of the fact that one of the personalities involved is the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party while the other holds no public office whatever and is not – as far as I am aware – a member of any political party. It hardly matters if there is a cult of personality around Alex Salmond. Neither party nor nation depends on his decisions. It is not, in that sense, important whether he is right or wrong. It matters a very great deal whether Nicola Sturgeon is right or wrong. Therefore, it matters whether people think she’s making the correct choices.
Arguably the most deleterious effect of descent into a cult of personality (or personalities) is that the rightness or wrongness of the decisions ceases to be the issue. Reasoned and reasonable debate about the choices being made becomes impossible when the only thing that matters is the identity of the individual making those choices. Again, this is of little consequence in the case of ‘ordinary citizen’ Salmond. It is of critical importance in the case of the now and future First Minister and leader of the SNP. The ‘dispute’ long since ceased to be about whether Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue stands a chance of success or whether her policy agenda is even sane. The dispute is now entirely about whether the approach to the constitutional issue and the policy agenda are uncritically accepted or not. This is not healthy.
George ends the first item of his list with the perennial plea of the radical progressive.
Perhaps we in Scotland need to rethink the very notion of having iconic leaders and replace it with bottom-up democracy. Or is that too revolutionary?
Wouldn’t that be lovely! It deserves a mention on a list of the loveliest things the activist / reformer / dissident might wish for in moments of reverie. Unfortunately, George, it would come several places below the even lovelier thing that would be a bottom that is prepared to make the effort required for bottom-up democracy to work. We wouldn’t be where we are; or we’d be addressing a somewhat different list of issues, but for the fact that where bottom-up democracy is allowed to work, it doesn’t. If bottom-up democracy worked the Yes movement wouldn’t be sundered in the way it is. If bottom-up democracy worked then it would not have been so stunningly easy for a relatively tiny faction within the SNP to kill that bottom-up democracy stone dead.
Leaders are necessary because management is necessary. Somebody has to keep the machinery ticking over while the bottom is busy with more pressing matters. Somebody has to ensure that the grunt-work gets done. Somebody has to be there to bring the bottom up to speed when the bottom deigns to get off its arse and take a fleeting interest in democracy. It helps if those leaders are charismatic. Charismatic just means having the ability to engage people. That’s where participative democracy starts – with engagement. Unfortunately, it can also be where participative democracy ends as the bottom elevates the charismatic leader to cult status so they can leave everything in the hands of this charismatic leader while they get back to those more pressing matters.
This is when we discover that it is not the leader that matters but the phenomenon of leadership. It is entirely possible for an individual to be elevated to the status of a cult on the basis of their charisma alone and despite being entirely lacking in the qualities of leadership. We need not look furth of Scotland’s borders to find examples.
The cult of personality around Nicola Sturgeon is an issue. It may even be an issue deserving of its No.1 ranking on George Kerevan’s list. But there is nothing we can do about it – other than wait for the idol’s clay feet to crumble. Personality cults almost by definition are not susceptible to direct assault. Personality cults thrive on such attacks. They are reinforced by the act of defending the personality around whom the cult is built. All we can do is chip away at the feet of clay until the tipping point is reached and the idol falls from its pedestal. Of course, that may come too late to prevent the harm done by bad choices that were never scrutinised or challenged because they were the choices of the leader.
Being a leader is about drawing people to oneself. Leadership is about taking people on a journey.
Moving on! What’s next, George?
Issue #2: Politics in Scotland has become far too centralised and secretive.
Undoubtedly! The degree of centralisation and secrecy in politics generally is but a pale shadow of what
is happening has happened within the SNP. And for very similar reasons. Successive SNP administrations have tended to centralise power and become ever more secretive because every instance of effective power outwith central control risked providing a base from which the Scottish Government could be attacked and the Scottish Parliament undermined. Look at what the British government is doing now. Having seized key powers it is in the process of using them to bypass the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to offer direct funding to Councils. This will be portrayed as empowering those Councils in the name of ‘local democracy’. In fact, it is entirely about hijacking Councils in the service of the British Nationalist project.
What George fails to acknowledge is that while it may be true that there has been greater centralisation in Edinburgh under the SNP it is a choice between that and greater centralisation in London. Centralisation – and the obsessive secrecy which tends to accompany it – may be an issue. But it is an issue which cannot be safely addressed until independence has been restored. So it cannot deserve a place on a list of issues which must be addressed before the restoration of independence can proceed.
Issue #3: The decay of inner-party democracy in the SNP.
Absolutely no disagreement here. In fact, I would put this at the top of the list. The whole point of what is lazily tagged the ‘anti-Sturgeon’ campaign is to ensure that the SNP is fit for its vital role in the restoration of Scotland’s independence. The cult doesn’t care about that. For the cult it is enough that they have their leader. As George notes –
…focussing the case for independence on [Nicola Sturgeon] alone goes against the democratic grain of everything the national movement has stood for.
It also goes against plain good sense. It is one thing to have a leader who can represent the cause. It is quite another when the leader becomes the cause due to so much being invested in them. The cause then becomes whatever the leader says it is. The means and methods of pursuing that cause become the means and methods which the leader dictates – mindful always and perhaps mainly of the imperative to maintain their status as leader.
It is good to have a strong leader when confronted by a powerful opponent. It’s not so good when that leader is enable to make choices free of all scrutiny or constraint. The way power works is that the power to make choices free of all scrutiny or constraint inevitably tends towards being used to defend and consolidate the power to make choices free of all scrutiny or constraint. Power always comes to serve itself unless it is prevented from doing so. Leadership is in large part about preventing power coming to serve itself.
Issue #4: Lack of an agreed policy direction for gaining independence.
No disagreement here. I would dispute George Kerevan’s idea of what that “agreed policy direction” should be. Which I guess means it isn’t an agreed policy direction. But there are degrees of disagreement. I disagree fundamentally and vehemently with Nicola Sturgeon’s now inexplicably commitment to the Section 30 process. But I am wary of what seems to me to be the rather superficial and simplistic ‘solution’ of a plebiscitary election. It’s an appealing notion, obviously. But I am far from convinced it would do what is being claimed it would do. I am not, however, fundamentally and vehemently opposed to the idea of making the May election a plebiscite. I would certainly prefer that to the idiocy of adhering to the Section 30 process. An idiocy which I have dealt with comprehensively elsewhere.
The key term here is “agreed”. What is needed is a “policy direction” which gets the agreement of the SNP membership and the rest of of the Yes movement and which will also be found agreeable by voters. Obviously, I have my own ideas as to what this might be. Others are coming at the issue from a similar direction. The idea of a #ManifestoForIndependence is gaining traction. The agreed and agreeable starting point being to assert the primacy of the Scottish Parliament.
The problem is, as George observes, that it is impossible to achieve an agreed approach when there is no discussion taking due account of all possibilities. Such discussion is closed down completely within the SNP and almost entirely prevented outside the SNP by the #WheeshtForIndy mob which tries to shout down anyone who presumes to question the leader’s chosen approach.
It is one thing to identify what is needed. It is quite another to know how to achieve it. As with so many things, the effort to unite the Yes movement around a single common approach to the constitutional issue has been left too late. This is a failure of leadership. Nicola Sturgeon has to own that failure.
Issue #5: Lack of policy preparation for independence.
George Kerevan saves the worst for last. It’s hard to understand how he missed the glaring contradiction in first recognising the need for an agreed approach to the constitutional issue and then advocating the development of a policy agenda which must preclude and such agreement.
We can state with some confidence what the position will be on Independence Day and immediately afterwards. We cannot predetermine the direction that will be taken thereafter. That will be entirely a matter for future democratically elected Scottish Parliaments and Governments. The more policies are prescribed now the less chance there is of uniting the Yes movement and therefore the less chance there is of seeing Scotland’s independence restored.
And for what? It is a pointless exercise because nobody can guarantee delivery on any of these policy commitments. It makes no sense to sacrifice unity for the sake of a necessarily futile attempt to impose policies on post-independence Scotland.
We can talk about the principles which may be enshrined in the written constitution. We can certainly talk about Scotland’s capacities. We cannot say what policies will be followed in future but we can insist that the people of Scotland are perfectly capable of making informed choices about all the matters which are the concern of all independent nations.
Of George Kerevan’s five ‘issues’ only one survives unscathed.as something that can and must be addressed as a matter of great urgency. That’s number four – the need for an agreed approach to the constitutional issue around which the entire Yes movement can unite. The others may impinge on this imperative. They may in whole or part identify issues that must be addressed prior to or in the process of establishing that unifying idea. But so long as the focus is on that single shared idea then the means will be found to overcome any and all issues.
The greatest obstacles to achieving this agreement are the cult of personality around Nicola Sturgeon; the censorious intolerance of the #WheeshtForIndy mob; and the frustrated anger of Yes activists.
Did I just make a list?