Don’t be a cult!

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 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?

11 thoughts on “Don’t be a cult!

  1. I find I frequently take on a list, in spite of this Mr Kerevan’s No4 is also my No1. Time is short to have the YES movement coalesce around a common manifesto in time for May. Work very much in progress.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Even if they were dead set against a referendum they could still win the election (and thus a period of grace) by a good margin merely by dropping the self ID and the Hate crime bills and instead uniting the party and the country on radical land reform: something everyone wanted.( apart of course from a few owners of millions of acres and a small coterie of SNP allies: Fergus Ewing and Cosy feet “Tweed-slipper” Pete etc.)

      – But they won’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure where you’re getting your energy from but thank goodness you are. Another powerful article. After the last indy ref I was of the opinion that we let too many of the No side frame the questions about Scotland’s future. Policies are not set in stone otherwise we wouldn’t hold elections every 5 years or so. In my view we should have been turning many of the questions round on the questioners and putting them on the spot. At 72 years of age I’m now very pessimistic about seeing independence in my lifetime but people like yourself, Grousebeater, Iain Lawson etc. give me the occasional glimmer of hope.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You are absolutely correct about “turning many of the questions round on the questioners”. Except that we should be turning ALL of the questions around. Or ignoring them on the grounds that they are not valid questions at all. In fact, we should be turning the while constitutional issue around.

      I had hoped that by now we would be well into the process of planning a new campaign strategy founded on a total reframing of the constitutional question. Instead, look at us!

      Liked by 3 people

  3. During #indyref, Better Together TRIED to make Alex Salmond the focus of the Yes movement, and he resisted it. Grassroots yessers pointed out that it wasn’t about one man, it was about all of us. That was our strength, and it has been taken away from us. Yes Scotland has been hijacked by the SNP and closed down.
    If I actually thought the current SNP leadership were even thinking about having an independence campaign, I’d be worried, because it would be centred around the leadership, not the grassroots.

    “I’m With Nicola”, anyone?

    Liked by 3 people

  4. To be honest , I can’t see that the SNP have a current strategy on independence.

    There certainly hasn’t been any mention of the benefits of independence for the last five years. They hold the referendum as an aspiration for the future, rather than a definite event. Their plan is to request a Section 30 again! The rest of the draft plan is just an expansion of Blackford’s : ” Scotland will not stand for this”.

    My concern has always been the weakness of begging first before any action. Going into a proposal with a weak hand and nothing up your sleeve, leads to capitulation when the enemy simply ignores you.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. On personalities, the public unfortunately are primed by the media to see things in these terms and our offshored non tax paying billionaire owned “free press” prefer the popularity coconut shy of “set e’m up & knock e’m down” because, well, its far easier to discredit an individual than a movement and that’s 90% of what the political media are for.

    Kerovans idea that this is something new having somehow crept into the politics of Independence as a “…result of the Sturgeon-Salmond battle.” is mere lazy thinking . As you point out it’s a false equivocation to see things in this way.

    In the one corner a party leader and first minister able to instigate investigations, invent new disciplinary procedures, utilise large amounts of money defending said flawed procedures, an entire civil service as a resource and the ability to trigger (an apparently keen & willing) police Scotland into allocating hugely disproportionate manpower & resources to further her assumed “righteousness”: Indeed to spend millions of public money trawling for ancient evidence to support supposed infringements of retrospective new rules: now glossed into sex crimes to justify the hunt itself… and in the other corner, well, a single individual with no more than his own (undoubted) skills and reputation to defend.

    This was never a personality contest: it wasn’t even originally an intended assassination which would have made it far too interesting: it was meant to be an act of political suffocation.
    They would “sit on” claims “…but hopefully never have to deploy” them. But then someone somewhere changed their mind,,,did deploy and unfortunately for them the intended woke up just as the pillow was coming down.

    Arguing about sides in a polarising “Salmond-Sturgeon battle” is pointless. The damage to Alex Salmond is immeasurable despite the fact that he won both court cases for indeed the smearing continues non the less. The stalwarts still mumble on about there being no smoke without fire
    but as we have seen its amazing how much magic smoke you can puff with ten million pounds of police public money to burn. The continuing smears come with the encouragement of Sturgeon herself: not merely a cut price lawyer illustrating that the rule of law in Scotland means nothing to her in the face of a “necessary” conviction, but the first minister of Scotland doing so, and with the backing of a Me-too creed still preaching that courts and evidence are unnecessary for women should just be believed: unless of course those women are the jurors who considered the evidence:

    No, there is no Sturgeon-Salmond battle: only Nicola Sturgeon discrediting herself after damaging both her old mentor and the cause itself.
    But then we have to forget about all this for there is no choice. If we want to succeed we have to have unity…dismiss Salmond, forget all the black arts you might see in the above and for Scotland’s sake take the advice of a famous Scottish female who knew exactly what to do:

    “….screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail…”

    -It’s a tad unfortunate that the advice comes from Lady Macbeth.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Consider, please.

    The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory first developed by the German sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties.

    According to Michels, all organizations eventually come to be run by a “leadership class”, who often function as paid administrators, executives, spokespersons or political strategists for the organization. Far from being “servants of the masses”, Michels argues this “leadership class,” rather than the organization’s membership, will inevitably grow to dominate the organization’s power structures. By controlling who has access to information, those in power can centralize their power successfully, often with little accountability, due to the apathy, indifference and non-participation most rank-andfile members have in relation to their organization’s decision-making processes. Michels argues that democratic attempts to hold leadership positions accountable are prone to fail, since with power comes the ability to reward loyalty, the ability to control information about the organization, and the ability to control what procedures the organization follows when making decisions. All of these mechanisms can be used to strongly influence the outcome of any decisions made ‘democratically’ by

    And if you do – consider also whether in what we call a “representative democracy” which permits us to vote and elect who the representatives are to be does NOT in equal and balancing mannner permits us to remove such representatives when we find their intentions and actions no longer representative and then equally permits us to do so at a moment of our choosing not theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you refer to in your final paragraph is just basic democracy.

      I disagree with Michels slightly in that, while everything he says about organisations is undoubtedly true, I don’t accept that any of the failings are inevitable. I maintain that management’s function in an organisation is precisely to prevent the tendencies Michels identifies. By this I mean management in the widest possible sense. Many serve as controls or constraints on the direction in which an organisation goes. Apart from the customary management hierarchy there may for example, the members of that organisation – where relevant – and even the organisation’s customers or service users.

      In addition, there are the formal rules and procedures and laws which govern organisations of various sorts. These to may be regarded as playing a part in the management of the organisation.

      This is why participative democracy is so important. If consumers and workers and voters and party members are engaged and aware then the choices they make can effectively mitigate the tendency for organisation to come to serve themselves and/or an internal and/or external elite.

      Power doesn’t evaporate if it isn’t used. If customers and members and workers and voters don’t exercise their democratic power then that power will be picked up by some individual or group to be used for their purposes. What Michels refers to as the “leadership class” (a term I find unfortunate for a couple of reasons) is the “class” which usurps abandoned power – if nobody stops them.

      Liked by 1 person

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