And so another election campaign kicks off. My immediate impression is that it all seems very French. By which I mean that I have a strong sense of déjà vu and and symptoms of early onset ennui. It all just seems so familiar. This morning, as I read articles proclaiming the start of the campaign, I had to keep checking the date to make sure I hadn’t accidentally landed on a page from 2016. The National uses the basic template – Nicola Sturgeon kicks off SNP campaign with vow to protect Scotland’s NHS. Other media organs will follow the same pattern simply filling in the blanks according to their political stance – [name of politician] kicks off [name of party] campaign with vow to [name of thing they vowed to do last time]. Voila! You have your headline!
When the campaign is formulaic, so is the coverage. I’m sure it would be possible to develop an algorithm that would produce the necessary copy. In fact, that will surely be the next ‘advance’ in political news reporting. Media moguls will be able to augment their offshore fortunes if they eliminate the costly inefficiencies of outdated churnalism – it’s just sooo twentieth century, my dear! – and introduce the marvel of RoboHack. Journalists will, of course, be incensed. Editorials will be published that are little more than a litany of Orwell quotes laced together with Orwellian prose. Much to the chagrin of the few redundant journalists who are aware or care, most readers will not notice any difference when [insert name of now jobless journalist] is replaced by an app.
Political speechwriters will be joining those journalists on the dole queue. In what may come to pass for irony in this post-interesting world, the RoboHack in the newspaper office will be working with material – quite possibly typed in by a former journalist now a data input operative on minimum wage – that was itself produced by RoboHack’s cousins in the offices of the political parties. The age of political oratory is past. Welcome to the age of insipid recitation. It’s the trend. Already, every word uttered by a politician has been filtered through a dense mass of risk-aversion which only when viewed through a microscope can be seen to consist of thousands of tiny particles called ‘advisers’ until what arrives on the teleprompter makes the dullness of dirty dishwater look like the Christmas lights of childhood memory and should a politician actually say something meaningful it is immediately pounced upon by the scandal-hungry media pack and either condemned to a year in Channel 4 list of the greatest political gaffes of all time or hailed as the mot juste of the campaign according to political preference and prejudice.
Computers the length and breadth of the land see this and myriad synthesised Yosser Hughes voices chorus, “Ah kin dae that! Gizza job!”.
What I’m trying to convey here is a sense of how underwhelmed I am by it all. Which is only significant if one factors in what a politics anorak I am. I’m the sort of person who should get at least a little animated at the launch of an election campaign. I should be maybe just a wee bit excited at the prospect of a six week deluge of fresh material that has to be analysed and commented on for the benefit of that handful of people who suppose they benefit from my commentary and analysis. I should be preparing to up my output to two or maybe even three articles a day as I’m bombarded with stunning speeches and surprising policy statements and scintillating debates and sparkling repartee as professional politicians tilt at one another with scathing bon mots and original observations. I’m not saying I should be filled with joie de vivre. Only that I shouldn’t be filled instead with something better resembling dread.
We surely all know how it goes by now. Six weeks of cycling through one topic du jour after another until we get back to the topic du jour you first thought of. It starts with the politicians stating their position and proposals on one area of policy or another with each carefully contrived to be only as different from the other as it needs to be so that the media can then
exaggerate explain this difference for the benefit of potential voters. It then moves to the misrepresentation phase as the politicians (or their speech-writing programmes) pick up on the negatively exaggerated aspects of opponents’ policy proposal in increasingly strident condemnatory tones. Lots of shouty confrontations that make great TV even if pish-poor politics. A few faux confrontational interviews on the Sunday politics shows. Screeds of sensationalism and a hatful of hyperbole in the print and broadcast media. Then, just before the rhetoric ramps up to the point where all the politicians are predicting the end of civilisation should any of them be elected and serious voters are driven to distraction and those depths of black despair at which even the sanest, soberest and most sensible of people might consider the ultimate act of sheer desperation – voting for George Galloway, we switch to a new topic du jour and go through the whole process again.
Getting down to what passes for personalities in modern politics, the main players will effortlessly slot into their roles. Douglas Ross will live down to his reputation as a pompous poltroon completely out of his depth in the world of grown-up politics. Without a painted white line at his feet for guidance he’ll wander around committing one faux pas after another while failing to realise his ambition to be a papier-mâché Boris Johnson.
Whoever is British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) leader on any given day will be the leader of BLiS on that day. Which is to say that they will pretend to be a real leader of a real party with real policies. They will hide behind a facade of radicalism while frantically trying to lure back the voters who abandoned them for Ruth Davidson’s Tories and inflicted on them the ignominy of third place. Their prayers and dreams will be filled with images of Douglas Ross tripping himself and landing flat on his smug face so that they can clamber over his back to snatch the prize of leader of the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament with the attendant privilege of being torn a brand new arsehole every Thursday.
Willie Rennie will be Willie Rennie. I can’t think of anything more cutting to say about him.
Amidst this Dross and other dross it will be easy for Nicola Sturgeon to shine. And she is surpassingly adept at sparkling against the background mediocrity provided by the leaders of the British parties. Whatever else she may be – and it’s evident that she’s lots of things we never thought she was – Sturgeon is a gleaming star in the dreich firmament of Scottish politics. She has Glasgow chic and Glesca couthiness in a near-perfect blend. She has the cachet of being First Minister. She has the understated elegance bestowed by a thoughtful couturier. She has the shoes She has the smarts. And she has that je ne sais quoi that can make a political celebrity out of the most unlikely material. It’s something akin to charisma. But not the Tony Blair kind of charisma that captivates briefly but quickly leaves you wanting to slap her face off. It is what passes for charisma in Scotland, where being the best at something is permissible but being better than the rest of us is likely to get you knocked off your pedestal with a wrecking-ball.
Nicola Sturgeon switches without apparent effort between being one of the elite and one of us. Somebody once said to me that the great thing about Nicola Sturgeon is that she makes you feel noticed. Even when you’re not in her presence. I get that. I really do get that.
Sturgeon is a good politician. A very good politician. That’s good as in effective. I suspect she may not be a particularly good person. But then, particularly good people and politicians are pretty much exclusive categories of human being. She’s an effective political operator.
Sturgeon is not a great politician. She lacks the boldness and imagination and hunger necessary to be great. My attitude to her has evolved from dismissive to doubting to impressed to admiring to the closest thing to adulation I’ve ever felt for any politician, before starting to slip back down that scale again over the last few years. There are things about her that I admire. Her command of her brief, for example. There are things that impress me. Like her communication skills. But I’m now in the doubting phase heading back to dismissive. I’ve come to regard Nicola Sturgeon not as the great politician who would do great things that I once thought her, but more as a placeholder. Someone who is holding the fort and keeping the pot boiling and keeping the seat warm and whatever other cliché we might come up with to refer to a placeholder.
There can be no doubt that she is doing the job of placeholder rather well. Hopefully without being too impertinent to fate, her victory in the coming election is all but assured. It is a fait accompli. She has perhaps temporarily but certainly sufficiently shrugged off recent troubles to be able to carry the day against a field a lost less lacklustre than the one she faces. She has lost the trust of a sizeable part of Scotland’s independence movement and probably a significant part of the SNP membership. But even that is not enough to put anything like a damaging dent in her popularity. Disenchanted as I am with her and her party, I’m obliged to be glad of this. The SNP may be defective. But it remains the political arm of the independence movement. The only credible source of effective political power available to us. Even if that credibility has worn a bit thin over the past seven yours.
I must now accept that there will be no commitment to the Manifesto for Independence by the SNP. I’ll just add it to the list of opportunities missed under Nicola Sturgeon’s idiosyncratic brand of leadership. The election campaign holds no interest for me. I am more focused now on what must be done afterwards to wrest both party and movement away from the stultifying effect of Nicola Sturgeon’s presence. The party needs to be repaired and remade as a modernised version of what it once was. The Yes movement must be re-engaged and reinvigorated. The task is daunting. But the jeopardy facing Scotland is great. The fight to restore Scotland’s independence must continue. Resistance to encroaching British Nationalism must be stepped up several gears. Scotland’s cause must not be allowed to wither.
The outcome of May’s election is enough of a foregone conclusion as to be a matter of no great concern to me. It’s unlikely to be the outcome so many are hoping for. It definitely won’t be the outcome I’d hoped for. But it hardly matters, as Nicola Sturgeon evidently is not the person to use that outcome. That would take a great politician. Nicola Sturgeon is not that great politician. But she’ll do until the great politician gets here.