On 8 March I published an article titled Don’t be a cult. It was a response to George Kerevan’s column in The National (George Kerevan: Yes movement must take stock or risk throwing away independence) in which he offered a 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. First on that list was a warning that a cult of personality had grown around Nicola Sturgeon. Having now joined Alex Salmond in Alba Party Mr Kerevan may want to revisit his warning against adulation of an individual which precludes rational assessment of that individual’s character and performance.
Meanwhile, it might be useful to revisit my own comments in response to George Kerevan’s observation that Nicola Sturgeon now appeared to be at the centre of a cult of personality. I apologise for the lengthy quote. But I think it helps make a point.
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.
Things have moved on somewhat since I wrote that. The comments regarding the effects and dangers of a personality cult still stand. They are generally relevant. But if it hardly mattered a month ago if there was a cult of personality around Alex Salmond this is not quite so true now that he is back in frontline politics leading a party which is standing candidates in the Scottish Parliament election. It now matters considerably more that people should look at Salmond and his Alba Party with eyes undimmed by hero-worship.
I fear that is not happening. As people flock to Alba Party almost entirely on the basis of the party being led by Salmond, there is little sign that any questions are being asked about what the party stands for or where its leader intends to take it or what it proposes to do supposing any Alba Party candidates win seats in the Scottish Parliament. Spectacular claims are being made for the party by its supporters. The least of these is that it will break the logjam which has kept the independence cause at a standstill for an unconscionably long time. At the other end of the scale Alba Party/Alex Salmond will rout the Unionists and ensure that Scotland’s independence is restored in short order. But none of those flocking to Alex Salmond’s banner seem to be asking how he will live up to expectations which fly a great deal higher than that banner does.
I have questions. I always have questions. I listen to what politicians say. I look closely at what politicians propose and promise. I try to ask the awkward questions. The questions those politicians would rather weren’t asked. I’ve made myself very unpopular with the Sturgeon cult by asking questions about her approach to the constitutional issue. It seems I’m now becoming just as unpopular with the Salmond cult. And for the very same reasons.
If you doubt the reality of the Salmond cult I suggest you glance through a few articles such as this one on Iain Lawson’s site. Iain is someone whose opinion I respect. Which makes it all the more distressing that he looks to have abandoned the critical faculties which made his views interesting and illuminating. I challenge anybody to find anything analytical or informative in such articles. They elevate Alex Salmond on the basis of admiration verging on adoration alone. They neither tell us anything about his approach to the constitutional issue nor any detail of what his party stands for. Worst of all, they make no attempt to examine with due rigour the claims that are being made for the effect and effectiveness of Alex Salmond or Alba Party.
In yesterday’s article I sought to examine with due rigour comments made by Alex Salmond at a media briefing which offer an insight to his thinking on the constitutional issue and how the process of restoring Scotland’s independence should be pursued. I found this glimpse of his approach to the constitutional issue both disappointing and distressing. If Salmond’s remarks are true reflection of his views and the approach to the constitution issue that will inform Alba Party policy then the much-trumpeted alternative to the SNP is no alternative at all. There is little or nothing to distinguish Salmond’s position from Sturgeon’s. Both give the same regard to the alien concept of parliamentary sovereignty which underpins the Union and makes Scotland subordinate to England-as-Britain in this supposed partnership of equals. Both accept the supremacy of Westminster and the necessity of involving the British state in the process of exercising Scotland’s right of self-determination. Both exhibit the same readiness to compromise the sovereignty of Scotland’s people for the dubious reward of even more dubious assurances of cooperation from the British political elite.
You would think this worthy of consideration by those pledging fealty to Alex Salmond. Even if my analysis of Salmond’s comments is wide of the mark you’d suppose his supporters would want to rebut that analysis. You’d imagine they’d be at pains to point out any significant differences between Salmond’s approach to the constitutional issue and the one we’ve grown all too familiar with from Nicola Sturgeon. But you’d be wrong. There has been none of that. For the most part, those who venerate Salmond decline to even acknowledge his remarks or what those remarks imply.
There is no evident difference between the two personality cults. in both cases the rightness or wrongness of the positions ceases to be the issue. Rigorous scrutiny of the choices being made is eschewed when the only thing that matters is the identity of the individual making those choices. No questions are asked. No clarifications are sought. One cult says leave it to Nicola while the other says leave it to Alex. Both respond to critical examination of their idols with condescension or vitriol or both. Each camp has its own brigade of censorious wheeshters This is not healthy.
One personality cult is bad enough. Two is infinitely worse. Add British Nationalists’ cult-like devotion to the Union into the mix and you have a recipe for for very distasteful politics. A tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. Alex Salmond’s admirers seem as oblivious to the tragedy as do Nicola Sturgeon’s.