The National’s headline over its report of some positive press for Nicola Sturgeon in an American newspaper (Washington Post hails Nicola Sturgeon making a role for herself at COP26) seems designed to prompt shrill allegations of a ‘personality cult’ from the dunces’ corner of the Yes movement and mindless British Nationalist fanatics alike. So let’s knock that on the head right away. While the behaviour of Sturgeon/SNP loyalists at times bears comparison with the kind of mindless devotion associated with the cult of personality, it does not qualify as such… quite. While the devotion to an unquestionably charismatic leader is exaggerated, it is not sufficiently so to warrant being labelled a personality cult. The Sturgeon/SNP loyalists’ adoration of their leader exhibits some of the characteristics of a personality cult to some extent. But important characteristics are absent.
The hype around Nicola Sturgeon lacks the control and purpose of a true cult of the leader. She is not deemed infallible other than perhaps by a very small number of particularly weak-minded individuals. There is not the centralised management of media that is typical of a true personality cult. There’s not the constant and tightly managed spectacle or ubiquitousness that is found with a real leadership cult. Sturgeon’s portrait isn’t plastered over every surface that can take an image. She’s not celebrated as a significant figure in every field of human endeavour – art, science, sport etc. She is not idealised to anything like the extent that the subject of a true personality cult would be.
Most importantly, she is not used as a device of state control. There is no government urging this and that in the name of the ‘great leader’. Whatever manipulation of perception is happening it is on a far smaller scale than would be required for a cult of personality to exist. There is no regime using propaganda and social engineering to create and maintain a central figure from whom all rightful political authority derives. If there’s a cult of personality around Nicola Sturgeon its a very Scottish one. Half-arsed and barely half serious. As a nation we tend to be more inclined to knock people off pedestals than to raise them up. Unconditional devotion just isn’t something we do. To be a hero in Scotland you have to be either a brilliant footballer or a lang deid fechter. Only one of which is other than very temporary.
There is no doubt that Nicola Sturgeon is very popular and very widely admired. Deservedly so, in many respects. She has the air of a stateswoman. Her communication and interpersonal skills are honed to near-perfection. She looks good even when she’s not standing next to Boris Johnson. She is bloody good at what she does. COP26 was her kind of gig. It was an opportunity to take the skills which won her praise in relation to her handling of the crucially important communication aspects of Scotland’s pandemic response and use them to make a positive impression on the global stage. Which she did with apparently consummate ease and despite the efforts of the British state to side-line her. It was a great performance.
None of which translates into good news for Scotland’s cause. Charlie Wilson, who in 1953 was President of General Motors in America, is reputed to have said that what was good for his company was good for the nation. In similar vein, some of Ms Sturgeon’s more ardent admirers are wont to assume that what it good for her is good for Scotland’s cause. There is a tendency to suppose that her personal popularity is linked to support for restoring Scotland’s independence. When her ratings go up, the polls tip sharply to Yes. Superficially, this would seem to imply just the kind of mechanistic linkage her fans imagine. But this is illusion. The linkage is an artefact.
We saw this clearly last year when the Yes movement was celebrating a series of polls showing Yes on the sunny side of fifty per cent. Nobody wanted to hear that this was a temporary blip occasioned by general admiration for the way Nicola Sturgeon was then handling Scotland’s response to Covid-19. They certainly didn’t want to hear that the poll lead for Yes would evaporate as soon as that admiration waned and/or people lost interest. Which is precisely what happened. When the post-COP26 polls start to appear we can expect the same rigmarole. Sturgeon’s personal rating will rise and so will support for Yes. The hopeful assumption will be made by all too many that this boost for Scotland’s cause is permanent. They will be proved wrong.
Were there a true cult of personality around Nicola Sturgeon we might reasonably expect that the boost to her image would bring a similar boost the the independence cause that was permanent. Or at least a boost that would last as long as the cult of personality was maintained. The reality is that as COP26 slips from the front pages and lead items of the media any increase in support for independence associated with Nicola Sturgeon’s performance there will slip right along with them. Without the coordinated activities of a leadership cult to buoy them up, the poll figures will sink back to somewhere near their previous level.
This highlights a serious problem for Scotland’s cause. For seven years Nicola Sturgeon has relied almost entirely on unrelated or only tangentially related factors to provide impetus for the independence campaign. She has been content to sit back and let the cause be driven by the combination of her own popularity and Boris Johnson’s unpopularity. That may be putting it crudely. Nonetheless, it’s a fair representation of what has been happening. Yes activists have been assured that admiration for Sturgeon – at home and abroad – and general satisfaction with the performance of the Scottish Government (I said general! Not universal!) combined with the antics of Boris Johnson and the British government’s treatment of Scotland, were all helping pull or push people towards the independence option. Her supporters (and her apologists) make much of any favourable swing in the polls – however temporary – as well as the kind of positive overseas media coverage reported by The National claiming this as ‘evidence’ that the ‘strategy’ is working. The fact remains, however, that there has been no sustained improvement in Yes polling since Nicola Sturgeon took over from Alex Salmond in early 2015. Nearly seven years since then and more than seven years since the first independence referendum the most recent polls are no different from those in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 vote or Sturgeon’s elevation.
The ‘strategy’ has been a clanging, clattering failure. Yet still we see Sturgeon and the SNP pursuing the same strategy. Still we see Nicola Sturgeon seeking praise and plaudits from the international community which, while excellent in themselves, simply do not adhere to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. They do not translate to sustained support for Yes.
We won’t achieve that sustained support for the restoration of Scotland’s independence unless and until we are prepared to address the constitutional issue directly, specifically and emphatically. Under Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘leadership’ the constitutional issue has become something in parentheses beside some other matter. Not quite an afterthought. But certainly an add-on. Something tacked onto a policy or action prefaced by ‘and incidentally’. There has been a paralysing reluctance to go in hard and heavy on the dire constitutional implications of the Union. The preference has been to take the less confrontational approach of allowing the British political elite to demonstrate how badly Scotland fares under British rule.
Making people feel good about Scotland is all well and good. Nicola Sturgeon is brilliant in that regard. Explaining the potential of independence is fine. There are countless individuals, groups and organisations which have been doing just that the whole while the polls have remained static. People already have Scotland. Making them feel good about what they have is not the way to persuade them to change. Even if you can make that vision of a future independent Scotland something folk are drawn to, the people whose votes we need are not going to move towards Yes without being given a reason to move away from the Union.
The votes we need won’t come from people who swell with pride when they see Nicola Sturgeon photographed with Joe Biden. Or those who get a rosy glow when the see that Washington Post headline. We’ve already got those votes. The votes we need will come from people who are brought to a realisation of just how bad the Union is for Scotland. They have to be made aware. They have to be made angry. Then they will act.
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