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16 February 2023

Steady as she goes

The lesson from Nicola Sturgeon's time in power is that Scotland is a powerless nation.

By Rory Scothorne

Nation-building ought to be a slow process, expanding gently from a solid core, carefully absorbing any pockets of scepticism through compromise and respect, without ever losing its central, mobilising energy. Nicola Sturgeon was part of that solid core for decades: a member of the SNP‘s “gradualist” faction who were committed, for reasons of both practicality and principle, to a long and inclusive march to Scottish independence through the institutions of the British state. Until now, that strategy has worked so well that one of those British institutions – the Scottish Parliament, which is no less British than the Bank of England – is now in the hands of that nationalist core.

But slow and steady only gets you so far. The problem is, as always, the other team. If gradualism reflects the remarkable politeness of the SNP’s nationalism, it is with the politeness of people who are being tolerated as guests in someone else’s house. In pursuing a peaceful, consensual road to independence, Scottish nationalism’s modern leaders have simply followed the etiquette of their Westminster hosts, who pioneered the gradualist strategy. Scotland was absorbed peacefully into an earlier empire-building project, offered a treaty, a large sum of money and a host of autonomous institutions in exchange for its dissolution into the Kingdom of Great Britain. This absorption was gradualist and consensual, at least by 18th-century standards; it would make sense that its departure should be the same.

But gradualism’s promise – that at the end of the day, we’ll all get along fine – has always sounded too romantic to be true. There was something darker – spookier, even – to the arrangement. As a reward for committing state seppuku in 1707, the new empire’s junior partner received a kind of spectral nationhood, permitted to rattle the chains of identity without consequence, for eternity. Devolution in the 1990s was not resurrection – nor was it supposed to be. But by the end of the 20th century, the ghost was wailing so loud that it gave Tony Blair and Gordon Brown sleepless nights, so they built it a new, modern dungeon complex on the edge of the estate, and called it the Scottish Parliament.

But out there, on the dark boundary of the British constitution, something stirred. The limit of the imperial imagination is classically represented by the forest, that hadal realm of witches and devils who come at night to poison your animals, steal your children and raise the dead from their happy sleep. As night fell on Broken Britain – a crumbling Jerusalem of ASBOs, expenses scandals and ongoing imperial misadventures – something awful came shuffling out of that evil treeline, disguised as something lovely and new, reaching out its gnarled fingers to turn the weans against us. The name of this shambling, grotesque thing was Nicola Sturgeon, and she had to be destroyed.

Witches are not real. Last year, Sturgeon herself issued a formal apology to the thousands of people who were persecuted for witchcraft in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries. Her government did this sort of thing all the time, displaying Scotland’s cultural sensitivities to itself and the world; acknowledging the enduring significance of historic oppression, displaying its awareness of how liberal, progressive politics should be done, even if words were rarely matched by action. This made Sturgeon appear extraordinary, especially during an age where politicians have been eager to perform their disapproval of the latest left-wing fad on behalf of the so-called “left-behind”. Like few other leaders across the world, Sturgeon signalled to a vocal new stratum of young, online people that their opinions deserved respect and recognition, and in doing so she helped to legitimise Scotland’s political system amongst those generations which, in other countries, are giving up on mainstream politics altogether.

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[See also: What is behind Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation?]

It is remarkable that Sturgeon has received so little credit for this among the chief beneficiaries of that political system: Scotland’s other leading politicians, as well as its journalists, commentators and academics, many of whom have spent the last few years throwing their weight – deliberately or not – behind the campaign of deliberate polarisation which eventually brought her down. Sturgeon was initially beloved by most of the professional class, for she sought to build consensus through the civic institutions they controlled – NGOs, universities, the media and so on – rather than going over their heads as Alex Salmond occasionally did. But as those institutions themselves were contested by a new wave of activists and ideas, as well as simply stretched to breaking point by years of austerity and marketisation, a determined minority of Scotland’s hitherto progressive expert caste made their last, desperate leap into the arms of their old enemy. After years of trying to reverse Gender Recognition Reform through Scotland’s indigenous networks of influence and pressure, it was eventually the Conservative Party and the British state that came to the rescue, charging into devolved politics armed with Section 35 of the Scotland Act and a battery of concerned editorials in London-based publications from all sides of the political spectrum.

In her resignation statement, Sturgeon professed the hope that in leaving office, the polarisation around her – which concerns many things beyond gender recognition – will subside, and allow the normal business of government to resume again. Yet it’s worth wondering whether anybody in Scotland actually wants the normal business of government to happen at all. Polarisation around Sturgeon did appear to spiral beyond anything resembling sanity. For many of her supporters, her every smirk and selfie became a totem of their own identity and independence, even if those smirks were in service of the latest climbdown on industrial strategy or educational inequality. But her ability to embody a certain upwardly-mobile self-assurance had a genuinely broad appeal. The opposition was far weirder. She became many things: a corrupt tyrant, centralising power and pursuing a conspiracy against independence; a dangerous fundamentalist, whipping up hatred against the Tories and the English; or a neoliberal stooge, gleefully selling off Scotland’s assets after shady backroom deals. These pressures, and the sheer viciousness that this paranoia had begun to take, surely contributed to her resignation.

But she was not any of these things. She couldn’t be. The lesson from Sturgeon’s tenure in power is that Scotland simply does not have the capacity to do anything particularly drastic, for good or ill. When devolution gathered support in the 1980s, it was supposed to reverse unemployment and deindustrialisation. By the time the Scottish Parliament arrived it was too late, and Holyrood had to focus instead on managing the fallout through the welfare state. But after over a decade of relentless cuts driven by Westminster, anything less than a crisis in public services would be truly supernatural. Every possible solution to Scotland’s problems requires significantly more money than Scotland has to spend. Sturgeon’s Government has implemented one of highest top rates of tax in Europe, but this barely even plugs the gap. There is little evidence that an independent Scotland would have greater financial resources at its disposal – hence Sturgeon’s increasingly desperate oscillation between caution and boldness over independence strategy. The great what-if of Sturgeon’s tenure is nothing to do with her own decisions, or anything that could have happened in Scotland: it concerns how she might have ruled alongside a Labour Government at Westminster that actually invested some money in the country.

But waiting for Labour is boring, and melodrama thrives on boredom. For all that she appeared to so many people as an agent of change, Sturgeon confirmed that Scottish politics, like the rocks around the parliament, moves in deep time. For centuries, we have preferred grandiose stories about ourselves, whether they be horror or romance, to the reality of understated smallness. Those stories have simply shifted from the pages of Walter Scott novels to those of respected newspapers and magazines. But having rejected British politics – until, at least, Labour rebuilds itself here – we have no other option but to continue being understated and small, and trying to make some kind of peace with that. It is better, in many ways, to the British alternative. It certainly kills fewer people overseas.

Yet there is a horror in smallness, too. On the banks of Loch Ness there is an 18th-century hunting lodge called Boleskine House. There, between 1899 and 1913, the occultist Aleister Crowley attempted to summon the Kings and Dukes of Hell in a ritual known as the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. His work was interrupted, and strange incidents have plagued the house ever since. In 2020, a young couple renovating the house were exposed by the media after addressing a meeting of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis cult, where they promised to restore the house to its former glory as a kind of Mecca for magic. This short-lived “Satanic panic” attracted little interest in Scotland, except for the attention of one Kate Forbes, the local MSP who is also Scotland’s finance secretary and a member of the fundamentalist Free Church of Scotland. The developments at Boleskine, Forbes claimed, were “deeply disturbing”. Her constituents “deserve the truth about what is planned to take place within this building”, she added.

Forbes is now tipped to replace Sturgeon as party leader. On both economics and social issues, she is considerably to the right of her party, but may yet persevere with sufficient media support in a divided field of candidates. She is well-suited, in fact, to Scotland’s true self: here, at last, is someone who really believes in angels and demons, ready to govern a country which has never been particularly at home in the real world. I want to believe, like Sturgeon, that with her resignation some kind of sober realism might return. But I am Scottish, and therefore pessimistic, and I can’t stop thinking of a line from an old play: something wicked this way comes.

Read more:
What will Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy be?
Why Nicola Sturgeon was destined for failure
What is behind Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation?

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