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  1. Politics
  2. Scotland
2 January 2024

The problem with Nicola Sturgeon wasn’t a “cult of personality”

Policy did trump personality under the former Scottish first minister – but the wrong kind.

By Chris Deerin

The “cult of personality” that forms around successful leaders is often criticised. And it makes for an easy target, especially once they’re gone. Mhairi Black, the firebrand SNP deputy leader, is the latest to take aim, saying today (2 January) that the focus on Nicola Sturgeon during the former first minister’s leadership left her “uncomfortable”.

Black told Times Radio that Sturgeon’s departure from office was “quite healthy because I’m a big believer in politics should be about policy as opposed to personality”. There should have been greater focus on the wider independence movement, she added. “There’s a balance to be struck and I’m not convinced that we always got the balance right.”

There are a few things to be said about this. Black said she cares more about policy than personality, and then insisted the wider independence movement was neglected. Policy, for most Scots, is the stuff that underwrites their daily lives – the schools and hospitals they use, the economy they work in. The independence movement, and the level of attention it gets from the government, comes very low down the list of priorities.

It’s also unfair to criticise Sturgeon for a lack of focus on policy – and indeed on independence. There were any number of policy-based programmes, schemes and wheezes launched under her leadership, from new devolved government institutions to anti-poverty funding to bottle-return schemes and gender law reform. And Sturgeon – like Black, like the SNP as a whole – rarely shut up about securing independence.

The problem, as Humza Yousaf is finding, is that being busy for busy’s sake isn’t the same thing as governing well. Indeed, the final period of Sturgeon’s reign was so frenzied that Yousaf has spent much of his time in office so far addressing the scattergun policies of his predecessor.

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The problem wasn’t lack of policy, it was that Sturgeon focused on the wrong areas, and did that badly.

Further, so intent was Sturgeon on advancing the cause of independence that this became close to all her government was known for. The past few years saw the SNP obsess over the cause, the movement, the lack of progress and the methods that might bring their goal closer. Perhaps this was one of the reasons for all those policy failures. It is certainly one of the reasons that the Scottish electorate, amid a series of crises, from the cost of living to the NHS to underperforming schools, has begun to feel the SNP is out of touch and overly self-interested. Black shows a lack of self-awareness that is all too common among her colleagues.

I’d also take issue with the “cult of leadership” criticism. In this hyper-frenetic social media age, it is practically impossible for any popular leader to avoid becoming some kind of cult. Jeremy Corbyn, once one of the socialist Black’s political favourites, was the ultimate cult of recent times.

When the cause suits you, it helps to have a front-person who embodies it. This is what Margaret Thatcher did, and Tony Blair, and Alex Salmond before Sturgeon. This “cult”, based on charisma, clear direction and authority, was one of the reasons each achieved what they did.

It’s always nice to talk about the restoration of “proper” cabinet government, and ministers having responsibility and accountability, but this is increasingly a distant dream. Our modern world simply will not allow it. And anyway, it’s helpful for democracy to produce strong leaders who burn brightly for a period, get things done, and then go. It is not the same thing as a dictatorship.

In a sense, Black is getting her wish. There is anything but a cult of personality around Yousaf. Neither his character and abilities nor the political circumstances allow for it. He has a cabinet that roughly matches his own qualities, such as they are. The SNP, having soared so high under Salmond and Sturgeon, is now locked into what seems to be terminal decline. Maybe what the party needs is a strong, effective leader?

[See also: How will Rishi Sunak solve his general election dilemma?]

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