How Professionals Became a Fandom for Nicola Sturgeon

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Nicola Sturgeon has dominated Scottish politics for the best part of a tumultuous decade. At times she appeared invincible as she shrugged-off crises and failures that would fell any top-flight politician.

Her immanent departure represents a serious challenge to political stability in Scotland. Can any of her successors replicate the ‘para-social’ bond she developed with professional layers in Scottish society? In this extract from their new book ‘Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence’, James Foley and Ben Wray argue Sturgeon’s stability resulted from the legacy of 2014 and the failure of scrutiny among a civic elite who view her as a peer.

Beyond the fact of being a woman and not being Alex Salmond or Boris Johnson, Sturgeon, by surface appearances, has accomplished little to explain the easy ride she gets from ‘progressives’, including the Greens, who not only entered a formal pact with the SNP following the Scottish elections in 2021 but also offer Sturgeon cover even where there is no formal requirement to do so.

Part of the answer to this puzzle lies in the tendency to attach culture-war categories to the interpersonal battles of career politicians. Defending Sturgeon against Salmond – even though the latter poses almost zero electoral threat – thus acts as a proxy for a wider battle between liberalism and ‘social conservatism’. Much of activist and professional-managerial Scotland has developed a ‘parasocial’ bond with Sturgeon, seeing her ‘struggles’ as their own, and wishing to defend her from being ‘victimised’ by criticism. This illustrates a much wider transformation in the public’s role in political representation: far from holding politicians to account, the politically invested minority treat certain politicians (regarded as different from run-of-the-mill careerists) as friends requiring moral support. Similar fandoms emerged around Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left, and Boris Johnson and Donald Trump on the right.

These personalised, emotionally charged investments are usually impervious to facts; the true political record will always paint a more nuanced picture. As a career politician whose legitimacy emerged under the umbrella of Salmond’s rise to power, Sturgeon has a chequered history that defies easy categorisation as ‘woke’. For instance, despite her conceit of being a champion of LGBTQI+ rights – and for all the socially conservative critiques of Sturgeon as a queer theory fanatic – her public stance on the central battle against Scotland’s traditionally homophobic culture, the repeal of Section 28, was decidedly ambivalent. ‘We believe that the value of marriage should be clearly referred to in the guidelines, without denigrating other relationships or children brought up in other kinds of relationship’, she said. Since making this remark in 2000, Sturgeon has followed other centrist politicians who have mirrored liberalising shifts in public attitudes (gay marriage, for instance, was introduced under David Cameron). Thus, while Sturgeon has taken progressive stances, she has rarely taken the sort of brave stance that carries political costs. Instead, her progressive postures reflect shifts in prevailing attitudes, of which Sturgeon (contrary to what supporters and critics imagine) is more of a follower than a leader.

Indeed, matters are even more subtle than this would suggest. Sturgeon’s side has often been rather ambiguous about identity causes in practice, making use of them when convenient and non-costly, only to drop them when they become burdens. Alyn Smith MP, one of Sturgeon’s key allies, tried to throw equalities groups off the SNP’s National Executive Committee, claiming that their influence was disrupting party management. ‘Broadening the NEC to bring in a wider range of voices, while a laudable aim, has to my mind diluted discussion of the interests of the whole of Scotland and building the case for independence’, he asserted in a leaked internal email. ‘We are the Scottish National Party – we must reflect and work upon the priorities of the people of Scotland, not our own projects.’ Smith went on to suggest that the SNP risked being portrayed rather like Labour’s ‘loony left’. Equally, while Sturgeon did sign up for gender-recognition reform, the assumption was that it would pass quietly, with little resistance other than from religious zealots. Faced with an unexpectedly diverse coalition of opponents, she performed the established Scottish government manoeuvre of locking thorny issues into a scrimmage of consultations – or, even more conveniently, postponing them until after an imminent election. Sturgeon is in general more conservative than her cheerleaders would suggest, while Salmond, reflecting the times, is more liberal than his critics would allow – even if his personal behaviour has been inexcusable.

The differences between Salmond and Sturgeon are comically exaggerated. They are interrelated actors in a broadly liberal cultural and economic hegemony – a drama whose players have all worked in tandem for decades.

Culture-war attitudes are often overdetermined by considerations of foreign policy. On this topic, there is a more marked contrast between what Kenny MacAskill calls ‘Old SNP’ and ‘New SNP’ – a contrast that has served (among a minority) to preserve Salmond’s leftist image. Certainly, compared to Sturgeon, Salmond led as a cavalier outsider, and was more pronounced in taking anti-imperialist (or at least anti-American) stances. Out of office, this division has reached the point of caricature, with Salmond presenting a show on the Kremlin-sponsored Russia Today channel. Meanwhile, figures close to Sturgeon have embraced New Cold War rhetoric. These Atlanticist efforts have been led by Angus Robertson, [then] a rumoured leadership successor, and Stewart McDonald MP, who, while claiming to be a Palestine activist, has sponsored a pro-Israel front group and spoken in glowing terms of the ‘inspiration for Scotland [Winnie Ewing] saw in Israel [when] meeting then Prime Minister Menachem Begin and travelling to see tourist sites in his limousine’ – an anecdote that would be darkly humorous if recounted with any hint of irony. Sturgeon herself has used her Twitter platform to praise hawkish American politicians ranging, from Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright to Henry Kissinger and John McCain.

But even here, such shifts are more nuanced than Salmond’s supporters would allow. A section of Sturgeon’s younger cadres evidently has an uncritical attachment to the idea of Nato and American foreign policy as shields of liberal civilisation against Russia. Some of them doubtless share the cringe-worthy aesthetic sensibility of young politicos worldwide, who tend to inhabit a psychic world formed out of cliches from President Bartlet and the fast-talking gossip of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. That said, the New SNP has made little concrete progress in moving the party’s foreign policy to the right, and the first move to embrace Nato – a nuclear-armed anti-Russian alliance – emerged under Salmond’s leadership. Since then, the SNP has conducted an internal cold war over foreign policy, but differences have rarely emerged in public. Formally, the SNP remains committed to unilateral disarmament. There are legitimate doubts about how that squares with seeking Nato membership – but these anxieties are an inheritance from the Salmond era.

With that in mind, the differences between Salmond and Sturgeon are comically exaggerated. They are interrelated actors in a broadly liberal cultural and economic hegemony – a drama whose players have all worked in tandem for decades. Murrell began his political career working in Salmond’s office; Sturgeon spent many years as Salmond’s deputy, and was happy to describe him as her ‘mentor’. Famously, when Salmond returned from exile, they struck an agreement rather like the infamous Blair–Brown pact, whereby Sturgeon would be chosen as the anointed successor. At that stage, any disagreements between the two of them were hidden from public view.

Eventually, Salmond’s combination of anti-establishment posturing, saturnine charisma and unprofessional conduct made him a barrier to ‘modernising’ the party’s image – particularly when he refused to leave the stage conclusively after the referendum defeat and the loss of his parliamentary seat. This was superficially a question of style. But it arguably bears on a more important articulation of class politics in liberal-centrist coalitions. Salmond’s appeal was to outsiders who were sceptical of politics, to whom he promised a shake-up, a break with conformity. He deliberately went after both the boardrooms and Labour-voting, perhaps socially conservative layers of the peripheral working-class – two groups that are suspicious of official power – while being openly confrontational towards governing cliques and the professional-managerial class. By contrast, Sturgeon has built her hegemony on insiders, and on orchestrating patronage networks: the same centrist message, but organised on a different class basis. On the other hand, this group is too small to constitute a true political base, and Sturgeon continues to borrow credibility from the disruptions of 2014.

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