Collapse has arrived for Scotland’s once dominant power clique. But the most high-profile political scandal of the devolution era is a test for many institutions, and media narratives a struggling to keep up, argues David Jamieson.
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Watching Police Scotland’s search of the home of Peter Murrell and Nicola Sturgeon with Covid-19 made some strange viewing. In news reports of what looked like a scoop by The Digger, I couldn’t be sure how much was real, how much the fever. Police Scotland established a forensics tent at the front door, and bandied shovels around a garden turf which, in happier times, had been the field of dreams for a family of magpies.
The raid, simultaneous to a rummage of the party’s Edinburgh HQ, opened a feeding frenzy around Scotland’s erstwhile ruling clique. The blood is in the water, and every newsroom in the country is desperate for their own exclusives. The SNP leadership have benefited from the attrition of Scotland’s media capacity in recent years – they could now fall victim to it. Many in Scotland’s fourth estate are embarrassed by the scale and pace of events and their failure to anticipate them. Until now, the SNP’s financial affairs had widely been considered crank fodder.
Papers and broadcasters aren’t the only institutions feeling the heat. As dozens of Police Scotland officers were sent around the country, they brought with them the attention of first national and then global press and political elites. The last week has been the most significant in the history of the force. For years, questions have been raised about the relationships between Holyrood and Scottish justice. There is little room for cock-up here, and that will have focussed minds at the top of the organisation.
As the scandal radiates outward from what was, until weeks ago, the atomic centre of Scottish public life, interests large and small are being disturbed. Every NGO and business lobby in the country will be arranging quiet chats with Anas Sarwar (and, honchos, if you are listening and you aren’t doing this, don’t let your rivals get there first).
Scotland’s new First Minister has already had enough. Weeks ago he wanted to keep Murrell as party CEO, and he lavished praise on Sturgeon as he took her old seat on the front bench. Today, the erstwhile disciple denies he ever knew her, thrice before the magpie squawks. He not only criticises the party’s internal regime under his predecessor, but even complains of the marriage between Sturgeon and Murrell, 13 years after it took place.
He’s got plenty of reasons to feel aggrieved. Allow me to quote his predicament from a recent article by my Conter colleagues Pete Ramand and James Foley: “Sturgeon has bequeathed to Yousaf a party wracked by upheaval: a precipitous decline in membership, financial problems, police investigations, ideological divisions, and a proposed pathway to Scottish independence that is now taken seriously by nobody.”
By the weekend, SNP party President and CEO Mike Russell – one of the last of the party’s veteran leaders – was crying uncle. In an astonishing interview, he called-off the second independence referendum he and party leaders had been pledging at yearly intervals since 2016. He acknowledged that the crisis was the worst his party had faced in half a century. Most humiliating of all, he held out an olive branch to adversaries like the Common Weal think tank and even the Alba party – the nationalist breakaway led by the hated king across the water, Alex Salmond.
Events are moving fast in Scotland, and it usually takes a few days for all the implications to catch up with the deeds. When that analysis does come, it’ll have to overcome a serious problem. To explain it, let me rewind to a few days before Murrell’s arrest to an exchange of columns between Owen Jones and Iain Macwhirter.
An avid defender of the Union in 2014, Jones was born again to the SNP, right around the time the sting went out its tail. In the wake of Yousaf’s SNP leadership victory, he was among the most emphatic supporters. Venturing north to the pages of the National, he proclaimed victory, on world-historic scale, against “social reactionaries across the Western world” with the defeat of Kate Forbes, Scotland’s finance minister until a couple of weeks ago.
Macwhirter, the nationalist-adjacent scribe banished to the Spectator after going off-message in ‘progressive Scotland’, hit back. Yousaf isn’t just a socialist, he claimed. He’s a kind of Khmer Rouge Year Zero nihilist, who will not only liquidate the capitalist class, but abolish even the practice of commodity exchange. He will “have no truck with capitalists”, and in fact “business has been cancelled” already in Scotland. Thousands of years of markets and barter ended when Yousaf entered Bute House and none of us even noticed.
True, the already existing split in SNP ranks between its pale centre right and its downright etiolated centre left has suddenly gained more definition. Forbes and co have formed a backbench faction, according to some in the press, and Yousaf has packed his cabinet with the prevailing Sturgeon-redux blob. But on all the very biggest questions of the day – war and peace, poverty and wealth, freedom and discipline – they are all but indistinguishable.
This is also true of Macwhirter and Jones. They are both men of the centre left, who present broadly social liberal attitudes. But in the public court, the distinction between two left-liberalisms has been inflated into a Gotterdammerung struggle of good and evil at the twilight of civilisation. Why is the reaction so hysterical?
Not only is Scottish politics in meltdown, but those charged with analysing the collapse are caught in the general confusion. The problem begins with the ideological pre-occupations of the liberal consensus itself – it is incapable of interpreting conflicts in society as the result of divergent class interests. The silly back and forth, which increasingly occupies Scottish opinion writers, about ‘net zero’ and ‘degrowth’ is case in point: the arguments rage ceaselessly about ‘wellbeing economies’ and all manner of pointless slogans, while in the real world there is no economic growth, and a wage recession for the majority – because actually existing capitalism can’t stump up the goods. Incapable of seeing the reality of capitalism past the chattering class obsession with first principles, the columnists believe ‘saving the earth’ and ‘saving capitalism’ depend on their war of words.
This is compounded by the narcissism of small differences, elevated by liberal hegemony to a decisive force. Macwhirter, Jones and Green MSP Ross Greer – out peddling his usual ‘anti-capitalist’ bromides as things deteriorate in his government – are all, in the end, quite reconciled to the conditions of the present. This reconciliation necessarily takes the form of flaming-hot radicalism with no substance – a barrage of hyperbole about phantom communist and fascist threats, concealing factional warfare between liberal elites unwilling to, or incapable of, challenging the power of capital.
We face a situation where political collapse at the top of Scottish society is accompanied by a mirror collapse in reasoning among professional interpreters. Since politician and scribe alike share a fundamental worldview, and indeed the same social scene, this is hardly a surprise.
So stick with Conter in the coming period of trial. And support us, if you value the analysis we produce and which – I’m bound to say – has proven more valuable in this period than much else that is on offer. The certainties of the last eight and half years have suddenly vanished, and in many ways, Scotland is only joining the general condition of malaise in European and world politics. Brace for it and keep your wits.