Operation Branchform has yet to come to any conclusions. Yet its operations have already cast modern Scotland in a very different light. The myth of enlightened rule in devolution era Scotland is fading, argues David Jamieson.
The arrest of Nicola Sturgeon should end dispute over a few once contentious issues. Here’s one to start with: the police investigation into SNP finances is the real context to Sturgeon’s resignation. You’d require extreme credulity to not understand this by now. It was apparent on the very day of her resignation, as she dodged questions on the matter at the podium.
Still, extreme credulity is what much of the commentariat offered. I can’t help but quote a couple of examples. This is from Owen Jones at the time of Sturgeon’s resignation:
“Nicola Sturgeon isn’t just the most impressive female politician in a generation – she’s the most formidable politician we’ve got. A class act who enjoyed popular support which most leaders who’ve served that long could only dream of.
“History will be kind to her.”
Not that kind, so far. And here’s Paul Hutcheon: “I have a feeling Nicola Sturgeon’s post-government afterlife will be a lot more dignified than her predecessor’s.”
I suppose that one is more open to interpretation – but they still, Salmond and Sturgeon both, were arrested, a point to which I will return shortly. What’s striking here is that both leading journalists made a judgement – not about Sturgeon’s record – but about what they imagined her character to be. Not her public persona, not the Nicola Sturgeon you and I and they all ‘know’, but her true, inner self. What magic we weave in this country, where para-social relations with leading politicians bewitch even those whose profession it is to not be taken in. The impression that Sturgeon is – in some unevidenced and eternal way – a good’un, got everywhere, like sand from the beach.
But let me repeat that more grave fact, rammed home by Sturgeon’s short visit with Police Scotland. Our last two former First Ministers, one the mentor of the other, and a long-time double act at the heart of Scottish politics, have both been arrested. Know how many British Prime Ministers have been arrested since the adult franchise was established? Not one, in a very much longer list of names.
Doubtless, there have been British PMs who carried out acts worthy of a lifetime in jail. I’m not making a moralistic argument here. My question is – why has this bizarre situation, and the attendant strain on everything from an obviously feeble fourth estate to a crown office subject to endless suspicion, not sparked rounds of handwringing over the crisis of devolution and its institutions?
Where are the people warning that something is seriously defective in Scottish democracy? That’s usually worth a bit of craic. Liberal-left political analysis consists of little else. In Britain there’s a whole galaxy of NGOs established specifically to warn about anachronistic and un-written constitutions, lobbying, dark money, cronyism and the ever-heaving gulf between people and high politics. Every second liberal op-ed is a weather-beaten appeal for vague reforms to save politics from cynicism – proportional representation, abolishing the House of Lords, regional devolution and, since Brexit, legal penalties for ‘lying’ in politics. It’s what scribes and think-tankers say on a slow news day, leave alone the midst of a crisis.
Superficially, it might appear that Scottish civil society is abundant in this breed of concern-mongers. It is certainly dominated by liberal centrists who imagine themselves guardians of cosmopolitan ‘good-governance’ and sensible statesmanship. But they tend to be attached – with the aggression of a chemical dependency – to the myth of enlightened Scottish governance, the progressive character of the devolution era, and their own special place in a high-functioning liberal civil society. The now mountainous evidence that Scotland’s political and civic sphere is grossly dysfunctional, and that devolution, rather than bedding-in this last quarter century, has gone to seed, is just shrugged-off.
To understand the dynamics in play, we need to acknowledge something else. Sturgeon did not, the weekend of her arrest, join a triad with Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – the former compelled to quit as an MP over the ‘partygate’ investigation, the latter indicted on allegations of mishandling US state secrets.
In both the Johnson and Trump cases, we can argue with some cause that strains of hostility within the establishment contributed to their tribulations. This is clearest in Trump’s case. Much of the US state and media simply never accepted his election (he returned the favour by ignoring his own defeat to Biden). But Johnson too was never entirely forgiven by his party, its press and big money backers, for Brexit.
Contra the online subculture charging a conspiracy behind operation Branchform, there’s no evidence of a motivated campaign to get Sturgeon. This is for a simple reason. Johnson and Trump, in their own ways and for their own narrow reasons, entered into real if partial conflict with the state. Since 2014, Sturgeon has not. In fact, she has done the opposite – presenting herself at every turn as a pro-establishment militant able to harness and demobilise the vexatious independence movement.
What we have here, then, is not a state suffering from intense political polarisation, drawn to protect its core functions from an out-riding demagogue. Something less purposive, more disorganised, but no less telling of underlying rot, is taking place.
Now for the final truth that should be universally accepted: Scotland is a society in decline. Our population is getting poorer in real terms. Workers wages are decreasing in real terms. Our public services, from schools to hospitals to basic council functions, are visibly declining after so many years of cuts. Even Scotland’s population is projected to shrink from 2028.
Despite all this, there are no plans for reform. No one in high politics has a platform to revive our society. There are only pro-cuts, pro-corporate, pro-war parties in the parliament. Differences in theory on the constitution amount to little or nothing in reality. An entire political sphere united in a declinist programme, and by a myth of perpetual national improvement. The mythmakers of devolution era Scotland may be falling silent. Their myths, though troubled, live on for now.