Governments crumbled in the face of Covid, but Sturgeon’s administration surged to the peak of its popularity. In the inevitable deflation, are we deluding ourselves again by pinning all blame on the fallen FM, asks David Jamieson?
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I have, as perhaps we all do, a foggy memory of lockdown. Days, weeks and months rolled into one. There are few distinctive features in the landscape.
But it wasn’t just the restrictions on our movement, the lack of social interaction or the physical enclosure that dulls recollection. It is also the unreality of the social-psychological state these conditions helped induce.
In Scotland, lockdown was the penultimate link in a sequence that produced a profound meltdown among Scotland’s liberal professionals. This class, who dominate our public life, were perhaps evincing a delayed reaction – finally demonstrating the frenetic mood that had contaminated their siblings across much of the anglophone world in 2016.
The twin shocks of Brexit and Trump, so disorientating to those who had come to assume a certain stability in the structure of politics, was partially displaced from Scotland by our own national drama from 2014. Nicola Sturgeon, the colossus of Scottish politics rode these shockwaves, and convinced a layer of the middle classes that Scotland could be made immune to the changes gripping the world system, if only she had the people’s trust.
Sturgeon was the anti-Brexit, anti-Trump, anti-Boris hero liberal Scotland wanted, and what they got. It wasn’t only that Sturgeon was the perfect avatar – her audience willed the avatar into existence. She came to embody the hopes of a return to certainty; stability in troubled times; sense in a senseless era. And when Salmond stood in her way, his real status as former First Minister and as mentor to Sturgeon herself, was forgotten. If he was now the anti-Sturgeon, he must too join the rogue’s gallery with Trump, Johnson, Farage and, especially after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin.
Sturgeon swept all opposition in this period, in three elections which were as forgone as any in British political history. Her SNP won 48 of 59 Scottish seats in the 2019 General Election, stormed the 2021 elections after 14 years in office, and won the 2022 local elections just as handedly. Through much of this period, support for independence peaked in the polls. And with each great leap Sturgeon was vaulting towards her own downfall, and the implosion of the SNP.
The para-social hysteria surrounding Sturgeon in these years was intense. Denunciations of the few who maintained public criticism reached a new frenzy. What shocked me most was not the partisan SNP posters, or the phalanx of party careerists – they were behaving as you might expect. The disconcerting thing was the wider, non-SNP civil society, who came to identify their own governing liberal ethos with the long-time dominant party, and, most of all, with the person of Sturgeon. Journalists, academics, thin-tankers and the leaders of NGOs hugged closer to the administration. At the height of the hysteria, it wasn’t uncommon to see Green and Labour party activists, or would-be radical leftists make gamely defences of Sturgeon. In the latter cases, hatred of the culture war enemy smoothed differences over trifling matters like class and poverty, war and peace.
This tide of conformity was, on the face of it, odd. Sturgeon had failed to protect Scotland’s place in the EU – as she had sworn to do. The case for independence presented in the 2014 White Paper on Scotland was thus shredded. No amount of polling changed the fact that there was no road to independence, as numerous Westminster snubs proved with noisy candour. The SNP itself was more hollowed out, more centralised around the cult of command at its apex, than ever. The party was experiencing a damaging split, with long-lasting implications. The stage was being set for the catastrophe of 2023.
For those with the presence of mind to recognise it, all was not well with the Covid regime either. You’d expect me to note that I warned of the lack of a paper-trail, explaining decision making in the Scottish Government at the time. In June of 2020, I reported that: “…no written advice from chief advisors was received by the Scottish Government on how to handle the pandemic for the opening weeks of the crisis.”
It was at this time that I began to wonder if politics was even possible any longer. If people had replaced all calculation of rights, interests, progress, freedoms with avatars in a juvenile morality play, then what was left to work with? Perhaps this was another symptom of lockdown – my own confused association, which we are all wont to make, between the peculiar world of medias new and old, and the attitudes of the wider population. Trapped inside for so long, with only TV, newspapers and social media feeds to go on, and in an atmosphere of pervasive threat, we were all afflicted by cabin fever.
I should have remembered that the fever would break. Now that it has, will there be a new mood of calm and clarity, an effort of trying to piece together what has just happened in Scottish politics? I hope so, though there are reasons for concern. Faced with the collapse of illusions, two coping mechanisms have emerged.
The first is forgetting. I think many have genuinely forgotten how they behaved at the time. Most in the politics-adjacent professions now claim they always warned of Sturgeons ‘weaknesses’ – her ‘control freakery’ has been much discussed by journalists and academics who once adored her in the most shameless ways. This is just a place-holder analysis: it’s something you say when you have to be seen to distance yourself from Sturgeon’s crumbling old regime, but don’t want to delve any deeper.
The second is more likely to be displayed by members of the general public who had picked up the vibes from the stagecraft of Sturgeon’s daily press briefings, or by some long-time critics of the SNP leadership. This coping mechanism takes the form of overblown rage. It is the mirror image of the old deference. Sturgeon is seen as the sole cause of everything wrong in Scottish politics. If only she were as she presented herself, rather than a deceiver, then things would be grand.
They would not. All we’ve ‘found out’ during the Scottish wing of the Covid inquiry is what was always apparent by the record: Scotland’s pandemic regime was essentially the same as that in England. Across the UK, and far beyond, elites proved callous, incompetent, secretive and detached from any real scrutiny from a public held at arm’s length.
The special Scottish regime of competence and care never existed. What did exist was an organised deception, rooted in the institutions of Scottish society. These institutions will not fade into history with Nicola Sturgeon, whose own time is ending without the fanfare she enjoyed so long.