Nicola Sturgeon’s great political success was in making the abnormal seem normal. She supported Scottish independence — a political project that takes on and ramps up the cost of Brexit — a natural home for grieving remaining Scots and, shall we say, not the equivalent of reacting to the loss of a hand by both feet. to chop and an arm.
The most effective politicians always manage to create a reality warp field around them, and Sturgeon was no different. The halo even managed to outlive her tenure: her sudden resignation as prime minister was portrayed by many commentators as a refreshing change, rather than, as was clear at the time, the act of a politician whose project was on the rocks and whose party became increasingly ungovernable.
During the ensuing contest, Kate Forbes, her Treasury Secretary, was portrayed as a rational choice. Forbes’ pitch, to remind you, was that the money she signed as Treasury Secretary was mis-spent, that the government’s public policies were abysmal, that its social policies were sinful, but that these were prizes worth paying for the great price of tearing Scotland out of the legal, political and social union of which it has been part for three centuries. In addition, Forbes’ social stance placed her far from median opinion and her support in the parliamentary party shrunk to a more humid place. Only a media class still cheated by Sturgeon’s charisma could view that candidacy as sensible, or a party membership that came dangerously close to electing her as anything but reckless.
Sturgeon’s distortion field also means that the Scottish National party — still! – manages to avoid tough questions about whether the UK crisis that sparked Liz Truss’s disastrous budget could also point to real constraints on an independent Scotland’s ability to do even a quarter of the things it it has promised to do.
The field applied not only to her own political project, but also to the personal details of her leadership. While political parties generally fare poorly compared to all but the most eccentric corporations, the SNP’s internal arrangements were unusual.
Her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s CEO since 1999, remained in charge during her leadership. Throughout the Western world, more and more powerful people have husbands who are already powerful people themselves, but few of them will be able to convince a board of directors or their shareholders to have such a close relationship outside of a family business. , rightly so.
Yet this close relationship was treated by the party as just another well-connected couple. This remained the case even when the organization’s treasurer resigned, stating that he had “not received the support or financial information” to fill the role and was replaced by his predecessor. None of this is normal and it’s all so far from best practice that it would take a rocket ship to achieve it. It’s a measure of Sturgeon’s political capabilities that it took an arrest and a police tent in a yard for the situation to be widely questioned.
But this abnormal arrangement existed for a reason. Sturgeon was merely the heir to a party that had long been run as a small clique. Alex Salmond, her mentor-turned-rival and the de facto founder of the modern SNP, also ran the party from a small circle (of which Sturgeon and Murrell were both members).
One reason is that running the SNP as a small clique has historically proven to be the only way to make it an effective electoral force, and it’s no wonder. The SNP is a party committed to a very painful break in Scotland’s workings with a long time frame, an uncertain payout and a series of major disagreements over what to do next. It contains greater ideological and strategic divisions – on everything from defense to social policy to economics – than any other major party in the UK.
Concentrating power in this way helped facilitate Sturgeon’s great success. It enabled her to position the SNP as a normal, centre-left party, and Scottish Independence as an escape from the chaos and austerity of Westminster, as opposed to a vote to boost both. But it also means that it is difficult for her or her successors to escape the suspicion that they were, at worst, actively complicit or, at best, bewilderingly incurious about the party’s inner workings. It also means that the internal divisions that Salmond and Sturgeon have so successfully hidden from public view may well become a prominent and scarring feature in Scottish politics.