Sour, dour and obsessed with power
Nicola Sturgeon's government reflects the personality of its leader.
On December 17, at one of the First Minister's Covid-19 press briefings, a journalist asked Nicola Sturgeon if she might consider relaxing the rules on self-isolation to help businesses.
‘Yeah that would really help ‘cause that would spread infection further and that would be not doing any favours to businesses,’ she replied in a tone that would turn honey into vinegar. Later she snapped at the same reporter, ‘I don’t know if you’ve listened to a single word I’ve said', before rounding off their encounter with a barb about the intelligence of the newspaper he wrote for. Truly, Sturgeon's weekly BBC slot couldn’t be more in the spirit of the Corporation’s charter.
That journalist so happened to be Michael Blackley, the political editor of the Scottish Daily Mail. Sturgeon’s tone was snide and belittling and had the roles been reversed the air would still be thick with cries of ‘disrespect’ and ‘misogyny’. Her sneery sarcasm was not, however, anything new. It is how bothersome journalists were addressed by Alex Salmond, her former friend and mentor.
No matter, though, for everything has changed. The same Nicola Sturgeon who asserted with iron certainty that cutting the self-isolation period would spread the virus now asserts with no less assurance that the self-isolation period must come down. The two Nicola Sturgeons are separated by just 19 days. Did the replicability of SARS‑CoV‑2 change in that time? Did the modelling of workplace behaviour? Did the entire hospitality sector double its floorspace?
Or did the clinical advice Sturgeon so often cites change? It might have but we cannot be certain, for such things are kept from public view by this government of the people.
This lack of transparency is nothing new, and nor is ministerial alarmism that subsequently has to be walked back by special advisers. John Swinney, the minister for Covid recovery, has been reported to the UK Statistics Authority for trying to spin pre-Christmas case numbers as proof of the effectiveness of post-Christmas restrictions. Last week, health secretary Humza Yousaf told BBC Radio Scotland listeners that the infection rate was the ‘worst case scenario’, when it was in fact 45,000 lower than the most negative scenario posited by Scottish Government modellers.
There is a pronounced bleakness to the way senior ministers talk about the pandemic. Tonally, this is about right — there's not much room for levity in ICU admissions statistics — but it is the frame they choose to employ that is the issue. There is a consistent erring on the side not of caution but of pessimism, of prizing the worse case scenario over the most scientifically plausible or statistically probable.
Omicron has shown this up clearer than any development in the pandemic, but it has been there from the start. Ministers repeatedly talked up the risks of the emerging variant and routinely downplayed reliable early data showing it was less lethal than Delta. Opposition politicians, not least the Conservatives' Douglas Ross, were assailed by the First Minister as reckless ideologues against any health protections merely for citing encouraging studies.
This is about more than hedging against the worst possible outcome. There is more than a hint of wallowing and even a wisp or two of the virtue of sufferance. Scots presbyterian fatalism has far outlasted the habit of Scots presbyterianism. Sturgeon underscores how much effort goes into her decisions, how much anguish they inspire in her, and while I don't doubt this is true, it is a very telling way to talk about pandemic management.
Controlling a virus and distributing vaccine doses have ceased to be technocratic affairs and have taken on the moral character of a righteous struggle by an Elect of ministers, bureaucrats and clinical advisers. We should be grateful for their endurances on our behalf, for no one else could thole such torments for so ungrateful a people. It is as though we are reprobates for wanting to go to a nightclub, a football match or other dens of super-spreader sin.
While she may have allowed her self-estimation to get carried away by the stakes of Covid-19, the basic communications framework in use during the pandemic has been the same as that since Sturgeon's elevation to the leadership. This framework begins from the inerrant truth of whatever the First Minister believes this season; this is translated into a policy which SNP MSPs won't even be consulted on before its adoption; the policy is put forward as the manifest will of the Scottish people; from there it is defended stridently, with independent scrutiny characterised as political opposition and political opposition as callousness, deviousness or a lack of patriotism.
If these tactics fail to quell discontent, the policy may change but the communications framework will not, and all the same devices of contempt and coercion will be deployed to present the U-turn as a smooth journey in a straight line. There will never be transparency nor accountability. The First Minister was right yesterday and she is right today and the fact she has reversed her position in the interim is immaterial.
There goes a story that Harry Truman, in conversation with Winston Churchill in early 1946, raised the subject of Britain’s still relatively new Labour prime minister. ‘Clement Attlee came to see me the other day. He struck me as a very modest man,’ the Missourian remarked. ‘He has much to be modest about,’ Churchill is said to have replied.
The bon mot is pure Winnie: quick, quippy and waspishly clever. In this instance, though, it was wrong. For though Churchill’s putdown came to colour history’s judgement of Attlee for many years, he is now recognised as one of our greatest leaders — largely because of his humility.
He was unfailingly polite and accommodating not only by breeding but by calculation. He led a fractious party, ever on the lookout for betrayal, and his leadership depended on much of the rank-and-file believing he was their dutiful servant. By acquiescing, or appearing to acquiesce, to Labour’s ideal of internal democracy, Attlee got much of what he wanted as prime minister, from the NHS and increased social security to rearmament and Western strength against Stalin. He was not a weak man but an ingeniously pragmatic one. He made himself small, the party big and the country even bigger.
The only context in which Nicola Sturgeon merits being mentioned alongside Attlee is to note that she is the spiritual opposite of his ethic of leadership. There is nothing modest about Sturgeon, however much she might have to be modest about. So much of the business of government seems to focus on aggrandising the First Minister as a national figurehead — the Chief Mammy, the selfie-snapping sleb, the leader of the real opposition to Boris Johnson’s government — while her advisers toil in vain to concoct a personality for someone whose sincere passion in life is party politics.
Sturgeon’s leadership is about Sturgeon. She rules not by persuasion but by fear, through inertia and from her members’ unfailing loyalty to their party and its cause. That cause has advanced under Sturgeon only in rhetoric but no one dare point that out without repercussion. It’s lonely up there on the backbenches, as Joanna Cherry can attest. Sturgeon has made herself big, the party quiet and left the country in stasis.
When you rule like this, as convinced of your ethical superiority as you are unchallenged on your policy failings, it is no wonder that you have no tolerance for even the politest of queries from journalists. Especially if the subtext of that question is whether the situation is as dire as you suggest, whether your decisions are open to doubt or even challenge, and whether leaders elsewhere may have made a better call. When Cabinet Secretaries daren't ask such questions, it's hardly surprising that Michael Blackley doing so would affront the First Minister so grievously.
Bristling imperiousness is no way to run a country, let alone a pandemic, yet it courses through the Scottish Government all the way to the source. The government is the way it is because of who and what the First Minister is: sour, dour and obsessed with power.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 10, 2022.