As we approach the end of the year, we are repeating our twenty most-read articles of 2023, in reverse order. This is number 12 and it was first published on June 15.
‘AN empty taxi drew up and Clement Attlee got out.’ Churchill’s jibe about his supposedly anonymous adversary was witty but unfair. Attlee might not have had Churchill’s charisma, but he was a substantial and accomplished figure who deserved more respect.
But how about Nicola Sturgeon? Such is her public profile that it is inconceivable that anyone would make such a quip about the embattled ex-First Minister, even though a paraphrase is sorely tempting (‘an empty luxury camper van drew up and . . .’). But it would be far more apposite and might serve as a useful corrective to the often-hysterical reporting of this consistently overrated figure.
Sturgeon’s arrest this week in connection with £660,000 of missing funds has dominated the media, pushing even Phillip Schofield to the margins. She popped up as one of the lead stories on the NHK morning news here in Tokyo, which made me splutter into my natto. It has triggered a deluge of articles, some gleeful, some bitter, but most of which refer either grudgingly or fulsomely to her supposedly exceptional political acumen and strategic genius.
This will make the eyes of a significant proportion of Scottish unionists roll in a frenzy of agonised frustration. This is the underrepresented group who bemoan the repeated eulogies offered to Sturgeon in defiance of all available evidence. She simply isn’t the Caledonian Bismarck she was hailed as for years; she isn’t worth a fraction of the column inches she generates. There really is nothing there.
Nicola Sturgeon is in many ways the archetypical modern politician. With no previous history to speak of (a brief legal ‘career’ which seems to have ended badly is skated over in the hagiographies), she was fast-tracked to the top largely on account of her media-created image, ferocious ambition, and in the absence of a plausible alternative. It certainly wasn’t on account of any achievements – because there were none.
Once the image of Sturgeon as ‘a rising star’ and a ‘major figure’ was implanted on the media’s fervid imagination, it could not be erased. Results, outcomes, achievement seemed not to matter in the slightest. She achieved nothing as Health Minister and less than nothing as First Minister. Only Humza Yousaf has failed upwards at a greater velocity.
Even her private life was banal, which may explain some of the more outlandish theories concocted to embellish it. She seems to have few hobbies: she presented herself, rather unconvincingly, as a bookworm and aspirant littérateur but appeared not to recognise a Rabbie Burns quote when one was thrown at her by Andrew Neil. What else? She watches Strictly Come Dancing and likes nice shoes. And, er, that’s it.
She appeared to have few life skills at all. She doesn’t write (yet), speaks no foreign languages and is, she said, ‘a disaster in the kitchen’. She only recently took up driving, at the age of 52, and it is testament to how unaccomplished she is that she felt the need to brag about passing the theory test by posting the notification online.
None of which would have mattered much if she hadn’t kept being presented by her acolytes as some sort of omnicompetent superwoman. Even her harshest critics were apt to grant her ‘formidable political operator’ status, something explicable only if you imagine every election victory is indisputable validation of the political genius of the leader of the winning party.
A cursory understanding of Scottish politics would reveal that to be nonsense. When Labour imploded in the wake of the Iraq war, and with the Tories remaining anathema to most Scots, the field was wide open. A reinvigorated (by Alex Salmond, not Sturgeon) SNP which, as Tommy Sheridan put it, ‘picked up the clothes that Labour had discarded’, had as wide and as open a goal as ever presented itself in political history. It would have been very hard to lose – and if proof is needed, just look at some the party’s MPs and MSPs.
As First Minister, Sturgeon presided over a never-ending series of calamities which would have been hard to replicate deliberately. Her cabinets were conspicuous, like her, for their lack of real-world experience and proceeded to make a mess of every area of Scottish life they meddled in. Amateur Hour extended over eight lamentable years. The scandals were numberless.
And yet all the while she flew high, kept aloft by the media who bought into the great stateswoman myth, or pretended to. The empress desperately needed the little boy to point out her nakedness, and while some tried, they were always drowned out by the shrieks of the blindly faithful, the wilfully besotted and the comfortably beholden.
But whatever happens now with Operation Branchform, it looks finally as if the game is up. The defining image of the Sturgeon years will not, for me, be a mugshot, if one ever emerges; that would be too dramatic, too sensational. No, it is Sturgeon in her hard hat at the fake launch of the fake ferries which have never left dock and have cost the taxpayer £500million and counting.
An empty vessel saluting another empty vessel. That says it all.