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Why Sturgeon’s clannish conceit is a challenge to democracy


MANY who watched a bit of Nicola Sturgeon and Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland, in the Covid Show last week will have been struck, as I was, by how accurate Ian Mitchell’s analysis of nationalistic Scottish politics was in the two books he has written on the subject.* His essential theme is that you cannot have ‘clan’ (i.e. identity) politics in a genuine democracy since the principle of birth (i.e. identity, or clan) is incompatible in elections with that of merit (i.e. free choice between competing political parties).

The same conflict ran through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Then the idea was to dethrone aristocratic government (by accident of birth) and replace it with democratic rationalism (by proven merit). The battle was fought in the five Reform Bills which changed Britain from an oligarchy to a democracy, those of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 and 1928. Now Sturgeon and her clan want to reverse that process. That, at least, was the conclusion I came to watching her duke it out at the inquiry hearing with the impressive Jamie Dawson KC and, indirectly, with Alister Jack.

It was a revealing performance in many ways, mainly because of the glimpse it afforded into the mind of the introverted and cliquish Scottish nationalist. Sturgeon behaved when in government more like a Highland chieftain plotting to steal Lowland cattle than a modern administrator trying to regulate the affairs of the people of Scotland as a whole. This was suggested by the number of people grouped around her who communicated in secrecy so that the people they ‘governed’ could not be informed by the media of the way their affairs were being handled. The intention was to dissociate election results from government performance, i.e. to subordinate democracy to clan power. The whole WhatsApp stooshie was about nothing else.

One functionary, whose name I forget and who anyway has subsequently retired back to previous obscurity, actually said ‘Plausible deniability is my middle name’. There can be no clearer illustration of the ‘magic circle’ approach to government. If you are one of us you can know what is going on, otherwise you are a MacDonald on Campbell territory. We expect that of Vladimir Putin, and we were warned about it by Ian Mitchell in 2020 and 2022. But still it takes many people by surprise.

For example, if you listened to last Friday’s edition of the Radio 4 News Quiz it would seem that many in the London media world have still not understood the menace to democracy that is posed by identity politics, whether Scottish, Islamic or class-based. Yet if the politics of birth are not defeated, we can say goodbye to democracy as way of institutionalising reciprocity between the rulers and the ruled, which is the foundation of the rule of law. It’ll be back to oligarchic government in Holyrood, pre-1832-style.

During the recent spell of windy and wet weather, I have spent some time reading about the 1832 Reform Act and its consequences in a book called Politics in the Age of Peel. It was written by Norman Gash in 1953 and is subtitled A Study in the Technique of Parliamentary Representation 1830-1850. Gash was an Englishman, born in India, who was Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews from 1955-1980. He wrote the still-definitive biography of Sir Robert Peel (two volumes: 1961, 1972). I thought his book about parliament and representation masterly. I particularly liked the fluency and readability of his prose, which marks him out from all those drearily left-brained (in the McGilchristian sense) modern historians who clog their narrative with footnotes, and their thoughts with caveats.

Gash, by contrast, was man enough to call a spade a spade and, where appropriate, an Irishman an Irishman. In doing so, he illustrated the continuity of the conflict between clan culture and democracy. Like Ms Sturgeon and Mr Plausible Deniability, the nineteenth century Irish often played politics by the rules of corruption. There is a telling example of ‘jobbery’ [i.e. corrupt dealing] quoted from 1844. I cite this as, mutatis mutandis, it illustrates how I see Scottish politics working today. UK politics, by contrast, should react to it rather as Sir Robert Peel did to the Irishman’s scheme.

‘Boyd, the conservative member for Coleraine [Gash writes], approached [another conservative MP] with an offer  to resign his seat in favour of Peel’s nephew, Captain Dawson, on the understanding that Boyd’s son (aged 22) should be appointed to the office of registrar-general in Dublin under the New Irish Marriage Registry Act at a salary of £800 per annum [huge for that time]. ‘This is a gross job, according to the most approved old Irish practice,’ wrote Peel to the Lord-Lieutenant. ‘As it is a job from which a relative of mine would derive advantage, I am doubly anxious that it should be discountenanced and defeated.’

For far too long, the McSturgeons have been allowed to rampage unchecked through the taxpayers’ byres. If only the Secretary of State for Scotland had been as alert to corruption as he was careful to ‘respect the devolution settlement’ (or so he told the Covid Inquiry), the degeneration of Scottish politics into clan raiding and scorched earth government might have been avoided. Alister Jack performed very creditably at the inquiry, calling spades spades irrespective of how much manure was stuck to them. Also, he produced the only truly memorable phrase from the whole ludicrously extended performance when he said: ‘Nicola Sturgeon could cry from one eye if she wanted to.’

It is just a shame he did not take this approach from the moment he started the job in 2019. We might never have got this far into the manure if the UK government had taken a more Robert Peelish approach to the Captain Dawsons of Holyrood and ensured that clan secrecy, jobbery, manipulation and elitism were ‘discountenanced and defeated’. That is a job which has yet to be finished. Get digging, Alister!

* Nicola Sturgeon: The Years of Ascent (1970-2007) (Ian Mitchell, 2022); The Justice Factory (second edition): Can the Rule of Law Survive in Twenty-First Century Scotland? (Ian Mitchell, 2020)

This article appeared in Think Scotland on February 5, 2024, and is republished by kind permission.

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Hamish Gobson
Hamish Gobson
Hamish Gobson lives on the Hebridean isle of Great Todday (Todaidh Mór)

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