'He has the capacity of his predecessors to protect himself with false and meaningless rhetoric' (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

February 15, 2024   6 mins

Scottish nationalism’s two defining leaders experienced an identical cycle of political boom and bust. Both were originally the objects of the most ardent public dedication; both were subject, at the end of their reigns, to prolonged investigations by a police force they had, in its modern centralised form, created. Alex Salmond, arraigned on two counts of attempted rape, nine of sexual assault, two of indecent assault, was found not guilty of all charges in 2022. Police investigations into Nicola Sturgeon’s period in office, apparently revolving around the use of party funds, continue.

But there is a further, non-criminal, charge against both characters: mendacity. In their defence, it went with the job. The project of Scottish nationalism has always demanded that its leaders lie, or at least obfuscate, or grossly exaggerate. Sturgeon, who resigned (on flimsy grounds) as First Minister of Scotland a year ago today, was even better at that than her mentor. While he has always projected something of a wide-boy public persona, she leant on a reputation for rectitude, control and dedication to a great cause.

Since Sturgeon’s resignation, and his victory in the subsequent leadership contest, Humza Yousaf has attracted the same accusation — only without the period of public popularity his two predecessors enjoyed. And this is inextricable from the movement all three represent: their personal and political calamities are the products of an integral deceit at the heart of the independence project.

This first became glaringly apparent with Salmond’s original tilt at secession in 2014. In his reshaping of the SNP, he used (or abused) his economist’s training to produce a 667-page document which claimed that Scotland, the region with the highest public spending in Britain, could single-handedly accelerate to Scandinavian levels of child and maternal care (without Scandinavian levels of tax). This shaky mound of assertions was then blown apart when, in the following year, the oil price crashed from $110 to $50 a barrel and the independence referendum was spurned by a majority of 55%. Without the economic ballast of the former and democratic will of the latter, Scottish nationalism seemed a dead scheme, buried beneath a pile of half-truths.

Salmond resigned and Sturgeon slipped into his place. She was left with the job of sustaining confidence in the vision of independence when the oil price fall translated into a “black hole” in Scottish revenue and expenditure of £18.6 billion. Had independence won, as the then leader of the Conservative opposition Ruth Davidson pointed out, it would have meant vast cuts to every public service. Faced with a propaganda disaster, the new First Minister resorted to windy rhetoric: “I believe and always will believe that the best way forward is to be in charge of our own resources, so we don’t have to be subject to the kind of cuts coming at us from the UK government, but instead could be masters of our own destiny.”

This response, ignoring facts in favour of faith, was in part the fruit of Sturgeon’s apprenticeship to Salmond. And given her own steely structure of personal commitment — secular, yet infused with a Calvinist rectitude — it was to be Sturgeon’s sword and shield through years of leadership. Thus when, following a Brexit that had the support of only a third of Scottish voters, she thickly underscored what the loss of membership meant to Scotland. Brexit became a way to showcase, as in one March 2021 speech, Scotland’s national if not actual autonomy: “
 a country and not a region of a unitary state. Scotland’s position is therefore unique — a country, in a voluntary union, which has been removed from the EU against the will of the majority who live here.”

Nothing there of the difficulty, maybe impossibility, of re-joining the Union while keeping sterling (as the large majority of Scots wish) or of refusing to join the euro — as all new entrants must. Nor was there any mention of the necessary erection of a trade border between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Sturgeon always waved away such realities, pointing instead to the independence of other “small” countries like Ireland, Finland and Denmark. The latter is a constant comfort blanket for SNP leaders: Sturgeon opened the Scottish government’s Nordic Office in Copenhagen in August 2022, one of a chain of such centres designed to give the impression that Scotland is already a nation with a foreign policy. To serve such a vanity, when denied a meeting with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, the First Minister submitted herself to a brief early morning photo opportunity with a grim-looking Jeppe Kofod, then Foreign Minister. The cosmetic appearance of international status trumped realpolitik.

Sturgeon’s energetic self-righteousness and authoritarian governing style sustained her and her party — until, on 15 February 2023, she resigned, citing weariness and a realisation that the leader’s post “can only be done, by anyone, for so long”. It was a thin rationalisation of departure by one so dedicated to the goals and power of her office. But in her subsequent public appearances, she has seemed overtaken by fatigue. Appearing for five hours at the Covid Inquiry in January, her self-command was tested by a barrage of questions from Jamie Dawson KC, both on her reluctance to retain email and other messages among her colleagues, and on the possibility she used her daily media appearances to “politicise” the lockdown — something which this most political of politicians firmly denied.

She was brought to tears at times: whether they were involuntary or staged was much discussed. The breakdowns likely had elements of both. She was, after all, always aware of the need to present herself as the unsleeping leader of her afflicted people, even as she admitted to an overly-delayed lockdown and Scotland showed the highest rate of Covid-related deaths in care homes.

It was a difficult return to political life, but her own successor and protĂ©gĂ© has fared even worse. Humza Yousaf has copied Sturgeon in feeling “never really
 comfortable” with the word “national” in the party’s name (she had found the word “hugely problematic”). But, little more than an epigone, he proves daily that he has none of her force.

Instead, he makes absurd mathematical leaps: where Sturgeon had the idea that instant negotiations on independence with the British government should begin when a majority of votes were cast for the SNP, Yousaf has proposed that a majority of seats in the UK parliament — where Scotland has 57 seats — would serve as a trigger for an attempted secession. Yet polling in October found only 13% of voters agreed that the SNP’s winning a majority of seats was a mandate, and only 15% supported the “most seats” proposal.

Yousaf has inherited a party that has proved itself unable to fulfil its only policy — secession — while neglecting its other responsibilities. Health, Yousaf’s responsibility before becoming leader, is in deeper crisis than in England. In education, once the pride of all Scottish classes, the decline represents a national catastrophe.

Still, unionists cannot rejoice. Support for the SNP has declined steadily — it is now level with a resurgent Labour Party — but support for secession remains high, in most polls only slightly below 50%. The aspiration of independence has a positive image, and it has young legs — Scots born after the mid-Eighties are more than twice as likely to favour secession than those born in the late Forties or earlier. Graduates, once less inclined towards independence, now support it in droves. Meanwhile, this constituency are repulsed by the party most associated with unionism: the Conservatives.

This social-ideological feat accomplished by Salmond and Sturgeon has meant that Scots’ politics have become very considerably dislodged from material issues — money, jobs, public services — to alight on the more fashionable bases of identity and cosmopolitanism. But again this is an illusion. The SNP, as populist in its policies and propaganda as any party in Europe, might claim a principled difference from conservative England for its liberal views on immigration, gender, the EU and public spending. But it has many fewer immigrants per head than England, and its unpopular attempt to allow men claiming to have changed gender to be housed in women’s prisons failed. The SNP is a liberal vanguard atop a conservative nation.

“The SNP are a liberal vanguard atop a conservative nation.”

And this was further revealed in the leadership contest Yousaf fought a year ago. He won narrowly, securing 52.1% to Kate Forbes’s 47.9%. But her aggressive scrutiny of his ministerial record considerably exposed the SNP’s general mediocrity: “You were a transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister we’ve got record high waiting times.” Her religion — she is a member of the doctrinally strict Free Church of Scotland — was held up by Yousaf’s supporters as a threat to the party’s liberal positions on gender and other matters. (Yousaf, a Muslim with as many non-liberal commandments to obey, was not so challenged.) But the fact that she came so close to winning does indicate a strain of conservatism running through the party, as well as some internal doubts about its achievements in government.

A performative politics — developed by two great political performers, Salmond and Sturgeon — has for the moment triumphed in a Scotland whose older self-image as a country of rational, enlightened and prudent citizens has been allowed to lapse. This gives the unionist forces a large problem — but possibly also an opening, especially for the Labour Party. The more that Scotland’s liberal, credentialed classes become dominant in nationalism, the more the material interests of the majority, especially the working- and lower-middle classes, will be ignored. A party which could mobilise the latter, and offer a fresh and genuine image of national renaissance, could benefit greatly from SNP decline.

For now though, while Yousaf’s lacklustre leadership will damage the SNP, it has so far not damaged its cause. He has the capacity of his predecessors to protect himself with false and meaningless rhetoric, covering up the chasm where policy delivery should be. And that’s because he lives in the virtual world Salmond and Sturgeon created, where a country only needs to burst the bonds of UK oppression to become Denmark. They had the rhetorical energy to sustain the illusion: he is unlikely to develop it further. Yet as long as nationalism still endures, someone else — Kate Forbes perhaps, a very Christian soldier — could emerge to pick up the standard, and take it onward as another false promise to an already wounded nation.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.