openDemocracyUK

The SNP comes back down to Earth: Nicola Sturgeon and how we do our politics

Gerry Hassan
12 February 2010

Readers outside Scotland may not have noticed that the young, 39 year old deputy leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Nicola Sturgeon, has got herself into trouble. It is one of those episodes that might in other circumstances be trivial but has become significant. The saga has to be seen on at least three levels. Firstly and obviously it is about her judgement, but it also throws revealing light on how the SNP Government is faring, and in addition on how we represent, reflect and enact our politics.

Nicola Sturgeon is a thoroughly competent, talented, streetwise politician and minister. Her writing of a letter of support for Abdul Rauf, a constituent of hers, before he was sentenced for £80,000 of benefit fraud, does seem a little questionable.

Sturgeon is not normally guilty of naivety, but to claim as she and Alex Salmond have done that this was ‘a duty’, as if she had no choice in the matter, is either naivety in the extreme on their part, or presuming the public can be easily confused. 

Instead, as Iain Gray and others have said this is ‘a question of judgement’ and how you use your ‘discretion’, both of which seemed to leave Sturgeon here.

This episode taps into the wider question of how the SNP is doing in office. Sturgeon’s mistake comes after the calamity of ‘Lunchgate’ where the SNP sold dinners in the Scottish Parliament’s premises for party funds, raising £9,000 for the honour of lunch with Alex Salmond and £2,000 with Nicola Sturgeon.

As well as these, the party has seen its political momentum stalled with the referendum bill hitting difficulties, while just prior to that Fiona Hyslop had to be moved from education to get her out of trouble. 

Suddenly the SNP seems vulnerable. For a while Salmond seemed untouchable, but since the 2007 election, the normal rules of politics have not been suspended. For all the SNP honeymoon, there has been no realignment of Scottish politics post-2007. The next Scottish election, even more than the coming Westminster poll, will be tight and its outcome open to question.

Underlying this latest episode and ‘Lunchgate’ is a deeper and seldom talked about problem, namely, the relationship of the SNP and Labour to the Glasgow Asian community.

There is something profoundly unseemly in how both the SNP and Labour have courted Asian money, influence and votes in the West of Scotland for years. And in the way parts of the Asian community do their politics.

We have had since 1997, Mohammed Sarwar elected, charged and then found innocent, years of bitter Labour infighting, Sarwar’s son, Anas, selected to succeed him, Osama Saeed and the Scottish Islamic Foundation and concerns about the scale of its funding and the probity of its finances, allegations about packing party memberships in both Labour and SNP, and most recently, ‘Lunchgate’, in which the original fundraising dinner was held for the Glasgow Asian business community.

Some see this as the rise of a radical Islam and its influence in the SNP, but it is something much more mainstream and pernicious: Tammany Hall politics and the power of money and influence. When you combine this with the way elements of the Asian community do their politics, deeply driven by doing deals and favours and an unattractive, problematic patrician culture and it all amounts to an unappealing mix.

Annabel Goldie, Scottish Tory leader, asked in her usual quiet, patient style in Parliament if Abdul Rauf was connected to Scottish Asians for Independence, the organisation who held the fundraising dinner selling the lunches, and got no answer from Salmond. If he is it would prove explosive; if he is not the whole episode leaves an unpleasant odour.

Yet, there is also another set of lessons here. Think of the decade of devolution. Many of the stories which have dominated and taken up time have been about personality. There was Donald Dewar’s senior advisers resigning, Henry McLeish’s ‘Officegate’, Jack McConnell admitting to infidelity, Wendy and her troubles with monies. David McLetchie and his taxi receipts. Iain Gray recently even got into some bother about borrowing council tents.

Since the SNP came to power, Alex Salmond has got into trouble over Donald Trump and his Trumpton on Sea development which sits in his Scottish Parliament constituency. Now come these two controversies back to back.

These are the stories a small-scale political community, political class and media find easy to follow. A low level of scandal, gossip and intrigue. A politics of who is up and who is down. As such they have little resonance with the public, beyond contributing to a sense that they, the politicians, are all the same. No one has invaded a country on a false prospectus and got away without prosecution. The decaying timbers of the Westminster regime this is not. 

There is something parochial, lazy and lacking in imagination about this. The issue of how our politics is distorted by money and influence matters from ‘Lunchgate’ to ‘Officegate’. The best intentioned, most idealistic politicians, faced with needing to raise monies, often have their heads turned and end up compromised. While business, Asian or otherwise, wants access and influence.

Yet the media and political attention is always about the superficial, never the deeper questions. Where are the wider public conversations about the challenges facing us as a society? Where are the debates, front pages, TV programmes and phone-ins about the impending cuts in public services, our appalling health, crime and violence records, our stalling state education, and what future we will bequeath our children laden as they will be with debt? 

Some of these fleetingly get attention if they fit the narrow political agenda of parties and media, but they never get serious consideration. This matters, because as the daily chatter crowds out everything else, we never stop and ask, where are we going as a nation, and what kind of values do we want to celebrate and promote?  That requires maturity, deliberation and the creation of the kinds of public and semi-public spaces which Scotland just does not have.

There is a strain running through the last two weeks that not only have the SNP been shown to be mortal, they have been shown to be normal. They have in effect been revealed as a normal political party. Made up of people who lose their moral compasses when pressured, make compromises which blur important distinctions, and identify with power and wealth. I think people are looking for more from their politicians, and for an intuitive understanding of the need to champion ‘the little guy’ and stand up to corporate, monied and vested interests. None of the Westminster mainstream parties pass this test.

The SNP Government was always going to change fundamentally the nature of the SNP, Scottish politics and with it Scotland. At the moment it looks likely that the experience of office so far has changed the SNP much more than it has altered the wider Scotland. 

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