BY EFFIE DEANS
Joanna Cherry recently said that the SNP “shouldn’t be about the cult of leader, whether it’s Alex or Nicola, or anyone else”. Cherry is unquestionably one of the cleverest Scottish nationalists. She wrote Mental Health and Scots Law in Practice in 2014. She is willing to think for herself on moral issues such as gender rather than simply take the easy route of agreeing with the prevalent opinion. But she has a blind spot which means she is failing to see the essence of the issue of the cult of personality in Scottish politics.
I can think of no British political figure who has had a personality cult. Winston Churchill was admired for his work during the War but still lost the election following it. Margaret Thatcher was not even loved by her own party who eventually kicked her out. The closest we have come to a cult of personality in Britain was Diana Princess of Wales. The behaviour of British people when she died was peculiar in the extreme and unlike any previous royal death. But it lasted not much longer than a week and Diana had zero political power and not much royal power either.
In Scotland there was no cult of personality of John Smith or Gordon Brown or anyone else that I can think of apart from perhaps Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and Bonnie Prince Charlie. There was no cult of personality surrounding SNP leaders like William Wolfe, Gordon Wilson or John Swinney. The reason for this I think is that no one expected any of these people to lead the SNP to independence. It was the independence campaign in 2014 that lead to the cult.
Alex Salmond was popular prior to this, but he was not impervious to criticism. He resigned in 2000 and did not seek re-election to the Scottish Parliament. Ian Blackford had threatened to sue Salmond for defamation. Beyond that it remains unclear to me why Salmond thought he had to go. But there was no personality cult of Alex Salmond in 2000. That much is clear.
We don’t know and may never know what if anything Alex Salmond did in the years leading up to the independence referendum which led him to being tried in March 2020. It is possible that there was a political conspiracy against him, and the witnesses simply made up the alleged sexual assaults. It’s also possible that Salmond misbehaved but his misbehaviour was exaggerated. It’s possible too that there was just not enough evidence to convict Mr Salmond. But it is impossible to believe that rumours of Mr Salmond’s behaviour were not known about in 2013-2014. If ten people who worked in one building were later willing to testify that something illegal had happened, the idea that SNP politicians working in the same building knew nothing about it is unlikely in the extreme.
Why did no one tell the police or the press? The reason is that Alex Salmond could do know wrong. He was the prophet leading Scottish nationalists to the promised land of independence. He is still revered by a about half of the SNP, even after they have heard the testimony of the witnesses that the jury chose to disbelieve.
Let’s assume that a senior SNP politician knew about Mr Salmond’s alleged behaviour in 2014. Why did this person not tell the police? The reason is obvious. Just imagine if in June 2014 the press had found out about Salmond’s alleged assaults. Would this have helped or hindered the Yes campaign? It is obvious that Salmond would have had to resign. The credibility of the leader of the campaign would have been in tatters. So, no one said a thing. Why? Because the goal of independence makes everything else secondary.
For the first time in 300 years it looked as if the SNP had a chance in 2014. It was this and this alone that elevated Salmond above ordinary mortals. It isn’t either Salmond or indeed Sturgeon that created the cult of personality that applies to both of them. It is simply the goal of independence, that means SNP politicians are willing to look the other way or keep silent.
I first recognised the cultish aspects of the SNP after the referendum. What I noticed is that independence supporters no longer cared about the political record of the SNP or its leader so long as that leader brought them closer to their goal. These people had been so close in September 2014 that they could almost touch it. To have it snatched away by their fellow Scots caused a cognitive dissonance that they simply could not get over.
It is this that has led the cult of Sturgeon to go into the stratosphere compared to that of Salmond. Suddenly we had Sturgeon performing to packed crowds in Glasgow with wee lassies weeping because they had touched the hem of her raiment. The Scottish electorate became completely indifferent to the successes or failures of Holyrood. This year they have been uninterested that Treasury money has kept Scotland going or that deaths in Scotland are no better than anywhere else in Britain and considerably worse than any similarly sized country in Europe.
Instead we have had Sturgeon depicted with a halo, with perfect hair even when no one was allowed to go to the hairdresser and with stylish clothes even when no one could go to the shops. We have had constant coverage from the BBC with few if any of the difficult questions that are routinely asked by the media in London.
The Scottish electorate don’t even want Sturgeon’s political record to be investigated or tested. Her cult of personality can survive her failure to cooperate with the Salmond inquiry. It can survive it being obvious that she knew about Salmond’s behaviour and lied about when she knew about it.
Nothing can touch Sturgeon. It doesn’t matter that her domestic record on health and education is poor. The only achievements of the SNP are free this and free that, which therefore depend on the fact that Scots receive more per head from the UK Treasury than most other British people. If hospitals don’t open, if ferries remain unbuilt don’t blame the saintly Nicola.
Joanna Cherry is like a member of the politburo complaining about the cult of Stalin while failing to recognise that it is her membership of the Communist Party that causes the cult. It is Scottish nationalism that has caused the last two leaders to have personality cults. The next leader would have one too.
The SNP is secretive and less than open to internal debate not because of the characters of either Salmond or Sturgeon, but because it is a party that views the end as justifying the means. But this is precisely the viewpoint that gave rise to the cult of Lenin and Mao Zedong. When the end whether it is communism or Scottish independence justifies the means then a leader arises or is created because such a movement needs a charismatic leader the people can believe in.
The cult of personality follows from the nature of the goal of Scottish independence and the SNP realising that it is necessary that the electorate ignore their domestic record and focus instead always and forever on independence.
If Joanna Cherry became leader of the SNP, she too would have a makeover. Sturgeon would be purged just as Salmond had been purged before her. Soon adoring crowds would be pressing forward and there would be cheers of Joanna, Joanna. Soon after that the Fruit dynasty would follow the Fish dynasty.
Does Joanna Cherry think that improving mental health in Scotland is more important than independence? Does maintaining the rights of women in Scotland transcend having another independence referendum? The answer of course is no. Cherry was willing to use her legal skills to try to stop Brexit and the proroguing of Parliament. But while knowing that constitutional matters are reserved, she is arguing that the Scottish Parliament should attempt to find a way round the British Government refusing to allow a legal independence referendum. When lawyers advocate law breaking, their books become worthless and their attempts to stop the proroguing of Parliament mere hypocrisy. I’ll try to stop Brexit, but you can’t stop Scexit.
What this means is that Cherry too thinks that end justifies the means. It is worth breaking the law in order to achieve Scottish independence. But it is precisely this that gives rise to the cult of personality that she is criticising.
Scotland this year has been running a huge deficit. Public services including those for mentally ill people have depended on the British Government. Yet Cherry’s illegal attempt to gain independence would at the very least lead the British Government to cut off all funding and Scottish independence would amount to an abrupt no deal Scexit. Why write a book about mental health law if you are willing to plunge mentally ill Scots into more uncertainty than they have ever experienced before, just so that you can live in an independent Scotland.
I’m sorry Joanna Cherry, but you are just as much a part of the cult as Nicola and Alex. Your cultish fanaticism is if anything worse than theirs. Scottish nationalism twists minds even when they are apparently clever.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.