Analysis

Nic Transit Gloria Mundi

by | 21 Apr 2024

Peter Murrell being charged is the final end of the Sturgeon era. What happens next will define not only the path of the independence movement but, potential, the future of the nation.

As the news broke of Peter Murrell being charged with embezzlement, I was on a video call with a young American graduate who had moved to Scotland a little over a year ago. She wanted to understand the barriers to faster land reform and I raised Nicola Sturgeon’s opposition. There was only a flicker of recognition. I asked how much she knew about Sturgeon; her reply was ‘I’ve heard the name but I don’t know much’.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi – thus passes all of the world’s glories. Power, fame and adulation are insincere travelling companions which abandon you given a better option. Power in Scotland has now shifted decisively, but what exactly that means is still up for grabs.

We don’t know whether Peter Murrell will be found guilty or not. We don’t know for sure if anyone else will be charged. We don’t know what timescale this will all absorb. We don’t know what new information will emerge during a trial. What we do know is that this is a seismic shift in the narrative of Scottish politics which will reframe the last ten years.

(To give you a sense of scale, think about the way being found not guilty destroyed Salmond’s reputation, and yet his governmental track record remains mostly well-thought of. The collapse for Sturgeon is both in terms of her perceived image and in terms of her governmental performance.)

I say with confidence that Nicola Sturgeon’s political career will be fatally wounded by all of this. She is far too wound up in all the details of the case for the public not to sense something amiss. Sturgeon will never outrun this.

And that’s the best case scenario. Remember, there are potentially lethal events ahead, including a Crown Office investigation into perjury in the Salmond trial, Salmond’s own legal actions (in which his hand will now clearly be strengthened in his desire to pin the blame on his old protege) and the ongoing potential of more material from the Hamilton Inquiry on whether she misled parliament making the public domain.

This leaves so many negative outcomes piled up one on the other that this is undoubtedly the end of the House of Murrell. The only thing we don’t know is where on the spectrum of ‘discredited’ to ‘utterly disgraced’ all of this will end up. It’s so bad that I doubt even Humza Yousaf will be sending her a bouquet of flowers this time.

The implications of this are profound in lots of ways. It also opens up a series of real possibilities; after all, the one eternal truth about the migration of power is that things which were not possible before become possible again (briefly, until power settles down in new hands).

So the first question is ‘as power shifts, who does it drag down in its wake?’. Sturgeon and Murrell are in intense danger, but so are others. Depending on how badly this all eventually lands, there are many facilitators who will be feeling nervous. Their position is very greatly weakened.

That leads right up to the First Minister. His hapless lack of judgement remains remarkable – from the aforementioned bouquets to his personal endorsement of Peter Murrell even after he had to resign for lying to the party to his habit of going out of his way to lionise and defend Sturgeon no matter what, to his refusal to call for her party suspension to his inexplicable determination to see her personal legislative agenda through irrespective of the harm it does.

It is pretty difficult to imagine how things could be worse for Yousaf just now. Everything he does – everything – goes horribly wrong (with the one exception of Gaza where he has been very good). Some isn’t his fault but lots is. And this is the irony; the things that aren’t his fault are almost 100 per cent Sturgeon’s fault.

She had mismanaged government so badly for ten years that when she ran out the door there was a domino-topple of failing policy and collapsing hubris. Sturgeon made policy in slogans to impress the commentator class and the processes of producing effective legislation were always subordinate to the slogans. The legacy of that is mainly failure.

No, Yousaf shouldn’t have had to pay the price for this, but he chose to. He made a specific decision to embrace the chaos through unthinking loyalty. That lack of judgement alone has finished him. I see little prospect of Yousaf being in power in a year.

It is not just their ethnic background and private education which make Yousaf and Sarwar alike; both are make-weights no-one in their parties wanted to lead them until the alternatives all fell down

But the big unknown is what this will do to the SNP. The never-ending conveyor-belt of bad government, poor communication and poor delivery has the SNP looking incredibly vulnerable. It may not take as much as you might think to cross a tipping point from here. Personally, if you offered me a choice another five years like the last year or a period out of power to regroup and rebuild, I wouldn’t choose the former.

The second question is where power has transferred to. I cannot tell you enough that power has two elements – where technical power lies and where soft power lies. I often use a test for people to understand the difference; ‘pick any hierarchy of people you know, abandon them on a desert island and ask yourself who the majority actually follow’.

In a structured hierarchy power is technical, but it is also always a matter of perception. And this is why I really mean it when I write that, technically, power has migrated into the hands of Humza Yousaf and Shona Robinson – but does it feel like that to you? If the Cabinet were dropped on that desert island, who would you congregate around?

No, it doesn’t seem to me that real power has shifted to Yousaf. Actually, right now it seems to have fallen into the hands of a small group of very senior civil servants and the private sector consultancy network they continually use. Humza Yousaf may make the announcements, but KPMG makes the decisions.

So we do not have a situation where power has transferred but rather has leaked by default into the hands of technocrats. It will not rest there (probably); which is our last unknown – where will it go next? There seem to me three options. One is ‘a new, competent SNP leader’. Another is ‘Labour’. A final one is ‘nowhere – Scotland is about to be taken over by technocracy’.

What does this all mean in practice? This is where we get to the opportunities. Like I say, when great power moves from one place to another, in the interregnum exists the possibility for change and peace. Certainly if you support independence or climate change or proper work on our economy, peace and change are very attractive.

Change is more straightforward. Despite the constant refrain from the commentator class which was so duped by Sturgeon, she was not the grown-up in the room. The reality was that her approach didn’t get much beyond ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ which is why her administration achieved next to nothing in terms of real policy change. If you’ve had ten years in power and even your advocates think your greatest achievement was to put nappies and talcum power in a wooden box, you wasted it.

(I’m not giving credit for a Child Payment that she avoided for nine years then implemented while running out the door, leaving others the difficult task of paying for it.)

Scotland is screaming out for a leader who has the confidence to govern, the intelligence to do it and the understanding that they can’t do it alone. That isn’t Yousaf, but nor do I believe it to be Sarwar. It is not just their ethnic background and private education which make them alike; both are make-weights no-one in their parties wanted to lead them until the alternatives all fell down.

So now is a moment when that leader may appear. But if it is going to be from the SNP, the party better be ready to be in fighting shape for what comes ahead. It has been in denial about how badly in decline it has been, not least because its paid staff aren’t up to the job and were mostly appointed to nod at Nicola in adoration.

They are now a double liability, both hopelessly tainted with an era of corruption and lacking core skills. It probably hasn’t properly dawned on the SNP yet but it is very likely going to have to go through a process of de-Nicola-fying. I would advise them to be ready to shred photos and leaflets and delete pictures and references.

It isn’t enough. At the end of this (or sooner) there needs to a purge both symbolic and instrumental. There is an entire team of people in post who must be removed if there is to be a fresh start. A new leader will need to can dozens of staffers.

That isn’t enough. The party will probably have to reach a point where it faces up to the abject failure of its NEC. It should be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch. Its existing members failed in epic ways. The party also needs to undo all of Sturgeon’s constitutional amendments. I can’t comment on criminal cases but I can tell you there was deep political corruption in much of how the SNP was run.

If you go and look at almost every division in the independence movement, Sturgeon’s self-interest lies somewhere behind, if not in the cause of the conflict then certainly in its scale

But the possibilities don’t end there. Old empires accumulate conflicts, and a transition of power enables a reset. That’s a great opportunity for peace. And the Sturgeon empire didn’t just accumulate conflicts, it continually manufactured them.

During indyref I was talking to a prominent unionist I respect. We were just moaning a bit about some of the things coming from our own sides we wish weren’t. He said ‘the difference is with us it’s nutters, with you its being coordinated by the SNP’. I thought he was being paranoid. I discovered soon after that I was wrong.

Forget Sturgeon’s ‘reasonable person’ schtick, she operated via vindictive political assassinations. While she was mouthing liberal platitudes her husband was organising social media pile-ons via online hit squads. Whenever Sturgeon faced adversity her first move was to get others to demonise and smear any opponent, internal or external. As someone who wanted a constructive relationship with government but was unwilling to kiss the ring, I felt the force of this early and often.

It culminated in all things Salmond trial, and it has utterly torn the independence movement apart. By design. If you go and look at almost every division in the movement, Sturgeon’s self-interest lies somewhere behind, if not in the cause of the conflict then certainly in its scale.

Much of the malice in the movement was instrumental. We can move beyond this now. We are not going to extinguish disagreement but we can find ourselves in a position where the SNP leadership isn’t constantly weaponising it for its own ends. We don’t need to hug and make up, the powerful just need to put their guns away.

What I’ve come round to more slowly is my realisation about how much of the wider political debate in Scotland has also been poisoned in this way. It’s just a perspective thing; when you are in combat you see things differently and we’ve not really been in combat with unionists for quite a while now. It changes what things look like.

I do not want a sterile constitutional debate and the stilted vocabulary and tone of insipid centrist liberalism appeals little to me. That does not mean that I want robust debate to become poisonous. I don’t ‘hate Tories’ and I don’t ‘hate unionists’. I just disagree. I want to engage with the ideas and I want to win. I just no longer want to win in a way that leaves behind the ill feeling that has been left of late.

Again, it took me just a little while to understand how much the note of malice in the debate was also instrumental, was also a tool used to control and protect. The Murrells created hate figures of their opponents to galvanise unity in their own ranks. That is classic populism. When people asked difficult questions of her, her anti-someone else rhetoric always escalated.

It’s over, and there is the real promise of a moment of hope for peace contained within that reality. A new SNP leader who did not direct but rather disowned that kind of tone and approach would send a big message.

This is not the end of the story. The trail of destruction spread out behind the Sturgeon administration is substantial and, for example, my focuses just now include trying to prevent her dreadful version of a ‘National Care Service’ and finding a way to recover from the sheer cynical hypocrisy of her climate change targets.

It is a big task and it will all take time. This must, however, mark the end of denialism. Sturgeon is over. The last vestiges of power are slipping like sand through her fingers right now, just as her toxicity accelerates. There is no gain for the SNP in clinging to Sturgeon and much to lose.

All the glories of the world pass. What you do as it happens defines what glories you can expect in the future. We can choose peace. We can choose change. We can choose better government. But the arrest and charging of Peter Murrell make one thing abundantly clear – we have no option but to choose.

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