After the Messiah Complex

by | 14 Feb 2023

If we stop asking who should be the next SNP leader and first ask what the cause of independence needs now, it helps us to draw up a job specification for SNP leader which, it turns out, shouldn't be hard to fill

Most people now recognise that we must start to think seriously about the post-Sturgeon era. She may well try hold on to late 2025, but whatever happens between now and when she departs, significant progress towards independence isn’t a likely outcome.

This is now generally accepted by much of the independence movement, but it prompts a question which is heard all over the place now. The question is ‘who next?’. Unless we come to understand why it is the wrong question we will remain in trouble. The question isn’t ‘who next?’ but ‘what now?’. And it requires us to get past our collective messiah complex.

This messiah complex is partly trick of fate, partly cynical tactics. And it is deeply unhelpful. It emerged partly because the SNP got a strong, charismatic leader in Alex Salmond and then replaced him with another who adopted the same persona. That makes up nearly 30 years of SNP history and throughout that time they have had a dominant leader.

But that isn’t really why we’re in trouble now. The ‘dominant leader’ model took on an entirely new character when Nicola Sturgeon took over. Her team promoted this concept of ‘the world changes based on powerful leaders’ to achieve two things; to undermine a wider independence movement (which she always saw as a threat) and to shore up her position.

Thus her team bombarded us (through proxies) with both the rhetoric about her genius and how she is the only person of substance that knows how to lead us forward to independence. The rest was saturation marketing using ‘messiah poses’, the persona politicians develop when they want you to look at them and no-one else (see Tony Blair).

The extent to which this message has been repeated over and over and over (‘you can’t find someone with her communication skills so only she can win independence’) means the movement has internalised it to an all-consuming degree. People actually think this is true – the messiah complex isn’t Sturgeon’s, it’s ours. She made us believe it.

There are two things to say about this. The first is that it was never going to work and it absolutely didn’t. Throughout this long period of stagnation for the cause of independence, people wondered at the gap between Sturgeon’s popularity ratings and the fact that support for independence simply didn’t rise in the way we were trained to believe her popularity made inevitable.

Why? Because this is never, ever how it works. Politicians win elections against other politicians. Major social change is rich and complex and diverse. Just to show you how daft this ‘no independence without Sturgeon’ line was, apply it to the rest of the history of social change.

The messiah complex isn’t Sturgeon’s, it’s ours

Women got the vote because of David Lloyd George (not the suffragettes). Indian independence was the result of Clement Atlee (not the Indian independence movement). The Civil Rights movement in the US was mainly Lyndon B Johnston (the Million Man March was just a coincidence). It was Gerhard Schroeder who brought down the Berlin Wall. Frederik Willem de Klerk decided one morning that it was time to call it a day on Apartheid.

Even great things politicians achieve which they themselves drive are almost never their work alone. Indian independence would have happened Atlee or no Atlee, but possibly not the NHS. But to call Atlee the father of the NHS is to miss the crucial role of the liberal reform movement, the work of William Beveridge and the trade union and political organising that took place around the war.

You could have removed Atlee from the equation and you easily have ended up with the same NHS. But if you removed the others, the people who quietly did the leg work without ever putting their photo on a leaflet and shoving it through people’s doors, there would probably have been no NHS.

In every case above the politician just signed a piece of paper or just happened to be there. In no instance would the social change have occurred based on the politician alone (and not even nearly). If you can find a case study which disproves this, email at the usual address.

The reason for this is simple – big change comes from changing social attitudes and individual politicians do not change social attitudes. Even the best of them do a lot more following than leading and Sturgeon in particular has made a career out of never challenging dominant social attitudes but instead articulating them back to people.

So let’s pause for a second and ask what actually needs to happen next. Everyone knows the ‘official’ case for independence is utterly filled with holes. Everyone knows we can’t defend this credibly on the doorstep. And basically everyone knows we can’t afford to bluff our way to independence.

Likewise, everyone knows that we lack collective access to good research and good data. There is no movement tracking of individual voters, no proper public attitude research for us to draw from, no way to analyse patterns of behaviour that help us to observe what is working and what is not working.

And while John Curtis is late to the game in stating the obvious, we need to stop talking about process and explain why independence is a good thing.

I repeat this over and over and over because it is all the bread and butter of social change. Understand why people think what they think, learn how to engage with that to change minds, be systematic in developing campaigns, work collectively, openly and together, take the risk out of big change by being able to describe it clearly, motivate people to support change by explaining why things will be better afterwards.

Sturgeon will not deliver and the SNP doesn’t have another off-the-shelf messiah. Good.

Every step of this has been opposed vigorously by the Sturgeon team. It destroyed all the data collected by Yes Scotland during 2014 purely because they didn’t want anyone in the movement having access to it (driven by paranoia). The SNP doesn’t give anyone else access to its own internal vote-mapping software (which is greatly overrated anyway) and doesn’t do public attitude research.

It relied on the belief that Sturgeon was the ‘No Whisperer’ and that we didn’t need research, we needed to stand back in awe as she ‘just knew’. They were desperately opposed to any collectivity which they couldn’t control and abolish if need be. The way they have distorted SNP internal democracy is nothing compared to the way they have vigorously opposed any attempt by the movement to attain a degree of coherence and connectivity.

It was absolutely convinced that answering people’s questions would be a ‘hostage to fortune’ because they’d need to publish their answers and have them scrutinised. Well, yes, that’s the point – the answers are meant to stand up to scrutiny. So instead we get soundbites (‘we’ll be using Sterling’) backed up with bluff (like the awful recent Scottish Government paper that answers nothing).

And more than anything the Sturgeon machine was absolutely, relentlessly determined to crush the idea that discussing how Scotland could be better after independence was a good way to win support. That’s my whole thing, and for nearly a decade now I have faced people screaming ‘stop talking, you’ll put off voters, that’s for after independence’.

If you look at the ‘Sturgeon theory’ it was that by making herself mother of the nation, gaining trust and then asking for total power, people would follow her. Not because she was willing to explain what she’d do with the power but purely because she wanted people to accept that ‘a great person like her’ will do good things with more power if we don’t ask too many questions.

If you roughly accept that data, detail and vision are the route to changing minds then you’re half way there. All of this can and should be led by a civic campaign, as it has been in absolutely every instance of major social change in world history. We can start tomorrow – none of it requires permission or some kind of mad-cap effort to pretend a referendum is taking place when it isn’t.

If, very loosely, you accept that that is something like a shape for ‘what now?’, the question of ‘who next?’ becomes much, much smaller. Sturgeon will not deliver and the SNP doesn’t have another off-the-shelf messiah. Good. Let’s develop a proper job description for the new leader then, shall we.

This person should be able to lead a government that doesn’t make a mess of every policy it implements. They need to sign a bit of paper agreeing to some version of a Section 30 Order or an agreement to begin direct negotiations for secession or whatever proves to be the fastest route out (they have no need to be anywhere near the negotiations).

They need to be willing to work with others, accept the role of a wider movement and support and participate in that movement. They need to take seriously the need to develop work to fill in the big holes in the case for independence. They need to recognise that vision is needed to motivate people to change their minds. And they need to stop talking about process.

Other than that they just need to be able to stand in front of a camera and sound coherent and not lose elections. So that’s ‘be competent, sound coherent, sign some bits of paper and stop fucking everyone else up so they can do their jobs too’. Everything else after that is a bonus – including charisma.

When you frame it like that, when you can escape the messiah complex we’ve been compelled to internalise, the question of ‘who next?’ turns out to be not such a big deal after all.

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