Sturgeon's obsession with image and presentation has darkened the body politic, dimmed political ambition and dulled the political culture

Take a moment to consider this assessment from a figure not seemingly used to making such startling public comments: 

Sturgeon’s performance was a masterclass in obfuscation and deflection.” 

So writes James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy, University of Edinburgh. 

He goes on to describe Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance before the Holyrood Parliament’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, thus:

“As an exercise in open government, transparency and accountability, her performance and that of her government throughout this enquiry was lamentable. As the best debater in Holyrood, with skills honed over a career in adversarial politics, she knows how to parry, obfuscate and shape agendas. She used the same skills before the enquiry.”

Consider the Professor’s efforts here to see between Sturgeon’s affected, crafted words and the absence of actual credible explanations for her administration’s gross misconduct.

Then consider how many viewers of Sturgeon’s appearance at this committee – the general public and an upcoming electorate – will still have been swayed by her performance. 

Consider, most notably, the ‘smooth’ delivery of her account for those who have not closely followed or paid particular attention to this long-running story.

And wonder at the seeming massive gulf between what many think they see and what they’ve been primed through “obfuscation and deflection” not to see.

This all sits in stark contrast to the specific, coherent, documented, corroborated and damning information given by Alex Salmond in his evidence to the committee.

In sum, Sturgeon’s evidence contained little of substance, no corroboration of claims, repeated denial of responsibility, feigned regret over ‘mishandled’ legalities, contrived forgetfulness, and multiple appeals to ‘trust my best, if sometimes failed, intentions’. 

Again, what people ‘see’ here is far from what they are encouraged to know. Presentation is really all that seems to matter. 

This is a truth understood, of course, by many machine politicians. But it’s one that’s most certainly been used to primary effect by this one. Because when all Sturgeon’s carefully constructed words and affectations are stripped away, as Mitchell has done here, her actual failures of due process and accountable governance are laid glaringly bare.

Sturgeon is now an ‘accomplished’ practitioner of presentational politics. As Mitchell suggests, this has come with years of honed experience in adversarial settings.

From parliamentary committees to parliamentary questions, daily Covid briefings to Sky studio appearances, this is a politician who knows how to grandstand, how to evoke emotional support, how to play the ‘strong national leader’. This is a figure who knows how to plant destructive barbs within that ‘all-too-human’ presentation. And this is also a figure who even when wielding the political dagger against challengers and foes still manages to couch it all in the same affected language. 

The First Minister has shown an obsession with self-presentation. As Denise Findlay notes, “Sturgeon’s main priority, in common with most politicians, is to stay in power and to increase her own image and profile.” This is most evident in her image-making efforts to champion ‘identity’ issues and select groups, and in her consistent refusal to backtrack on policies even when all that presentation can no longer hide the conflicted politics being created behind them.

And as Sturgeon’s hallmark defiance has intensified, her party and #IStandWithNicola acolytes have become not only increasingly subservient to her shining presentations, but even more zealous in their denunciation of anyone daring to question them.

Depressingly, this is also evident in much of the wider ‘Nicola’ fervour across political and civic Scotland just now. It’s a deference entrenched in all forms of public discourse, from a compliant media commentariat to gushing celebrities, from aligned academics to funded third sector groups. Lamentably, many would-be leftists and ‘alternative media’ sites have shown no more inclination to maintain the role of – as Edward Said so vitally advocated – the critical outsider.

A good illustration of this is the collective animus being directed at Wings Over Scotland.

Now, I’ve never been particularly attuned to the more ‘caustic’ output from the Rev Stuart Campbell – still holding on to some of that older Tony Benn thing about winning with basic argument rather than personalised attack.

Yet, disturbingly for much of the SNP and its party followers, Wings has proven just as capable in the former type of engagement.

Indeed, the analytical effectiveness of Wings has only increased following Campbell’s (disgraceful) Twitter ban. 

For the Yes street it has been a vital platform, resource and driving force for independence. 

Yet many of the SNP notables who hailed Wings back in heady 2014 are now running an effective witch-hunt against this and other Indy sites, with some party ‘prefects’ calling for the expulsion of any member found contributing to Wings. 

Why the volte face? Why the McCarthyite sweep? Quite simply because they fear how Wings and others on the Yes blogosphere are now mounting serious examinations of their mendacious conduct, their failure to deliver independence and the artifice of their presentational politics.

Even besides the worthy output of such sites, one feels an almost moral obligation to support them in the face of such hysteria. 

Thankfully, there’s also still a wealth of Yes-popular sites for key information and comment, from the tireless Craig Murray to the incisive Jeggit to the forensic James Kelly – a blog which, to its credit, refuses to join in the purging of Wings despite their ‘longstanding differences’.

And, after all, isn’t all that difference, diversity and debate, however fraught, good and healthy, rather than the conformity, discipline and sterile ‘weesht for Indy‘ pleas the SNP presentation club are trying to impose on us?   

This backlash says so much about the dearth of real, critical voices now within and around the SNP, a vacancy that’s been filled by a lame submissiveness to its faux, presentational politics. 

And so it goes with a party network that’s taken civil and cultural as well as political root over these past fourteen years. 

No radicalism. No exciting agenda for change. No prospect of independence. 

Instead, a centrist, neoliberal politics devoid of substance, a culture of cosy insiderism, and a slick comms machine running the whole presentational show.   

The closest recent comparison I can find is the whole spin culture and celebrity adulation that went on around Blair, Campbell and Britpop. And look where all that ended up.

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