The Internal Feud That May Doom Scottish Nationalism

Photograph Source: The Scottish Government – CC BY 2.0

Most nationalist movements wait until they have achieved independence before having a civil war over who runs the country. But Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have jumped the gun by opening hostilities while Scottish self-determination is still well over the horizon.

Could it remain an unattainable goal thanks to the open warfare between the past and present leaders of the Scottish National Party? The feud has broken the sense of inexorable progress towards Scottish independence propelled by the political skills of the SNP leadership and aided by the British government’s repeated blunders.

The British media loves a good dog fight and the melodrama of the Sturgeon/Salmond battle has swiftly promoted Scottish politics to the top of the news agenda in a way unseen since the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

The ill-concealed unionist sympathies of sections of the press have ensured a pro-Salmond bias and antipathy to Sturgeon, leading her actions to be compared by some to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. “What did she know and when did she know it?” asked one commentator with relish. A breach of the “ministerial code”, though recently carried out with impunity by Priti Patel under Boris Johnson, is spoken of in awed tones as if it were a capital offence.

Much of this venom is driven by a desperate effort to damage the SNP before the May election for the Holyrood parliament in which, at the time of writing, the SNP is set to win a narrow majority. It would interpret this as giving it a popular mandate for demanding a second referendum on independence. Since the popularity and competence of Sturgeon is the SNP’s biggest asset at the polls, anything damaging to her – even if it does not destroy her politically – could stall the advance towards a pro-independence vote.

Trivial or exaggerated many of the allegations of misconduct against her may be, but to explain them to the Scottish parliament she has had to admit to serial incompetence by her administration at every level.

Suppose that the secret purpose of this process was the political assassination of Salmond, then the assassins were comically inept. Suppose, far more likely, that the purpose was simply to deal with allegations of sexual harassment against him without fear or favour, then the blundering is equally culpable.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).