Britain’s Power Elite Has Defeated Its Challengers by Creating a Political Wasteland
Media pundits claim that British politics is experiencing a “great moderation” with the departures of Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn. What they really mean is that a decrepit model based on food banks and xenophobia no longer faces mainstream opposition.
Last month, the Economist announced that Britain was “rediscovering the virtues of moderation” after going through a populist phase over the previous decade: “A more rational form of politics is taking hold, in which competence matters more than ideology.”
It linked this claim to the exit of two “divisive” politicians from the national stage: Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn. Sturgeon happened to announce her resignation as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) on the same day that Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, pledged to block him from standing as a Labour candidate in the next general election.
The Independent columnist John Rentoul also welcomed the simultaneous departures as a promising sign for the future. Rentoul, a long-serving high priest at the temple of Blairism, now hoped for a “calmer, more inclusive politics” as Britain “finally returned to an even keel.”
At one level, the conflation of Sturgeon with Corbyn is absurd. Far from embodying any kind of “populism,” Sturgeon was an avatar of liberal centrism during the Brexit crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic who had much more in common with New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern than with Bernie Sanders or Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Yet it wasn’t merely ignorance about the UK’s Celtic periphery that caused the Economist to lump the two politicians together. Corbyn and Sturgeon both led projects that posed a fundamental challenge to the way the British state is governed, and they both drew on the energy of social movements that disrupted the Westminster consensus.
There is every reason to think that Corbyn’s fate encouraged Sturgeon to step down before she experienced the full blast of hostility from guardians of the status quo. Before looking at Sturgeon’s legacy, we thus have to deal with the mythology that has congealed around Corbyn’s stint as Labour leader.
Mountains and Molehills
Starmer presented his removal of Corbyn as an exercise in moral cleansing. In doing so, he relied upon a false narrative about antisemitism in the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership that has been comprehensively discredited. We need only look at documents issued or endorsed by the current Labour leadership to find proof of that.
In October 2022, Luke Akehurst published an essay in the journal Fathom that claimed that Starmer’s leadership was “ripping left antisemitism out by its roots.” Akehurst is a stalwart of the Labour right who serves on the party’s national executive and has been the director of the campaign group We Believe in Israel since 2011. This is what he had to say about the scale of the phenomenon:
Between the change of Leader and General Secretary in May 2020 and the most recent stats being issued in July 2022, NEC panels heard 1,026 cases, of which 65.89 per cent related to antisemitism. 17.84 per cent of the 1,026 cases have resulted in expulsions and only 13.35 per cent led to no further action (i.e. the case was not proven).
By switching back and forth between absolute figures and percentages, Akehurst obscured the substance of what he was describing. Labour claimed a membership of 450,000 in July 2022. According to Akehurst, the disciplinary panels heard cases involving 0.23 percent of party members. The cases “related to antisemitism” involved 0.15 percent.
The phrase “related to antisemitism” can encompass a multitude of sins in the idiom of the Labour right, from denying that the Holocaust took place to describing Israeli rule over the Palestinians as a form of apartheid. From start to finish, this metacontroversy has relied upon the conflation of hostility to Jewish people with support for Palestinian rights under the rubric of the “new antisemitism.” Akehurst gives us no further information about what those 676 members had done or said, so we can only speculate.
Nor does he tell us how many of those cases resulted in expulsion: the number of expulsions that were “related to antisemitism” could be as high as 183 or as low as zero. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that all of the expulsions were “related to antisemitism,” and that all of the members in question had expressed bigoted views about Jewish people, as opposed to making statements about Israel that its supporters find offensive. This maximum figure would be 0.04 percent of the total membership.
Corbyn’s critics insisted with great stridency that there had been a staggering increase in the prevalence of antisemitism within the party under Corbyn’s watch, to the point that it was now endemic, involving vast numbers of people. Even as he tries to formulate the case against Corbyn, Akehurst shows this to have been sheer fantasy.
No doubt well aware that a rhetorical mountain is balanced precariously upon an empirical molehill, Akehurst claims that “very large numbers of people who would harbour extreme anti-Zionist or in some cases antisemitic views” must have left the party voluntarily since Starmer replaced Corbyn. This assertion is conveniently untestable, and the slippage from “very large numbers” to “in some cases” speaks for itself. The Labour Party’s current definition of “extreme anti-Zionism” would certainly encompass groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have carefully documented the Israeli practice of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories.
If we stick to the facts, the message from Akehurst’s article is clear: cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party involved a tiny proportion of the overall membership. When he has to present hard evidence in support of his claims, Akehurst is in full agreement with the statement from Corbyn that triggered his suspension as a Labour MP: “One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.”
From Panorama to the Forde Report
The indictment of Corbyn also relies heavily upon qualitative arguments about his record of tackling antisemitism, however many cases there may have been in total. A group of former party officials from Labour’s disciplinary unit appeared as star witnesses in the BBC Panorama documentary “Is Labour Antisemitic?” that was broadcast in July 2019. They claimed that Corbyn and his allies had done everything in their power to block action against Labour members who had expressed antisemitic views.
We have another quasi-official verdict on these allegations to draw upon. Starmer commissioned the lawyer Martin Forde to produce a report on the party’s organizational culture under Corbyn. He accepted that report without any public criticisms or reservations (as does Akehurst). According to Forde, the version of events presented in the Panorama documentary and other media reports was “wholly misleading.”
Far from seeking to interfere in the handling of antisemitism cases, staff in the leader’s office — known as LOTO for short — only got involved after the disciplinary unit sought their advice “insistently” and “refused to proceed until they had it.” LOTO responded to such requests “reasonably and in good faith.” The lurid picture of Labour officials under constant pressure from Corbyn’s team to let antisemites off the hook turned reality on its head in a jaw-dropping manner.
The program maker, John Ware, is still trying to defend his work despite all the evidence that contradicts it. The BBC has also dug in its heels, claiming that the documentary was “a serious piece of investigative journalism” that tackled the issues with “due impartiality and accuracy.” The broadcaster’s statement concluded with an obvious falsehood that speaks volumes about the empirical standards at work in this field: “When the programme was transmitted a general election was not expected until June 2022.”
Starmer and his leadership team are still pursuing a legal action against five former LOTO staff whom they accuse of leaking an exhaustively documented report on Labour’s internal culture under Corbyn that demolished the Panorama narrative. Even if everyone else wanted to forget about what happened between 2015 and 2019 and move on, they would still be determined to dredge it back up in pursuit of this vendetta.
Whoever leaked the report performed a valuable public service, exposing the inner workings of the tendency that now controls the Labour Party and obliging its leader to commission Forde’s inquiry. Starmer then had no choice but to accept Forde’s conclusions, even though it made a mockery of the false narrative about the Corbyn years upon which his leadership rests. Starmer’s factional allies are determined to seek revenge for this humiliation, whatever the cost may be.
With the Panorama documentary holed beneath the waterline, the Labour right and its media allies have fallen back on a report produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as their next line of defense. Akehurst gives the report pride of place in his account. Starmer’s team passed on a similar line to explain their determination to bar Corbyn from running as a Labour candidate:
They are unapologetic about a desire to remove any association with a period of Labour’s history that led to a historic election defeat and unprecedented censure from the equalities watchdog for unlawful discrimination against Jewish people.
This all relies on the untenable assumption that the EHRC is a credible organization that produced a serious report. Formally tasked with upholding antidiscrimination law, the commission has become a thoroughly partisan body under the careful stewardship of the Tory government that has been in office since 2010. Ian Acheson, who served as the EHRC’s chief operating officer between 2012 and 2015, wrote an article for the Spectator shortly after its report on the Labour Party was published. He spelled out the nature of that stewardship in some detail.
Acheson wanted to celebrate the appointment to the commission of David Goodhart, a leading supporter of the immigration policy developed by David Cameron and Theresa May. When that policy led to the Windrush scandal, Goodhart downplayed the unlawful deportation of several dozen people who had lived in Britain since they were children as an “error of overzealous control” and opposed any change to the government’s “hostile environment” regime. He works for the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, a prolific source of inflammatory falsehoods about ethnic minorities in Britain. It would be hard to imagine a less appropriate figure tasked with safeguarding equality and human rights.
Acheson boasted that Goodhart’s appointment was merely the latest manifestation of a long-term policy to “restore credibility” through “the stealthy introduction of commissioners who don’t regard a Conservative government as a travesty.” One does not require a degree in codebreaking to translate that into plain English. In much the same way, the Tories have placed individuals such as May’s former spin doctor Robbie Gibb on the BBC board so they can aggressively police its output in the name of “impartiality.”
As well as appointing ideological allies to the EHRC, the Tories have blocked the reappointment of commissioners who were too outspoken about racism. According to Acheson, the EHRC’s investigation of the Labour Party was one fruit of this policy. He might also have mentioned the commission’s refusal to investigate Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, despite multiple requests to do so.
The Legal Imagination
While the EHRC has no inherent claim to authority, we still have to assess the report on its own terms. First of all, the commission found no evidence to support the claims made by Panorama and passed over the whole thing in embarrassed silence. Its report did not mention the program, or its principal eyewitnesses, or the narrative that it put across.
One has to read the document very carefully to see that the commission reached the same conclusion as Forde: the former officials who appeared in Ware’s broadcast specifically asked for the leader’s office to give its opinion on a small number of cases, and LOTO pushed for more robust action to be taken. Once the self-styled “whistleblowers” moved on from their Labour jobs in the first half of 2018, the handling of antisemitism complaints improved dramatically under the supervision of Corbyn’s ally Jennie Formby.
Having implicitly branded the “whistleblowers” as unreliable witnesses, the commission went on to blame LOTO for their conduct, even though they had presented themselves to the British public as implacable opponents of Corbyn. In a breathtaking twist, the report also reproached the Labour leadership for asking its disciplinary unit to accelerate the process of removing antisemites from the party and claimed that this qualified as a form of “unlawful indirect discrimination” against Jewish people: “The inappropriateness of political interference in antisemitism complaints is not necessarily about the particular outcomes that it led to.”
As Richard Sanders and Peter Oborne noted in their assessment of the EHRC’s work:
In large measure Corbyn is being held responsible for the failures of party officials who were not just his political opponents, but also among his principal accusers when it came to allegations of antisemitism. He is being simultaneously condemned for failing to show leadership, and for interfering in the complaints procedure — even when that interference was aimed at speeding up investigations.
The finding of “unlawful harassment” relied upon similar contortions of logic. According to the commission, the Labour MP Naz Shah broke the law with comments that she posted on social media during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2014, and the former London mayor Ken Livingstone also broke the law when he defended her in a radio interview two years later. The Labour Party was said to be implicated in the second instance of lawbreaking because Livingstone was a member of its national executive at the time. This formed an essential link in the chain as Shah only became a Labour MP in 2015 and did not previously qualify as one of the party’s “agents” by the EHRC’s definition of the term.
One might have expected the EHRC to spell out the ways in which Shah had broken the law with particular care. This was the crucial section of the report:
Naz Shah’s posts included a graphic suggesting that Israel should be relocated to the United States, with the comment “problem solved,” and a post in which she appeared to liken Israeli policies to those of Hitler. Naz Shah apologised for her comments in Parliament and conceded that they caused “upset and hurt to the Jewish Community.” Ken Livingstone repeatedly denied that these posts were antisemitic and sought to minimise their offensive nature.
The commission claimed that Shah’s comments “went beyond legitimate criticism of the Israeli government, as she acknowledged” and were therefore not protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In reality, there are several good reasons to avoid comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, but the criminal law is not one of them. If people want to make such comparisons, they are free to do so, and others are free to criticize them. The same point holds for the meme to which the EHRC referred, which was a joke about Israel’s perceived status as the 51st state of the United States, not a serious proposal for mass relocation of Israelis. Some may find that joke unfunny or distasteful, but that does not mean it is a criminal offense.
There is an obvious difference between forms of speech that are foolish or insensitive on the one hand and forms of speech that are unlawful on the other. The EHRC simply collapsed the distinction between the two. The fact that Shah apologized has no bearing on the legality of her speech acts. Public figures regularly issue apologies for things they have said, but that does not represent an acknowledgement of criminality on their part.
The EHRC was not even willing to state that Shah did “liken Israeli policies to those of Hitler,” merely that she “appeared” to do so. Since Shah’s comments were, in fact, protected by Article 10, the commission’s argument about “unlawful harassment” cannot make it past first base.
At this point it’s useful to recall a previous inquiry that touched upon the affairs of the British Labour Party. In January 2004, Lord Brian Hutton published his report on the death of the scientist David Kelly. Kelly had committed suicide after being identified as the main source for a BBC report that accused Tony Blair’s government of misleading the public in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland dismissed Hutton’s report as “a performance which had its audience snorting and occasionally gasping in disbelief.” For Freedland, there was no question of deferring to the authority of a senior judicial figure:
Whatever their final conclusions, long, detailed rulings in high-profile cases are often spellbinding essays in tight, rigorous reasoning. Yesterday was not one of those days. Observers who had sat through every hour of the Hutton inquiry, reading and hearing the same evidence as his lordship, were left scratching their heads.
According to Freedland, Hutton had “turned a deaf ear to crucial facts and testimony” in his desire to exonerate the Blair government: “On each element of the case before him, Lord Hutton gave the government the benefit of the doubt, opting for the interpretation that most favoured it, never countenancing the gloss that might benefit the BBC.”
Freedland urged his readers to draw a wider conclusion about the process that led to Hutton’s whitewash:
If an argument rages on long enough, we soon call for a judge to investigate it for us in the form of a public inquiry. We see and hear the same evidence he does, but still we invest in him some mystical power to reach a conclusive truth we have not seen. And eventually he comes down from the mountain, like the high priest of yore, and delivers his judgment. Yesterday’s show shattered that illusion. Suddenly you found yourself seeing through the grandeur and mystique and wondering, who exactly is this man? Why was he chosen for this task?
Before ascending to the highest levels of the judiciary, Hutton represented the Ministry of Defence at the Widgery Tribunal that gave judicial sanction to the murder of fourteen civilians by the British army in Derry. The Widgery report was one of several fiascos name-checked by Freedland as he questioned “our need to ask a single, bewigged man to separate truth from lies in public life.”
The EHRC is a product of the same culture that generated Widgery, Hutton, and a host of other travesties, although its proximity to the state’s executive arm is greater than that of the judiciary. The authors of the commission’s report stretched the evidence past breaking point so they could criticize the Labour Party, just as Hutton stretched the evidence past breaking point so he could criticize the BBC.
If liberal commentators are now unwilling to revisit the good sense that Freedland articulated in 2004 and prefer to rely on the “grandeur and mystique” of official bodies, that merely reflects their own shift rightward as the complacency of the Blair years gave way to an age of crisis. There has been much talk in recent years of the deep state and its political interventions, real or alleged. Bodies like the EHRC, on the other hand, occupy the children’s paddling pool of the state, where anyone can observe their activity if they are willing to look at what is in front of them.
We can draw some revealing parallels between the trajectories of Sturgeon and Corbyn. Over the last decade, there was a popular backlash against the legacies of Margaret Thatcher and Blair that made the SNP’s breakthrough and the mobilization behind Corbyn in the Labour Party possible. Yet the way in which the two politicians sought to channel that backlash underlined the differences between them.
Throughout the Blair years, the SNP positioned itself to the left of Labour on issues of domestic and foreign policy, from student fees to the invasion of Iraq. When Sturgeon set out her pitch for statehood in a 2012 speech, she linked the cause of Scottish independence to social-democratic principles:
In the past, the Union would have been seen as not just the creator but also the guarantor of the values and vision of the post-war welfare state. Today, many see that it is the Union that poses the biggest threat to these values and that vision. We have the power to protect our NHS but because benefits and pensions are reserved, we are powerless to protect the disabled from the worst aspects of welfare reforms.
In 2013, Sturgeon railed against “disgraceful welfare cuts being imposed on Scotland by a Tory government we didn’t vote for,” at a time when Labour’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls had endorsed the austerity economics of Cameron and George Osborne.
The referendum campaign took the form of a social movement against the British social order that was disproportionately supported by young and working-class Scots. This wasn’t the result of careful planning by the SNP. There was a much wider push in Scottish civil society, with groups like the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign taking the message into council estates where most people were disengaged from conventional party politics. Yet Sturgeon’s party proved to be the main beneficiary after the pro-independence camp fell short of its ultimate goal.
There was a massive influx of new members into the SNP that prefigured the Labour membership surge under Corbyn. Starting with about 25,000 members on the eve of the referendum, the party had signed up 125,000 by the end of 2018.
In the 2015 Westminster election, the SNP demanded greater powers for the Scottish Parliament but also stressed its opposition to austerity and nuclear weapons. It took 50 percent of the vote in Scotland and won all but three constituencies, with Labour reduced to a single seat. It is hard to imagine the Labour membership voting so decisively for Corbyn a few months later without the shock of losing Scotland.
Party and Movement
The organizational cultures in which Sturgeon and Corbyn had to operate after taking the reins were profoundly different. The majority of Labour MPs were openly hostile to their new leader, having come of political age during the heyday of Blairism. Corbyn and his allies also had to learn how to manage a party and get their message across in the national media with virtually no previous experience to draw upon.
Sturgeon, on the other hand, had been part of the SNP’s front-bench team in Edinburgh since she was first elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. By the time of her ascension to the party leadership, she had served as Scotland’s deputy first minister under Alex Salmond for seven years. When Sturgeon took over from Salmond without a formal contest after the 2014 referendum, there were no ideological fault lines running through the party for her to worry about.
By 2015, the vast majority of people who had ever been elected to a parliament for the SNP, whether in London or Edinburgh, had achieved that status with Salmond or Sturgeon as their party leader. This was no doubt more important in maintaining public unity than a motion passed at the 2015 SNP conference that explicitly forbade criticism of “a group decision, policy or another member of the group” by its parliamentarians. If the Labour conference had passed any such motion, many of its MPs would have risen up in revolt, defending their right to support such honorable causes as the Saudi invasion of Yemen or the refusal of McDonald’s to recognize trade unions.
The lack of serious differences within the SNP leadership, or between the leadership and its parliamentary group, meant that the new members played a very limited role in the party’s development. The SNP’s transformation after the referendum was one of quantity rather than quality, with no attempt to devolve power from the summit to the base of the movement. A small group of allies and advisers grouped around Sturgeon made all the key decisions as the party sought to capitalize on its newfound strength.
In his 2020 book The Case for Scottish Independence, Ben Jackson made a sharp observation about the legacy of the 2014 campaign for the SNP:
The overall political strategy adopted by leading Scottish nationalists since the 1980s has been progressively to downplay how radical a break independence would be from the economic and social status quo under the Union . . . yet when historical circumstances unexpectedly presented the SNP with the opportunity to run an independence referendum, nationalist leaders found that the rhetoric and the popular mobilization of such a plebiscite overran the cautious positions they had staked out . . . the 2014 referendum created a nationalist movement that was deeply committed to the symbolism of a popular vote for independence and saw the transition to Scottish statehood as a decisive rupture from the British model of politics and economics.
Jackson wondered how this “ruptural” sentiment could be reconciled in the long run with the “cautious and gradualist outlook” of the SNP hierarchy.
Rhetoric and Reality
Sturgeon’s own political instincts placed her well to the right of the new members who joined the SNP after 2014. Under the leadership of Corbyn and John McDonnell, Labour developed an ambitious plan to transform the British economy based on the expansion of public ownership and the empowerment of workers. Sturgeon’s version of social democracy was much less radical: before the referendum, she had already dismissed a blueprint for economic reform from the left-wing Common Weal think tank, explaining that she was “wary of its tax implications.”
As David Torrance noted in his 2016 biography of Sturgeon, she responded to the Labour Party’s left turn under Corbyn with unconcealed and opportunistic hostility: “Having long argued that the Auld Enemy had suffered from becoming too right-wing, Sturgeon switched seamlessly to chastising it for being too weak and unelectable.” Torrance detected “an ever-increasing gulf between ‘radical’ rhetoric and the more prosaic reality,” especially after the Brexit referendum of June 2016.
The SNP leadership saw Brexit as an opportunity to recalibrate its pitch for Scottish statehood as a vehicle for liberal-centrist continuity. Sturgeon and her associates appeared to believe that they could bank the popular energy of 2014–15 without doing anything to sustain it over the years to come. Their priority now was to reach out to a new layer of people who might think again about independence if Britain left the EU.
The party’s vote share declined sharply in the 2017 UK election, although it remained comfortably ahead of its nearest rival. Two years later, Sturgeon came close to repeating her 2015 triumph, taking forty-eight of Scotland’s fifty-nine Westminster seats. She then led the SNP to another decisive victory in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. For the third time in a row, pro-independence parties had a majority of seats in the assembly at Holyrood.
Even so, there was no clear path from this achievement to a fresh referendum. The 2014 plebiscite was the result of a bilateral agreement between Cameron and Salmond, and there was no legal obligation on Boris Johnson’s government to call another one. The outcome of the 2019 general election had ended the crisis at Westminster and the British power elite could now devote much of its energy to preserving the Union.
Having ruled out a Catalan-style unauthorized referendum, the SNP leadership was left hoping for a Conservative defeat in the next general election. From that perspective, the self-inflicted Tory meltdown in the first half of 2022 seemed like a promising development. Having led the polls for much of 2021, Johnson shot himself several times in the political foot and handed the advantage to Labour.
Between January and June of last year, Starmer’s party had an average lead of 6.7 percent. If the Tories could knock a point or two off that margin in the course of an election campaign, Labour would still have the largest number of seats, but it would probably need to strike a deal of some kind with the SNP to form a government. That might supply Sturgeon’s party with enough leverage to extract a new plebiscite from Labour. With other routes closed off, this was the best the SNP could hope for under the circumstances.
Driving the Wedge
This door had barely opened when the short-lived tenure of Liz Truss as Conservative leader slammed it shut again. From the day Truss became prime minister until the end of February, the average gap between Labour and the Tories was 22.3 percent. Rishi Sunak, who took over from Truss at the end of October, has been unable to repair the damage she inflicted on the Conservative Party’s public standing. Barring an extraordinary turnaround, the Tories are headed for a crushing defeat.
In that scenario, with Labour in possession of a comfortable majority at Westminster, the SNP would find its path blocked once again. Sturgeon’s decision to wind down the popular movement that emerged in 2014 and pursue a more conventional approach has ended in failure. In itself, that would be reason enough for her to step back after a long career in frontline politics.
However, there was another factor behind Sturgeon’s departure. In what proved to be her final year at the helm, the Conservatives decided to use opposition to trans rights as a wedge issue in the hope of undermining the SNP. The way this effort unfolded bore a striking formal resemblance to the campaign against Corbyn, although it never reached the same level of intensity.
The Scottish government promised to reform the law on gender recognition in its manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, as did Labour, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats. Those parties won three-quarters of all Holyrood seats. Ireland passed similar legislation several years ago, and May’s government had drawn up plans for reform of the process that were later scrapped by Johnson.
At this point, the EHRC once again demonstrated a striking ability to harmonize its interventions with the political needs of the Conservative Party. In January 2022, the Commission urged Sturgeon’s government to put gender-recognition reform on the back burner, reversing its previous stance that such reform was necessary. LGBT groups and human rights organizations strongly criticized the commission’s new line and noted the extent to which “politically motivated” appointments had compromised its independence.
The EHRC thus provided Sunak with some valuable political cover when his government vetoed the legislation that the Scottish Parliament passed by an overwhelming majority in January this year. Starmer instructed Labour MPs to abstain during the vote at Westminster, even though the Scottish Labour Party had supported the reform.
To the delight of Sturgeon’s opponents, the controversy opened up divisions in the pro-independence camp. Nine members of the SNP’s Holyrood caucus voted against the legislation or abstained on it. Salmond also decided to stick his oar into the debate, reviving his feud with Sturgeon.
Having marched in political lockstep for many years, Sturgeon and Salmond fell out dramatically over allegations of misconduct against the former SNP leader that resulted in a criminal trial for sexual assault. After Salmond’s acquittal in 2020, the two politicians put forward conflicting narratives at a dramatic parliamentary inquiry, and Salmond formed a breakaway group called Alba that flopped at the 2021 Holyrood election. Sturgeon’s political mentor now seized the opportunity to rail against her in comments that were reported on appreciatively by the Conservative press.
When he was on trial, Salmond’s lawyer stressed that while his conduct toward women might have been unethical, that didn’t necessarily mean that it was unlawful:
I’m not dealing with whether or not he could have been a better man, because he certainly could have been. I’m in a court of law dealing with whether he’s guilty of serious criminal charges.
Despite the acquittal, there was little room for doubt that Salmond’s behavior as first minister was completely inappropriate for a man in his position. His reemergence as a self-professed champion of “dedicated women’s rights campaigners” was an impressive display of chutzpah if nothing else.
A Diminished Party
A few years ago, Sturgeon was happy to join in with the chorus against Corbyn. With Corbyn’s movement out of the way, the SNP leader was the main threat left standing to the established order in British politics, and she now received a small dose of the same medicine, right down to the involvement of the EHRC. It must have rankled with Sturgeon to see Salmond present himself as a champion of women’s rights, but that pales in comparison to the canonization of Margaret Hodge as the patron saint of anti-racism.
Like Starmer, Sturgeon was a lawyer before she entered politics, and like Starmer, she must know perfectly well that the case against Corbyn was a dud. Yet Corbyn’s opponents are still hawking that case around as if it were proof of gross moral turpitude without any precedent in modern British history. Sturgeon’s technocratic leadership style would not have been enough to protect her from a full-scale onslaught if she pressed hard for the breakup of the British state. It’s little wonder if she decided to quit while she was still relatively unscathed.
With Sturgeon gone, the SNP is clearly a weakened party. In contrast with her own elevation to the leadership in 2014, there was no successor lined up this time around. The main lines of division between the candidates have been over social issues rather than strategies for independence. Sturgeon’s finance secretary, Kate Forbes, has made it clear that she would act on the basis of her conservative religious views, while Humza Yousaf promises to continue working for reform of the gender-recognition law.
The policy differences between the main contenders are probably less significant for the SNP’s future than what they have in common. Sturgeon joined the party as a teenager in the 1980s when it was still a minority, oppositional force in Scottish politics. Yousaf and Forbes both got involved for the first time when the SNP was already on a path to replace Labour as Scotland’s hegemonic party. Yousaf was elected to Holyrood in 2011 and became a government minister the following year; Forbes won her seat in 2016 and was elevated to the cabinet by 2018.
This is not the kind of political formation likely to foster an insurgent, populist style that can rekindle the energies of 2014. Nor is it likely to be of much use if the SNP has to swim against the current for the first time in more than a decade. The opponents of Scottish independence have good reason to be pleased with the way things are shaping up.
The big problem with the claim that British politics is now experiencing a “great moderation” is, of course, the nature of the Conservative Party. The Economist suggests that the Tories are becoming more sensible and pragmatic, with a leader whose pitch is based on “managerial competence rather than cartoonish radicalism.” Rentoul also credits Sunak with bringing “the soothing balm of competence” to his party after its “wilder adventures” with Johnson and Truss.
In reality, Sunak and his allies are planning to fight the next election on culture-war issues of every kind, from trans rights to children’s literature. Sunak’s home secretary, Suella Braverman, who has a track record of promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories, recently brought forward a new bill targeting refugees that attracted the praise of Europe’s far right. The main public opposition to the bill came, not from Starmer and the Labour Party, but from a retired footballer and television pundit, Gary Lineker.
When pundits assert that the Tories are no longer in the grip of extremism, they mean that Sunak is not going to pick fights with big business in the way that Johnson and Truss both did. So long as the Conservative Party respects those parameters, it can indulge in xenophobia as much as it likes.
The “great moderation” celebrated by the Economist has removed two politicians, Corbyn and Sturgeon, who challenged prejudice against immigrants and refugees instead of triangulating around it. We are left with an uglier, nastier public culture, while the two main parties have no serious plans to reform a broken economic model that has generated a profound social crisis.
For all the differences between them, Corbyn and Sturgeon both argued that there was something fundamentally wrong with the manner in which Britain is governed and suggested that there might be a better way of doing things. That was the sin for which they could not be forgiven. With the political mainstream once more in the grip of dreary conformism, any challenge to a dysfunctional status quo will have to arise from outside the confines of Westminster.