Where have all the leaders gone?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 20th 2017

We have a problem with leaders – specifically, a dearth of them in Scotland, the UK and most of the Western world. There is a crisis of authority, trust and legitimacy with, for some, populism, trusting instincts and voicing your inner rage all that is left.

Who do we trust to speak to us, to listen and understand our problems? To offer a guide that points in a direction and takes us there at a speed and consistency that respects anxieties and doubts, and the need to build broad coalitions of support?

Across the West who is there? Angela Merkel does not rate badly as a straight dealing managerialist; whereas Emmanuel Macron has already shown the shallowness of his early promise. In the US, aside from the car crush of the Trump Presidency, Hillary Clinton has just published her memoirs underlining her political weaknesses that contributed to why she lost to the most unpopular Presidential candidate in decades.

In Britain it is no better. Theresa May’s zombie government, Boris Johnson ongoing Brexit manoeuvres to win the crown he thinks rightly his, and a Labour opposition under Jeremy Corbyn sticking to its old tunes and comfort zones.

Is Scotland really that different from the rest of the UK? We have now had, over two decades of Scottish devolution, a lot of political leaders but not much clear leadership. The main four parties will have had twenty leaders counting Labour’s next leader – nine Labour, four SNP (including two periods of Salmond), three Tory, and four Lib Dems.

Scottish Labour never got the hang of how to do leadership, indicated by the instability and churn in what has now become a biennial change, with nine leaders over eighteen years. When was the last time a Scottish Labour leader said something which people paid attention to and which shaped the political weather? None of the party’s three First Ministers managed to do this – Donald Dewar and Henry McLeish in admittedly short periods in office, or Jack McConnell in five and a half years at the helm.

There was the procession of opposition leaders – of Wendy Alexander and ‘Bring it on’ on an independence vote, Iain Gray being chased into a Subway shop, Johann Lamont and ‘something for nothing’, Jim Murphy going on about football and booze, and then Kezia Dugdale. Murphy’s Irn Bru crates and being pelted with an egg was before he became leader, while Lamont’s most famous comment was in resigning and accusing London Labour of treating the party as a ‘branch office’.

The Lib Dem franchise has always been smaller and its leaders – Jim Wallace, Nicol Stephen, Tavish Scott and Willie Rennie – too respectable and moderate to be in any of the other parties. And of course, the Lib Dem boy’s club has a historic problem with promoting and electing women.

The Tories have become one of the survivor stories of devolution under David McLetchie, Annabel Goldie and Ruth Davidson. They have rehabilitated themselves to an extent and made an impact – McLetchie contributing to the downfall of Henry McLeish as First Minister, and supplanting Labour as the main challengers to the SNP under Davidson. But can anyone identify a single Tory idea or cause of the last two decades, apart from ‘No means No’ in the 2017 UK election? Tories being pro-union and anti-independence can be taken as a given, but where are the other great Tory campaigns? Instead, there is silence.

This brings us to the Scottish Nationalists led by Salmond Mark One, John Swinney, Salmond Mark Two and Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP have been the principal beneficiaries of two decades of devolution, becoming a professionalised party with resources and staff in 1999, as well as the principal opposition to Labour, before supplanting them in office in 2007.

What has been the hallmark of SNP leadership in that period? They have become part of the mainstream, ceased to be outsiders, earned a reputation for competence, and of course, held an independence referendum. But what great causes and issues have they championed which would have effected change? Our scandalous health inequalities, educational apartheid and slipping down international rankings? None of these, or any other policy issue, has systematically been advanced and tackled.

Salmond Mark Two earns points for winning a majority, staging a referendum, and although losing, changing how independence and Scotland sees itself. That is a mark of leadership. Yet, since the high watermark of the SNP 2014-15, the SNP under Sturgeon seem to have reverted to safety first, complacent leadership which, say it quietly, looks rather like Scottish Labour in office. No vested interests are challenged, no home truths told about independence and its choices, and neither the party or wider constituency is engaged in a wider conversation about future directions and priorities.

There are lone political entrepreneurs of recent times, and Tommy Sheridan, Margo MacDonald, even Patrick Harvie – co-leader of the Scottish Greens – might fall into this camp. They have all had episodic impact, Sheridan and MacDonald on specific issues, warrant sales and assisted dying, but that doesn’t amount to sustained leadership.

What does all this tell us? Well, leadership in turbulent times is tough, but Scotland’s devolution era includes a decade of rising prosperity and public spending, as well as one of austerity and cuts. First, leadership is problematic at the best of times. Most of the archetypes and role models are very male and machismo, based on the leader as hero and saviour. This increasingly doesn’t fit with the reality of much of society which has seen the increasing feminisation of employment and blurring of gender roles and ideas, the latter particularly prevalent among younger people.

Second, alternative currents have always had an ambivalence about leadership. They have decried traditional forms of leadership, but often yearned to capture and control existing offices – as with Corbyn and Labour. Many on the left wish to see more collective leadership, but are equally trapped historically in their own cult of the individual – think Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro and Che Guevara as examples, and even to a much lesser extent, Corbyn here.

Third, many parts of society beyond politics recoil at the word leadership. In sectors such as the arts and culture many do all they can to invoke different ideas of authority and expertise such as defining themselves as curators or practitioners. Leaders are seen in this as inherently problematic and limited in their democratic appeal and mandate, whether in politics or organisations.

Is there though something specific in Scottish culture about our attitude to leaders? There is something about the place of Scotland’s political classes in a society that has not fully democratised and where large parts of our political power lie elsewhere – in Westminster. Devolution has always felt a politics of patronage and slicing up the cake, with many, if not most of the really big decisions (whether we go to war, where the country sits geo-politically, until recently the level of the entire Scottish Block Grant) taken elsewhere.

One leadership coach told me that he thinks our political classes and wider public elite are ‘blinded by their own privilege’, and don’t want to face this or accept their own personal responsibility. There is, he views, in a culture of myriad inequalities and divisions, ‘no real restlessness’ – both in these elites, or exerting pressure on them. Instead, they administer, he suggests in ‘a zone of comfortableness’ difficult to break out of.

There are alternative approaches. In recent years Scotland has seen an explosion of DIY, self-organising leadership: from Section 28, to the Rangers FC debacle, and most recently, the indyref. The first two are germane examples for, in both, institutional Scotland failed us. In the Section 28 case, the mainstream parties, Labour particularly, but the SNP too, ran a mile from standing up for equality and taking a stand against moral conservatism and homophobia. The opposition came from equality campaigners, NGOs and trade unions.

In the Rangers FC controversy, it was football fans from the other 41 clubs who rebelled against the time honoured stitch up of the football authorities which would have seen Rangers after liquidation start life again in the senior Premier League as if nothing had happened, and then, when that wouldn’t work, the division below. Instead, Rangers started anew in the fourth tier of the game in a compromise that many in the Ibrox club saw as punishment. Fan power, traditionally ignored and belittled in Scotland, had won a noteworthy victory for principle.

These examples all draw from the traditional Scottish sense of morality that senses when something isn’t right and decides to take a stand on principle. There is a strength and weakness in this: the strength acting from first principles, the weakness: the holier than thou’ superiority which can come across as condescending.

These examples of DIY leadership point towards the likely future direction of authority and power. Such leadership is likely to be more campaign and issue based as well as episodic. But it leaves the question: what do we do with political leadership? We have a Parliament that has lots of decent politicians, but is mostly bereft of leadership. And we have political parties and traditions that pay homage to the tropes of leadership, but which, with the exception of Alex Salmond, have seldom practiced it.

Do we want to change this state of affairs? If we do, the first step would be to stop pretending that everything is alright and the best we can hope for. Do we mind that we are missing critical and vital elements of leadership and just going through the motions? Sadly, for some, politics and public life as pretence seems to be good enough.