Each is blessed with that most elusive quality – charisma – and both are stalwarts of independence movements. Johnson’s rallying cry of “Get Brexit Done” saw him win a thumping majority at the 2019 general election, enabling him to force through his flawed ‘hard’ deal with the European Union. Sturgeon’s ambition to achieve ‘Scexit’ may have been thwarted but, as she pointed out this week, she was very good at leading the SNP to repeated election victories.
This success at the ballot box was achieved by populist means and a key strategy deployed by both was to blame foreigners for our woes and suggest that the solution was to “take back control”, a Brexiteer slogan that fits seamlessly into SNP rhetoric. For Johnson and co, the enemy was “Brussels” and its bureaucrats, responsible for a string of affronts to UK sovereignty, many of which were made up or so distorted by political spin as to be unrecognisable.
For Sturgeon and her party, the enemy remains “Westminster” and the “despised” Tories, a strategy that ignores the potential for future changes of government. They exist to be blamed when things go wrong. And when the Scottish Government comes under fire for one of its many failings, a stock response is to insist the situation is worse south of the Border, as if this somehow alleviates the sufferings of people in pain on an NHS waiting list, or trapped in poverty, or receiving a substandard education.
The creation of these villainous caricatures whips up the political ‘base’ of both, enraging and motivating them. And it provides a means to deflect and distract from any and all genuine criticisms. And it must be admitted that it is – or at least has been – highly effective in winning political power.
However, Brexit, Covid and the cost-of-living crisis have, in different ways, exposed just how shallow and lacking in true value such populist politics really is. Brexit has clearly damaged the economy – how could putting up barriers to trade do anything else? And workforce shortages are a serious problem in many different sectors of the economy, with unfilled jobs likely to disappear eventually. Scexit could well be much worse.
The pandemic created a crisis so all-encompassing that it forced both the UK and Scottish governments to act differently, and while there was some friction, there was also a degree of cooperation. High inflation and energy bills have had a similar effect of forcing ministers to address real-world problems, and may have played a role in Brexiteer Rishi Sunak’s decision to mend fences with France and the EU. Picking fights for electoral purposes is dangerous when your country is economically weak and in need of friends.
Leaders with the best interests of the people they represent at heart are focussed on the primary tasks of government: protecting the population, both militarily and by providing high-quality healthcare; creating prosperity by adopting sensible economic policies and providing high-quality education to ensure people have the skills that businesses need; and ensuring justice and human rights for all. They need to be passionate about these issues, not flags and anthems, and they should respond to criticisms of their record by making reasoned arguments, not by blaming or shaming ‘foreigners’, the principal calling card of populist nationalism of many different stripes.
With Sturgeon’s departure from Bute House and Johnson’s potential expulsion from the Commons, it just might be that we are witnessing the beginning of the end for this artful, disingenuous style of politics as the public increasingly sees through its empty promises, its style over substance, and the result: growing signs of a nation in decline.