I HAVE NEVER BEEN convinced that this inquiry would end with Nicola Sturgeon resigning in disgrace. On Tuesday night, I wobbled a bit, as a raft of new revelations cast doubt on the SNP leadership’s Jenga tower of rationalisations. Momentarily, everything seemed to be conspiring – if that’s the appropriate word – against the First Minister. However, after eight hours of grilling yesterday, Sturgeon has emerged almost unscathed. There was no embarrassing tongue-tied moment that will go viral and make the public care about this sordid affair.
Indeed, the immediate effect was to reinforce the peculiar parasocial bond between the First Minister and her fanbase. “I stand with Nicola!” And that hashtag itself represents a strange quirk of contemporary political behaviour.
It is further evidence that people engage with political leaders as imaginary friends – hence the first names – towards whom you offer moral support, rather than representatives in institutional roles, over whom you attempt to assert power. It’s the inverse of how democratic relationships should work.
Perhaps I am personally biased against Sturgeon, since her brand of managerial centrism is ideologically the opposite of my own belief system. But this practice is equally odd regardless of whether the bond is with “the Donald”, “AOC”, “Jezza”, “Boris” or “Wee Eck”. Political leadership is necessary, but it should be built on structures of accountability – not fandoms.
Oddly, one of the things I like best about our First Minister is that (generally speaking) she does not play the game of having a tragic backstory. Sturgeon’s willingness to make everything about politics has always been worthy of respect. Yesterday, by contrast, was fandom service. Emotions were deployed time after time – it was all so personal. All of which served, rather effectively, to gloss over a succession of errors which the First Minister herself said have been “catastrophic”, not least for the women concerned, and over which not a single official has resigned.
“Relatability” thus substitutes for doing things or taking institutional responsibility. Rather than representing interests, politicians represent (via gestures) the pains and traumas they imagine we have experienced. Many cynics are reducing “I stand with Nicola” to self-interest among grant-funded layers of Scottish civil society. But there is a simpler explanation: Sturgeon was just giving the parasocial fandom what they wanted – Connection with the Leader.
It’s often felt that those who experience “real life” (or talk as if they have) are better placed to represent us. This is a serious fallacy. Working class influence on politics was strongest in the post-War era, but go back and watch interviews with those politicians and they could have been beamed in from Mars. They are not “relatable” now, nor were they “relatable” then. They were profoundly odd characters, who were often happier quoting passages of the Aeneid in Latin than talking about their own tragedies on television.
The difference was that “ordinary” people used their strength in numbers to force their interests on these oddballs. And so far, according to all historical evidence, that’s the road to progress. Politicians are not necessarily evil people, but they are subject to all the temptations of money, power and status; only fear and collective discipline keeps them remotely in touch. Political fandoms play precisely the opposite function. They tell politicians that we are with them no matter how badly they screw us.
And they present the risk of genuinely democratic forces being railroaded. Would be critics are bullied and browbeaten into unconditional support for a government that has done little to advance the interests of Scotland’s working people or to move the country towards independence. After yesterday, the risk remains that Salmond derangement syndrome will subsume the Scottish left, just as Trump derangement ruined American liberals and Brexit derangement killed the Labour Left.