Two weeks ago, a piece by Source’s James Foley titled “Against Salmond Derangement Syndrome” was published. It spends its first half mostly talking about the general observable trend of popular leaders across the ideological spectrum developing parasocial and overzealous bases of support. It then contrasts the present day with a nebulous golden era of post-war Fordism when politicians were allegedly loyal to their constituents and not the other way round. It ends with the following, which seems completely non-sequential and unrelated to the rest of the piece:
“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.”
There’s a lot to unpack here.
Who is being identified as “the Scottish left”? Can American liberalism, now firmly back in charge of every wing of the US government and culturally hegemonic, truly be described as “ruined”? Was it Brexit derangement alone that killed the Labour left and do any of these dynamics revolve around the politics of “fandom” that Foley spends an entire piece insisting upon as the real problem?
The real thread running through all of these recent political developments is the retreat of insurgent and “populist” political forces on both the left and the right, supplanted by the steady reconsolidation of the once-embattled centre. This is happening on a world-historical level across the globe, in a manner that cannot be explained away by reducing political phenomena to “fandom”, and to do so is to do a disservice to all of us who believe in challenging the politics of the centrist status quo. Sanders lost because he was unable to galvanise apathetic working class non-voters into his electoral project, while millions of affluent suburban ex-republicans flooded the primaries to vote for Biden and transformed the class composition of the Democratic party. Corbyn was undone by his own project’s inability to seriously grapple with England’s national question, a bloodthirsty media ecosystem as well as a counterrevolutionary hard-europhile centrist movement of middle class indignation in the form of “People’s Vote”. Populist parties in Europe – on both the left and right – have come undone through a combination of losing votes to establishment parties and being disoriented and torn apart by their internal contradictions.
If you want to seriously point to a single moment in recent Scottish political history which draws parallels with other developments in the English-speaking world, you wouldn’t have to go further back beyond 2015 – the year that the SNP’s ascent began to reach stratospheric heights, completely absorbing previously non-partisan independence movement activists and co-opting significant sections of the pro-independence left into its own
. But to confront this reality would also mean having to confront the fact that Corbynism’s only lasting achievement in the wake of its demise has been nearly symmetrical – absorbing radical energies and movements into the stale edifices of Labourism. It would also mean forcing self-proclaimed leadership figures in the Scottish pro-indy left to introspect the mistakes they made themselves (e.g. the disastrous self-indulgent exercise that was RISE in 2016).
The idea of “Salmond derangement syndrome” is, on the surface, one that deserves serious consideration. After all, Sturgeon and Salmond are the two most significant figures in Scottish politics, and anchor two poles within the hegemonic formation completely dominating public life in the country. Most serious anticapitalist thinkers in Scotland recognise the similarity of Salmond’s neoliberal politics to that of Sturgeon. The fire and fury generated by the scandal has undoubtedly taken away a lot of oxygen from the overlapping social and environmental crises facing Scotland today – although mainstream discourse was never likely to promote it either. However, there is simply no evidence that the scandal is disorienting the Scottish left outwith the SNP itself.
The implied consequence of “Salmond Derangement Syndrome” here is that parts of the Scottish radical left will completely abandon any critical faculties in the presence of Nicola Sturgeon and bend to her cult of personality over this manufactured controversy. There are people on the left of the SNP who display that kind of loyalty at times, but the broader Scottish left cannot be accused of any such thing. Sturgeon deserves to face real scrutiny for the failed procedures of her administration which let down female complainants. That does not, however, make it beyond the pale for people to instinctively sympathise with her in the face of a barrage of misogyny, especially one occurring against the backdrop of a saga where a woman is being made to answer for a powerful man’s actions.
Unlike Brexit or Trump “derangement”, the Salmond-Sturgeon fight has been purely one of personality against personality, and no constitutional or significant political divides have emerged as a result of it. Sadly, this is true of pretty much every major dispute to have erupted within the independence movement in the last few years, be it the GRA fight or even the tussle over “plan A vs plan B”. That this remains the case is a damning indictment of every part of Scotland’s political class, but also of a Scottish left unable and unwilling to intervene in such a fraught situation on its own terms. A left speaking to itself, burning down its own institutions and opportunistically tailing factions of the ruling party rather than building power and fighting for its agenda independently. That, not “Salmond derangement syndrome”, is the real problem.