Paul Begala, an American political commentator and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, once said that ‘politics is show business for ugly people’. Scottish politics today has moved away from show business, and towards rock-and-roll.
Last Saturday, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s new First Minister, joined an illustrious list of performers who have appeared in front of a sell-out crowd at Glasgow’s 13,000-capacity Hydro Arena. Such is the eager, overwhelming demand for political speeches and debate in Scotland today, the SNP event sold-out faster than any other previous performer, from Lady Gaga to Rod Stewart to Kylie Minogue, at Scotland’s premier events arena on the banks of the river Clyde. Thousands more watched via a live stream online. The event’s hashtag trended globally on Twitter in second place. As Sturgeon told the cheering crowd, ‘Democracy rocks!’
This was the last leg of Sturgeon’s nationwide tour of Scotland since her elevation from Deputy Leader to Leader of the Scottish National Party, which has seen her speak before packed crowds of SNP members in Dundee, Dumfries, Edinburgh, Inverness, and now Glasgow. Her sixth and final stop will be in Aberdeen on December 7th. Total membership of the SNP is now 92,000 and rising daily, making it the UK’s third largest political party – larger even than the Liberal Democrats and UKIP together.
The energy and enthusiasm which these masses of new members have brought to what was already Scotland’s biggest and most active political party, was clearly evident on Saturday at the Hydro. Speeches by Sturgeon’s predecessor and mentor Alex Salmond and her Deputy Stewart Hosie were rapturously received, as were eclectic musical performances by pro-independence artists like the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Eddie Reader, Dougie McLean and more. Salmond won the loudest applause and longest standing ovation of the afternoon before he had even spoken a single word of his barn-storming speech to the faithful.
Let’s stop for a moment to realise how remarkable this event was. Is it possible to imagine, in your wildest dreams, any other political party or movement in the British Isles attracting such large, loud and passionate support? When was the last time David Cameron delivered a speech to an audience that was anything other than a small assortment of hand-picked journalists and party hacks? Can you imagine any chart-topping band publicly supporting a decidedly awkward and uncool Ed Miliband? Could Nick Clegg sell-out a phone box never mind a 13,000-seat arena? Can anyone envisage Nigel Farage seeming so modern, touring the country with a hip-hop support act in tow?
At the Hydro on Saturday, Sturgeon really did seem like the lead singer of an international pop band. Her eventual appearance at the very end of the two-hour long show was preceded by numerous supporting acts who built the atmosphere to a fever pitch for her long-awaited appearance on stage. Stalls selling merchandise bearing her name, and that of the party she joined at 16 and now leads, were doing a roaring trade. T-shirts detailing her ‘tour dates’ or with phrases like ‘Sturgeon 2015’ were bought and worn with pride by hipsters and OAPs, the fashion-conscious and the politically geeky, alike. It was more like a music gig, than a party political rally; the politics of big ideas and inspiring spectacle on a grand scale.
It mirrors the sort of slick mass politics that we are used to observing from afar in America – the land of iconic, cool campaigns like Kennedy 1960, Clinton 1992 and Obama 2008, where everything, including politics, can look so much bigger, better, and brighter. If there is a democracy in Europe as electric as Scotland’s, it must be one hell of a place.
The SNP has somehow managed to make Scottish politics, perhaps for the very first time, cool. It is a party, in spirit and now in terms of average age too, of youth. Never before have so many young Scots been energised and radicalised by civic discourse. Out of the despair and sadness felt by many pro-independence Scots after the referendum result, has come hope and defiance, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. As Salmond has been fond of saying these past few weeks; “Scotland has changed, changed utterly”. It’s a refrain borrowed by Salmond from W.B. Yeats’ famous poem about Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. His use of it spoke to his sense of history, but also his intuitions about the living, breathing present. Scotland is a truly different, better place for having had the referendum.
In a historic first for these islands, Sturgeon’s first Scottish Government Cabinet achieved complete gender equality. In a remarkable moment in Scottish, British and European political history, Scotland’s highest level of government is now 50% female and 50% male, earning congratulations and praise from the United Nations and feminist academics.
Almost overnight, it seems, Scotland’s political landscape has radically altered to one dominated by women. Scotland’s First Minister is a woman – and a working-class one at that – as is the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament is a woman. Moreover, three of the leaders of the Scottish Parliament’s five largest parties are now women. For any country, this would be a remarkable, laudable achievement. For a country like Scotland, for so long seen, rightly or wrongly, as deeply misogynistic and patriarchal, a country still associated with a macho, tough-guy persona, this achievement is all the more significant.
Not only that, but two of Scotland’s five parliamentary leaders are also openly gay. The leader of Scotland’s only right-wing party, the Scottish Conservatives, is a lesbian kick-boxer – just to prove how wonderfully different Holyrood really is from pale, male, and stale Westminster. Only a few short decades ago, until 1980 in fact, homosexuality was criminalised in Scotland. Until 2000, when Section 28 was finally abolished, teachers were banned from the ‘promotion’ or even the discussion of non-heterosexual relationships in Scotland’s schools. In 2014, the Scottish Parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage. Scotland really has changed, changed utterly. And, what’s more, it’s still changing.
Of course, the fight for complete equality and universal human rights has not yet been won. There is still a long way to go. But, rest assured, the forces of progress are winning – in Scotland at least. A whole generation of Scots will grow up with the national leadership of women and minorities as normal. And that can only be a good thing. The glass ceiling may not have fallen down quite yet, but there’s an almighty hole in it the size of Nicola Sturgeon’s right hook. The times, they are a-changin’.
By David Kelly