What will you be doing next Sunday at 8pm? If you live north of the border, the ideologically correct answer is clapping for ‘Oor Nicola’. Nicola Sturgeon is turning 50 and several thousand of her more enthusiastic admirers are planning to hold a clap in her honour.
The news was reported, amazingly enough, not in the pages of Rodong Sinmun but in the Daily Record. The salutation to the Supreme McLeader is being organised through Facebook by Siobhan McCann. The Record quotes McCann saying: ’Our First Minister has done an exceptional job throughout what's been a strange year so far, to say the least. We clapped for our fantastic NHS. We even clapped for Boris at some point (why, I’m not quite sure). Let’s give Nicola the 'full regalia' on her 50th birthday, Sunday 19th July at 8pm… Get the pipes and pans oot and cheer once more for oor Nicola! And let’s make sure Westminster hear us!’
More and more, I find myself wondering why England doesn’t want independence from us. After a few weeks of non-observance, it seemed as though we’d got this clapping business out of our system, and all to the better. Clapping for politicians is not British. It wasn’t British when they proposed doing it for Boris either, though wishing a man well as he lingers at death’s door is not quite the same as doorstep devotion to the Mother of the Nation for reaching her 50th. The former is a bit cringey, the latter a bit culty.
Whereas the rest of the country prides itself on its cynicism about politics and satirists ply a decent trade viciously lampooning the powerful, Scotland is home to a strange and unseemly reverence for the head of government. Some really do refer to her as ‘Oor Nicola’ and the closest thing to political satire is a series of dubbed videos of Sturgeon’s speeches that recast a middle-class Ayrshire solicitor as a gallus woman of the people. The SNP leader is among their biggest fans.
When a politician is accorded the sort of holy deference ordinarily shown to a pope, it becomes all the harder to utter heresy without kindling your own stake. This week, TV historian Neil Oliver announced he would be standing down from the presidency of the National Trust of Scotland. He is an outspoken Unionist, one of the few left in Scottish cultural institutions, but no more forward about his views than the legion nationalists who dominate the sector. Yet his three-year tenure has been marked from the start by an unrelenting nationalist campaign to topple him.
That sort of cultural purge is what becomes of a country where the main commercial broadcaster makes Nicola Sturgeon the star of its New Year’s Eve programming and promotes a video of young children thanking the SNP leader for ‘keeping them safe’ from Covid-19, where free-spirited artists rebel for the government, not against it, and the head of government once boasted her own ‘signature range’ of branded merchandise.
The best of it is Sturgeon’s handling of coronavirus has been middling at best and even included an alleged cover-up of an outbreak in the centre of Edinburgh. But, unlike Boris, she doesn’t have a Laura Kuenssberg or a Robert Peston to worry about, or an effective opposition leader, or independent-minded backbenchers, or adversarial civil society groups. She has disciples, each more fervent than the one before. They are unconcerned with the material results of her leadership because, for them, Sturgeonism is a spiritual experience. Next Sunday, don’t just clap for Nicola, clap for Scottish scepticism, drowned out as it has been by the happy applause of true believers.