A good nemesis is often a necessary complement to any protagonist; it is often the case in politics. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon presents her leadership as the antithesis of Boris Johnson’s. She appears professional, competent and sensible compared to the bumptious buffoonery inside Number 10. Yet beyond the obvious differences, the two leaders sustain their hegemony in similar ways, deploying populist tactics to build electoral rapport and paint themselves as embodiments of hope for a better future.
It is certainly true that Sturgeon and Johnson are good storytellers. While Johnson furthers his clownish disposition by embarrassing himself, Sturgeon asks the electorate for forgiveness with accomplished, seemingly earnest tones. She has offered sincere apologies for failings such as the shambolic investigation into the conduct of Alex Salmond, or for breaking Covid-19 restrictions. This encourages voters to believe that she is trying her best, and so her record on Covid-19 is seen as far superior to that of the UK government, despite Scotland’s comparably higher rates of care home deaths. The First Minister is skillful enough to take a seemingly hard-line approach to covid restrictions, such as enforcing curfews on hospitality businesses even up until this August, while concealing that such measures are often meaningless. Appearances matter. Here is someone who is doing something, unlike the inept UK government, which avoids questions about her competence.
Swerving deeper scrutiny is something both leaders do very well. Johnson will openly dodge interrogation through bizarre stunts like hiding in a fridge, while Sturgeon is more subtle. On the surface, she is extremely willing to be held to account, “relish(ing) the opportunity to go to the committee”, agreeing to a judge-led inquiry into her handling of the pandemic, and holding daily press conferences during the lockdowns. The contrast is again obvious on the surface, but on closer examination, the Scottish government is not consistent: withdrawing schools from global surveys into educational standards, and undermining the effectiveness of Freedom of Information requests.
Sturgeon is less enthusiastic about scrutiny where it is not immediately visible, and where her public relations performances are not on show. While Johnson’s ostentatious avoidance fuels the perception that he is a bumbling idiot, Sturgeon’s cherry-picking of only visible forms of scrutiny creates the impression that she is more willing to be held to account, while still exercising evasion behind the scenes. It’s testament to their knowledge of their target audiences that they know many people will feel for them anyway.
So are Johnson and Sturgeon just plain popular, or cynically populist? While Johnson exerts populist tendencies through his outward rejection of the professionalism usually expected of those in high office, Sturgeon too earns her anti-establishment credentials through a distraction from her own political standing. She has been a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the full 21 years of its existence, and is firmly embedded into Scotland’s political elite, but this is overlooked because she loathes the ‘ultimate’ establishment in Westminster.
Even so, Sturgeon’s hostility to Westminster sometimes rings hollow. She has been criticised for not explicitly opposing the development of the Cambo oil field, instead requesting a UK-wide review into the feasibility of proposed North Sea oil exploration projects. Rather than standing up to Westminster, Sturgeon seems to be hiding behind it. This ambivalence is perhaps a reflection of the less than desirable situation she has created for herself: at risk of upsetting either her new partners in government or those SNP voters employed in the industry.
But Sturgeon and Johnson manage to avoid disappointing their supporters, because they remain likeable figures. It is the ultimate triumph of style over substance; Johnson cannot be a part of the establishment, despite the truth of his history and background, because he does not feel that way. Equally, Nicola Sturgeon must be a competent, tough but fair manager, simply because she feels that way.
It is clear that the Tory government is aware of the danger of Scotland leaving the Union. It would not be possible for any Prime Minister, even one Houdini-like in escaping political deathtraps, to stay in power after losing a whole country. Noises from the government suggest they are aware that the Prime Minister is more of a liability than an asset in the battle to stop the SNP. What is not at all clear – a theme for this government – is what they intend to do about it.
For Nicola Sturgeon, however, the antagonism pays off. Their leaderships are utterly intertwined. Both find their true talent in projections of hope: whether it be the return to some long forgotten past where sovereignty reigned supreme, or forging a brighter future unshackled from the grip of a dominating neighbour. Taking back control, if you like.
Sturgeon capitalises on Johnson’s vainglorious tomfoolery in order to persuade disillusioned Scots in favour of independence, and yet her leadership is crafted using similar tactics. And the more Sturgeon irritates Johnson, the more he reverts to an oafish unionism, facilitating further defectors to the SNP.
As long as Boris Johnson has a job, Nicola Sturgeon has a much easier one. Of course, that also implies the opposite – that a new Prime Minister might make her life, and her goal of independence, much more difficult. A good nemesis is hard to find.