THROUGHOUT the history of Western political systems, Nicola Sturgeon has not been the first party political leader to polarise public opinion, and she won’t be the last.

The fate of party leaders, for both good and ill, has an important bearing upon the course of politics. Indeed, for any society aspiring to have the fullest kind of democracy, the fate of party leaders has far too important a bearing upon the course of politics, making this very far from being a satisfactory situation.

The importance attached to these leaders is fundamentally undemocratic because it allows them – and those they choose to surround them – too much power, authority and influence.

It means that so-called “ordinary” party members, even of the engaged and active type, are no longer main players in the determination of party policies and positions. This is as true of the SNP as it is of Labour and their counterparts on the continent.

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Derived originally from Greek, “democracy” means either the rule of the people (even indirectly) or at least the rule by the majority of the people (again, even indirectly).

Applied to political parties, members would debate and decide upon all the policies of their parties through a host of mechanisms, most obviously the party conference. The majority on any policy or position would become the party’s policy and position.

Those entitled to attend party conferences would be delegates, mandated by their branches or sections to vote in certain ways on certain issues or having been elected by those branches and sections as the result of an open competition with hustings.

Yet today and for a long time, we know that party leaders routinely ignore party policy and some even make this clear as soon as the policy has been adopted. In other cases, recall conferences or plebiscites are not used to allow party members to determine the party’s response to events.

We also know that the power of patronage of party leaders – in government and out of government – allows them to silence opponents and reward supporters. In effect, we have a situation where party leaders make policy and only consult with members when it appears they are likely to face difficulties in getting post-facto agreement. The “old” Labour Party did conform to some basic tenets of democracy.

For example, the shadow cabinet was elected by Labour MPs until this practice was abolished in 2011 and annual conference was the body determining official policy until it was sidelined by the creation of the National Policy Forum from 1993 onwards. Now, Starmer hires and fires at will, even to the extent of undermining the democratically elected deputy party leader, Angela Rayner. There is no collective or distributed leadership in Labour.

The same can be said of the SNP. Indeed, the SNP has increasingly become like Labour in the way it operates – centralised, managerial and hierarchical.

The media have a key role to play in accounting for why there is an undue focus on individual party leaders. In order to provide simple and simplistic narratives on the mistaken basis that readers could not understand anything more complex, the media elevates leaders to the point where they cannot but become “giants with feet of clay”.

For some amount of time, this has benefits to the political party but then this turns into an Achilles’ Heel or a “house built on foundations of sand” because leaders are made into omniscient and omnipresent individuals.

It is not so much a case of “pride comes before a fall” but rather one of “all the eggs in one basket”. This creates political instability where there must be none.

The National: Scottish Greens co-leaders Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie

In Scotland, we have just a few examples of collective and distributed leadership. The Scottish Green Party is the obvious case in point. From 2004 onwards, it has had male and female co-leaders. However, much depended upon whether the female co-leader was also an MSP – or whether this individual had anywhere near the same amount of attention and profile – and, thus, influence – as the male co-leader.

For some 10 years since 2004, the female co-leader was not an MSP and Patrick Harvie has been the male post-holder since 2008.

The other example comes from the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).

After Tommy Sheridan’s resignation in November 2004 as party convenor and prior to Colin Fox’s election to this post, there was a joint leadership among the SSP MSPs.

After this, the SSP moved to a situation of having two national co-spokespersons, one male and one female.

But, in practice, it is Fox that is identified as the SSP leader given his long and continued tenure in the post.

All this indicates that we need a lot of fresh thinking and practice in order to renew our democratic credentials. Simply moving on to the next new leader as quickly as possible only entrenches the bad habits the party already exhibits.

Professor Gregor Gall is editor of A New Scotland: Building an Equal, Fair and Sustainable Society (Pluto Press, 2022, priced £14.99).