With the referendum on Scottish independence drawing ever closer, Alex Salmond has oft been in the news of late. With some criticising the ‘in-out’ vote as a personal project that he is pursuing to the detriment of dealing with local socio-economic concerns, much of the media attention has been centred on Salmond himself as the figurehead of the Scottish nationalist movement, claiming that people are being won over by his personality and charisma more than by his politics.
The raft of media criticism of Salmond has also taken on a more sinister tone, with pundits comparing his leadership style to that of Slobodan Milosevic, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-Il, Caligula, Nicolae Ceasescu, Ghenghis Khan and Nero (see article: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2012/02/salmond-minister-mugabe-labour for details). An online game of “Alex Salmond Dictatorship Bingo” has now begun, with future comparisons with Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Idi Amin and Darth Vader hotly anticipated!
This may all seem to be media hype and misguided Twitter comments, but it got us thinking about the crucial role played by leaders of nationalist movements, and how ‘cults of personality’ have been formed around some of these key personalities; how does the ‘Salmond effect’ measure up to the ‘Kim effect’?
As a sort of thought-experiment, we decided to take the two divergent cases of Kim Jong-il and Salmond, which was originally linked by Conservative peer Lord Forsyth for allowing 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. However, is this all they have in common? Can they be taken as two examples of a time continuum of personality cults surrounding nationalist leaders, of which Kim Jong-Il represents the later stage of such a cult (as his family holds the record for the longest cult of personality, passed down to him from his father Kim Il Sung and now bestowed on his youngest son and current leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Un), and Alex Salmond representing the fledgling stage? After all, North Korean nationalism could be considered a representation of ‘archetypal’ East Asian dictatorship nationalism, with Scotland representing Western Democracy nationalism, obviously making out two polar opposites.
However, this comparison has merit: by taking two such different cases as a basis for comparison means that any similarities found between the leadership of Salmond and Jong-il can be ruled out as a result of similar culture/political organisation/regime. This type of comparison was inspired by Geertz’ comparative analysis of Islam in Marocco and Indonesia in Islam Observed (1971).
Considering the divergent nature of the cases of Scotland (historic democratic nation, western-style democracy) and North Korea (the world’s only communist dynasty), we decided to isolate official government rhetoric as a source of comparable material. Drawing on their representations of the place of their leader within the nation, we came up with the following list of actions credited to the leadership:
|Action||Kim Jong-il||Alex Salmond|
|Starting a new calendar from the date that the leader’s revered father was born||Yes. It is currently Juche year 102 in the North Korean calendar.||No.|
|Allowing the rumour to circulate that the leader can control the weather with his mood||Yes.||No.|
|Setting the political agenda for the nation, putting a personal spin on policies to differentiate themselves from previous leaders.||Yes. Maintained his father’s legacy of Juche (self-reliance) but pushed for a new, self-styled ‘military North Korea’ during his time as leader.||Yes. Has successfully guaranteed an independence referendum, has changed party positions on NATO, the monarchy and the pound Stirling.|
|Credited with changing the face of their party and politics within their nation.||Not by himself. The rise to power of his father was however considered to be the birth of North Korea.||Some commentators certainly think so (see following video clip)|
|Styled as a national leader, not just the leader of a particular political party.||Yes. Kim Jong-il was named ‘Supreme Leader’ in the North Korean Constitution.||Yes. Widely acknowledged to be the face of Scottish nationalism, not just leader of the SNP. Has achieved this far more than leaders of Scottish Labour or other MSPs.|
|Long-term leadership.||The Kim family has been ruling over North Korea since 1948, with Kim Yong-Il ruling from 1994 until 2011.||Yes. Alex Salmond has been leading the SNP since 1990.|
In order to expand on these actions, we asked ourselves what similarities, or differences, could be drawn in their usage of gestures, symbolism and cartooning.
Kim Jong-il as a leader
Alex Salmond as a leader
(Especially between 3mins30 and 8mins)
Further comparisons of Salmond and Jong-il
In conclusion, the existence of lines of comparison between leaders of such distinct nationalist movements suggests that strong leadership is integral to nationalist movements as a whole, regardless of the official status of the nation, the political regime or cultural specificities. The influence of individual personalities on nationalist movements warrants further investigation.
With this quasi-serious comparison, we aim to open up discussion on the nature of persona-based nationalism and whether, arguably, this is the case in Scotland.
Can the current nationalism movement in Scotland be described as a persona-based movement?
What would Scottish nationalism look like without Alex Salmond?
Are important individual personalities integral to nationalist movements?