An Open Letter to the SNP

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, May 15th 2016

Congratulations on last week’s historic third term. It was well deserved. The party has rightly established a reputation for competence. Nicola Sturgeon is popular and liked; none of the opposition come near.

The SNP has contributed enormously to public life. It is seen as standing up for Scotland’s interests and after decades of Labour cronyism has been a new broom.

This is probably as good as it gets. For the good of the country, the party and independence, it needs to understand the nature of its victory and mandate.

1. Nicola Sturgeon said the election gave her ‘a clear and unequivocal mandate’. That’s not accurate, and sets the wrong tone when the public have just elected a minority SNP administration.

2. There is now an established pattern emerging of SNP over-reach seen in the three peaks of the indyref, 2015 election and this year. The SNP doesn’t seem to know how to deal with huge success (2015), slight reverses (this year) and losing (indyref). That’s a worrying pattern.

3. The SNP vote rose compared to 2011 in constituencies and fell in regional list percentage wise. They made great play of winning one million votes – up 156,982 on 2011 – but down from ‘Peak SNP’ last year, from 49.97% to 46.5% with 394,539 less votes.

4. The SNP won 25.9% of the electorate; nearly the same share with which David Cameron won in 2015 – 24.5% that led to cries of Tory dictatorship from some on the left.

5. The response of many Nationalists is that share of the electorate doesn’t matter. Turnout affects legitimacy and strength of mandate. A landslide on 55% compared to 75% is very different. Just as a Scotland of indyref participation levels is very different from Scottish Parliament turnouts.

6. Scotland’s democratic revolution is diminishing. The indyref had an 85% turnout, last year 71% and now 55.6% – 5.2% up on 2011. That small increase from five years ago is an echo from the indyref explosion – with participation down 1.344 million from September 2014 and 631,312 from last year.

7. The SNP is the most national party of Scotland – much more so than Labour or Tories at their peak. Yet, slowly the SNP is becoming more West of Scotland: with all but one of the party’s eleven constituency gains being in the West.

8. The SNP is still the dominant party in its old areas, but while it looks impregnable in the West it still isn’t as popular as Labour was at its peak: the highest SNP Glasgow being Nicola Sturgeon’s 61%, whereas in 1997 Labour won 73% and 71% in Shettleston and Springburn.

9. After nine years where do new ideas come from and how does the party avoid policy exhaustion? One problem is the lack of an SNP orientated, independence supporting think tank. If the SNP can renew in office and win a future indyref it has to be open to fresh thinking.

10. This brings us to pluralism. The SNP has a self-discipline that aided it on the way up. It now has to relax a bit, let go to an extent, and allow a culture of debate and dissent, particularly in the party and independence community.

11. Independence is the subject of a forthcoming campaign, but where is the work on a new independence package? Where even is the party’s post-mortem on losing the 2014 vote? There can be no indyref2 without a completely revised offer on the currency, Bank of England and Treasury, economics and public spending, along with Europe. What is the party waiting for?

The SNP has been at the helm of three great waves of political success – the indyref (despite losing), 2015 election and 2016. It has much to be proud of in each. Yet, there has also been in each, post-vote, an unwillingness to confront home truths.

The worst of these has been the indyref aftermath – with Alex Salmond in particular coming over a poor loser who felt his rightful triumph was snatched from him. In 2015 there was too much loose talk that the SNP’s 56 spoke for Scotland, and this year little attempt to recognise the limits of the party’s mandate – with some even complaining of the electoral system’s unfairness.

Some in the party will say what does this matter: we are the winners. However, the SNP doesn’t speak for majority Scotland. Non-SNP Scotland, even at ‘Peak Nat’, till remained the majority of those who vote.

The SNP has to understand this if it wants to govern effectively, remain popular – and win a future referendum. For just as Labour could not win a home rule referendum in 1997 with Labour voters alone, so the SNP cannot win indyref2 on SNP voters alone.

So Nicola, Alex and others – now you are the leading party, a different tone and kind of politics is needed to the one used on the way up. One that is a bit more humble, bold and even reflective. We can then aspire to be the grown up nation that Scotland is at its best.