Can the SNP change and adapt after ten years at the top?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 6th 2017

Scotland has had much media prominence in the last few days. The new Queensferry Crossing opening across the Forth; Scotland voted the most beautiful country in the world according to ‘Rough Guide’ readers, while even the Scottish national football team has managed back-to-back victories and gained itself a chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

It is almost as if many Scots have been yearning for some good news stories. Because of late they haven’t seemed to be many from our politics. The Scottish Parliament is back from summer break and the Scottish Government has unveiled its new legislative programme which has some eye-catching measures such as the abolition of the public sector pay cap, setting up a Scottish National Investment Bank and eliminating petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032. But after a summer of discontent in the SNP and independence opinion will this it be enough for the Nationalists to regain their political momentum?

There has been drift and disquiet which makes it more noteworthy that ‘The Scottish Sun’ – a long-standing champion of the SNP which endorsed the party in the 2011 and 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, along with 2015 Westminster contest – has chosen to strongly criticise the SNP. It has done so in a front page editorial which has made open its frustration with the Nationalists and Nicola Sturgeon declaring ‘Get a Grip Nic!’.

For two days the paper has devoted four pages of inside coverage under the banner ‘Scotland can’t just carry on like this. Neither can SNP’. It brought together experts on the SNP record on education (Lindsay Paterson), health (Mark Dayan) and the economy (Graeme Roy), and found it wanting.

There have been achievements such as the early big ticket items: abolition of tuition fees, bridge tolls and prescription charges. There have been tangible benefits of SNP government such as 6,910 council houses built (significantly more than the six in Labour’s time in office) and 600 schools modernised or rebuilt.

Much of the drive was in the early years and there is a sense this has been lost. In the 2007-11 Parliament the SNP passed 50 bills and this rose to 75 in 2011-16, but post-2016 the party has passed only three bills – on puppy tail docking, air fair tax and railway policing. What is missing is anything bold and transformative which can set a direction and tell a wider story of the Scotland the SNP want and champion.

There is growing criticism of this state of affairs in the party and not just from the usual suspects. John Fellows, ex-SNP press chief who worked in last year’s election for Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh observed: ‘We’re not actually for anything any more. We’re standing up for the status quo without setting real aspirations for the future.’ A SNP senior ex-minister commented: ‘The whole thing’s a bit technical and managerial. What are the SNP for? They have to define that a bit more. Baby boxes are all very worthy, but it’s not enough.’

Many in the SNP want to dismiss the above, but there have been three years of missed opportunities under the Sturgeon leadership. This period has seen the energy and dynamism of the indyref dissipated, political engagement deflated, and post-2015 has seen the SNP march backward losing ground in the 2016 and 2017 elections.

The mistakes of the Sturgeon leadership have been legion. No indyref analysis of why Yes lost – either in public or private. No substantive work undertaken on a new indyref offer. No major policy innovation or initiatives. And an absence of being a national leadership speaking to the country, not just to the party and the cause. Instead, the SNP has ducked talking openly to Scotland about the tough choices ahead and the difficult debates we need to have.

All of this has meant that the political hope and capital created by the three years long campaign of the indyref has been dramatically weakened – and for little political gain.

This has left the culture of the SNP and independence opinion exasperated, confused and even in places angry, at this sense of drift. There is the increasingly shrill voices of those who have a blind loyalty to the SNP irrespective of any facts or actions. This does not truck any public criticism regarding it as treachery or proof of being a ‘yoon’.

What this does is close down space for any grown-up debate and discussion of mistakes, shortcomings and how to adapt and evolve. Politics becomes reduced to cheerleading. One clarion call of this school has been the ‘trust Nicola’ strand – itself a product of the now much weaker leadership cult which emerged post-2014. This belief in the infallibility of the leadership is bereft of detail or policy, and is the last article of faith some have left to hold on to.

All this has become more acute due to the leadership style and caution of the Sturgeon leadership. Whereas Salmond had a team behind him and an influential deputy (one Nicola Sturgeon) the present First Minister has no equivalent collective team or deputy, although John Swinney does have some clout in the inner corridors of the Scottish Government.

Damningly, there has been an absence of any significant strategic moves since the 2014 vote, except in relation to Brexit, where there has to be a suspicion the SNP were forced by events. Thus the Scottish Government White Paper, ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’, published in December 2016 was part of a nuanced diplomacy and paradiplomacy, but this approach was abandoned as Sturgeon felt crowded out by Theresa May and the UK Government. This contributed to the ill-failed, and in retrospective disastrous, March move to a second indyref.

There is a powerful mood in places of bitterness and incomprehension of how words and arguments can appear beyond the true believers. There is an intolerance and impatience in some that the rest of the country don’t recognise the marvelous and tolerant qualities of our ‘civic nationalism’ and how unlike any other nationalisms it is. This reaches ridiculous levels with some bringing every global story back to here – such as the tragedy of Charlottesville and the bigotry of white nationalism – and making it about Scotland.

There is a number of problems in this apart from insensitivity to other people’s problems. All nationalisms, civic or ethnic, have an element of exclusivity in them, while a politics based solely on nationalism isn’t going to provide a convincing map of Scotland’s future or probably even be enough to win an emphatic pro-independence majority.

No nationalism anywhere in the world has been enough to guide an emerging, self-governing country. Why would Scotland be the exception? There is in this a recurring, self-congratulatory Scottish exceptionalism which is problematic and illuminating, considering that one of the main criticisms of independence opinion of the UK is the grip of British exceptionalism and its role in misplaced ideas of grandeur and delusion.

There is the intolerance of social media true believers. Tellingly, the SNP leadership never explicitly call out abusive individuals. SNP MP Stewart McDonald is an exception in calling out and naming the worst offenders. As for the rest of pro-independence opinion, maybe people could turn their backs on the monsters of social media and deprive them of being continually being talked about and the centre of attention.

The SNP still has some advantages. They are Scotland’s largest party in votes and seats in Holyrood and Westminster. They have more members and monies than all the other Scottish parties put together. And they have a long-term identity and brand which is anchored in defending Scotland’s interests. For all their current problems the party isn’t going to disappear or go into inexorable decline, or, as one over-excited commentator has written, have ‘a nervous breakdown’.

Yet the party does face difficult choices and has to change. Ten years in office brings costs, and produces a mixture of hubris and being out of touch. There is the problem of leadership as Sturgeon has gone from ‘Saint Nicola’ to ‘that bloody woman’ – popular in places, but now divisive and detested with many. There are how decisions are made and the style and culture of politics, with the leadership ‘locked in the ivory tower’ in the words of one SNP ex-minister. They are bereft of ideas, policies and strategy, and clearly don’t know which way to turn.

The SNP bunker loyalists want to dismiss all of the above as ‘SNP bad’ which is terrible politics and King Canute style trying to deny reality. The SNP leadership approach isn’t much better, aiming to hunker down and hope that the Brexit firestorm combined with Corbyn eventually blowing himself up, will deliver the masses to the SNP and independence. Inactivity and waiting for events to turn your way isn’t very imaginative, and puts success or failure into the hands of others: your opponents.

The SNP has to reinvent itself – either in or out of office. It has to tell voters the shape of the future Scotland to come. It has to recognise it doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas and listen and engage with others. It has to have a new media strategy and recognise it needs more than that: it needs a strategy for government. The just announced Programme for Government is an improvement on recent years and contains several worthy initiatives, but will be assessed by delivery, detail and how wider politics evolve.

The SNP in office will be judged by voters on whether their policies make a tangible difference to people’s lives, take on vested interests, and places the SNP as the champion of the underdog and disadvantaged. We know the SNP see itself as the advocate for Scotland’s interests, but it is high time we knew what kind of Scotland that meant.