Salmond, Sturgeon and the End of an Era for the SNP

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 16th 2019

Britain stands at an abyss. Three years of endless Brexit deliberations have resulted in the UK facing crisis, doubt and anxiety about what the future holds. Politics has become a high wire act of competing intransigencies and denials of reality – with the only certainty that there is no easy way out of this mess or simple resolution.

This is a crisis of mainstream politics, democracy and Britain’s political parties. The Tories continue their thirty-year civil war on Europe, while Corbyn’s Labour continue to uphold constructive ambiguity informed by their leader’s long held Euroscepticism. The Lib Dems struggle for any relevance after the Cameron coalition.

If that were not enough, this present impasse has shown the limitations of British democracy, with Brexit debates reduced to Westminster parlour games shaped by the most obsessional opinions. This isn’t some arcane and elite concern, for underlying this is something even more serious: a deep seated malaise about what the idea of Britain is, and the grip of a reactionary, insular, backward looking English nationalism on the Tory Party, which has the potential not only to destroy the Tories but take all of us over the cliff into the abyss.

This is to put it mildly a historic moment for the UK – but as Fintan O’Toole has suggested one where there is a sense of anticlimax as much of the script has been written by a fantasy version of history. Brexit, he writes, is ‘full, not just of nostalgia, but of pseudo-history. It is an old curiosity shop of fake antiques.’

This point even more underlines the challenge to Scotland and the need for a Scottish voice and influence to be brought to these debates. Yet, at this acute point, the once impressively unified, disciplined SNP have become embroiled in a huge, high powered divide between its two main figures, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, which threatens to have lasting and damaging consequences.

To briefly recap: Salmond took the Scottish Government to court after allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour and two complaints were made by civil servants. Last week Salmond won at the Court of Session with the Scottish Government caving in at the first hurdle, admitting its process was ‘unlawful, procedurally unfair and tainted with apparent bias’.

If that were not enough the smoking gun has emerged of a series of Salmond and Sturgeon meetings and exchanges last summer – the first April 2nd meeting which Sturgeon only notified the Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans, about after two months. There is an ongoing police inquiry into the original allegations about Salmond that has now been expanded; Sturgeon has referred herself to the independent advisors’ consideration of the ministerial code; and there will also be a parliamentary inquiry.

This comes on the back of a series of slow simmering resentments which have been building between the once dream team of Salmond and Sturgeon since the indyref, and more acutely, post-Brexit. Salmond has publicly articulated his belief that the indyref victory, rightfully his as he sees it, was stolen by forces ranging from the BBC to ‘The Vow’. He gives the impression that he finds it difficult to leave the stage or to find a constructive role: hosting a tacky Edinburgh Fringe show and then embarking on a broadcasting career with RT (formerly Russia Today).

Sturgeon, in the eyes of Salmond and his supporters (as well as others), has soft peddled, and even back peddled, on the cause of independence and on calling a referendum. It has been put off, pushed back and relegated in importance it is claimed, while more general criticism is made of Sturgeon’s leadership style and the record of her administration.

Where this takes us is somewhere unprecedented. For one the substance and dynamics have to be separated from much of the hyperbole. When the BBC’s Sarah Smith talks of ‘outright civil war’ in the SNP she isn’t doing anyone any favours, as this lacks nuance and can be easily dismissed by Nationalists. But nor can it be dismissed as a unionist conspiracy – with nothing serious going on.

The End of the Imperial SNP

This is the end of a certain period of the SNP: of its once impressive and self-imposed discipline. There will not be many claims of that from now on: once discipline goes it never comes back. This is the end of the imperial period of SNP dominance, which is not to say they will not for the foreseeable period continue to be Scotland’s leading party, but that it will be more open to possible challenge. That isn’t that surprising after twelve years in office. What is surprising is how this has come about.

If this is not a civil war engulfing the entire SNP, it has already become a proxy conflict for all sorts of other divisions, and could clearly escalate further. There are bruised feelings, mutual suspicions, competing stories and allegations, and clearly defined rival camps.

The emergence of Salmond and Sturgeon camps with elements in each briefing against each other is significant. Anyone who wants to underplay this should take a look at the recent history of New Labour. Once upon a time Blair and Brown were the closest of allies, but as divisions emerged, slowly at first from the Granita ‘Deal’ to more seriously in office, the ‘TBGB’ problems began.

These were fuelled by incessant briefings between the Blair and Brown camps over a host of things from Brown’s virtual autonomy in the Treasury to the date of Blair’s departure from No. 10. The two camps soon passed a point of no return where the years of harmony and discipline could not be recreated. Once you have two rival camps each doing the bidding and counter-bidding of their respective leaders, those leaders lose control of their acolytes. This is what is beginning to happen in the SNP, and if as is likely it continues, there is literally no way back from such self-destructive politics.

The Bigger Political Divides on Independence – and the Absence of a Strategy or Plan

Many in the SNP are hoping this all goes away and that normal politics can be resumed. But this will not happen. This has become about more than the original allegations and the failures of government process.

First, underlying the Salmond-Sturgeon divide are differences over independence. Salmond has consistently said that independence’s victory was snatched from his grasp in 2014. He clearly has never really come to terms with losing. Sturgeon has never ever uttered a similar bad loser’s perspective.

This translates into how each now views independence. Salmond has post-Brexit pushed at every opportunity for calling an indyref. Sturgeon has not shown such an attitude, and when she moved in March 2017, many interpreted it as a result of private pressure from Salmond. Sturgeon was burned by this experience and Theresa May’s stonewalling of her call, and has subsequently backed off calling for an immediate indyref.

A deep sore has been caused here and one factor has been amidst all the noise the vacuum and silence on what independence is post-2014. No post-mortem on defeat. No re-evaluation of the limits of the 2014 offer. No open fessing up from Sturgeon of the challenges and difficult choices of independence – beyond the sidelined Growth Commission. And while she was damaged by the March 2017 indyref call, she has since not been explicit about timescales and endgames, attempting to play for time – and hence in the process annoying a whole host of independence true believers.

Secondly, this illustrates the different leaderships and political styles of Salmond and Sturgeon – which is much commented upon. But as important is when in the political cycle each has been called to leadership. Salmond’s second coming in 2004 came when the SNP was in the doldrums and had a mere 8,000 members. He took the SNP from that low point on a rising tide which encompassed the 2007 and 2011 victories and a 45% independence vote.

Sturgeon inherited a party heading towards 120,000 members and on the brink of winning 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats. In short, Salmond took the SNP to the top of the mountain (or very near the summit in the case of independence), and for Sturgeon, the only realistic prospect in terms of party support is a slow descent from that peak. The only real question is the nature of that descent: whether it can be managed and slow or a bumpy ride.

The SNP’s current position is to prioritise a second Brexit referendum – the logic being to minimise the damage of Brexit, exert maximum leverage in Westminster, and speak up for the 62% pro-EU majority in Scotland. But this has also caused disquiet in the ranks with many people seeing it as distracting from independence, and giving precedent to a second vote trying to reverse the first (which independence supporters are trying to do but they fear pro-union voices will try to do in the event of a future independence victory).

Sturgeon stated on Wednesday that she will come back in the ‘coming weeks’ to outline her planned timetable on pushing for a second indyref. This in the context of the above events just doesn’t make any sense beyond the base and true believers, and underlines the damage caused by the lack of any strategy, plan or new offer. How could Scotland realistically consider another indyref when no independence package is on offer or being prepared? And what does that say about democracy and the critical need to speak to, honour, and win over No voters? If anyone thinks the answer is to win a referendum on the principle with minimal detail (‘Britain is bust, let’s get out’), have a look at the mess that has got politics into on Brexit.

The Limits of Court Politics and SNP Modernity

No one could have predicted how all of the above would explode onto the political scene. But a wider set of trends could have been guessed at. The nature of the imperial era of the SNP was always unsustainable. The party has developed post-2014 into a safety first, cautious manageralism mixed with control freakery and presidentialism that has not sat well with the party’s professed values.

There is also a longer story in recent times of the SNP under Salmond and Sturgeon, and the descent of the party into what can only be called court politics: a politics of personality and insiderness. This is after all how traditionally much of Scotland has done politics and how Labour behaved itself and ran Scotland for years. We as a nation actually have a pretty poor reservoir to draw from on how we do active, engaged democratic politics, particularly in office.

There are numerous paradoxes. The SNP is more than Salmond and Sturgeon and their camps. It has 120,000 members, resources and ideas, and one factor stopping this from being Sarah Smith’s ‘outright civil war’ is that so far this has been an elite and leadership faction fight. The mass membership have not yet taken sides. But what is also true is that since 2014 the SNP leadership have consciously tried to manage and exclude the party’s own membership from having much of say in the party or the big debates. A salutary fact is that since 2014 there has been not one substantive debate about independence at SNP conference.

Wider tensions are at play. The SNP claim to being a movement when they are a party. The cause of independence is interwoven with the appeal of the SNP, and while they are different, the former is impossible without the latter. There is the incontrovertible fact that the SNP have been in office twelve years this May and have become at senior level the party of insider Scotland – and even the status quo. Some of the most ardent Nationalists inadvertently illustrate this when they defend every part of present day Scotland from criticism – from education to hospital to even train times. That makes them the party of the status quo with all its failings and isn’t a good place to be.

Twelve years of dominance as a party in office is a long time in modern politics and the SNP have changed Scotland and themselves in the process. This has shown many of the qualities of the party but also its limitations: the thinness of its social democracy, the conceits of even the most civic nationalism, and its lack of feel and interest in democracy and dispersing power. They are failings that are not just owned by the SNP but by wider Scotland.

One era of Scottish politics is drawing to a close not in a manner any of us imagined. There was always a conflict even in the 2014 indyref between the emerging Scotland that was more diverse and disputatious towards authority and power, and the bright shiny promise of SNP modernity. Those faultlines have more and more come to the fore post-2014, and run through independence opinion, just as they run through radicals and progressives the world over. Just as the UK enters storm filled waters, the SNP itself is heading for crisis and division, out of which will come a different party, leadership and politics, and from that a different vision of Scotland and independence.