The End of an Era: The Imperial Era of the SNP

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 12th 2020

The SNP were once the bright promising future of Scotland but all such periods of political promise come to an end. It isn’t possible to permanently remain the new kids of the block with the passing of time. The resignation of Derek Mackay as Finance Secretary and his subsequent suspension from the SNP came like a bolt out of the blue – shocking everyone in his party, fellow parliamentarians and political opponents, and the media.

The SNP stands dominant in Scottish politics with 50% support in the latest polls. Independence is on 50% plus in the last three polls thanks to a Brexit bounce while the political opponents of the Nationalists – Tories, Labour and Lib Dems – are not in a strong position north of the border.

However, the SNP’s poll ratings are not quite the whole story. A palpable sense of unease and nervousness has been building in the party for several years – probably since the 2016 Brexit vote, the 2017 attempt by Nicola Sturgeon to progress an indyref, and the 2017 UK election reverse (which the party won but lost 21 out of its 56 Westminster seats). This is about many things – the party’s direction, culture of leadership, lack of internal democracy, and absence of any semblance of a strategy by senior figures on independence and indyref2.

To add to this across health, education, police, local government, ferries and more the Scottish Government is going backwards beset by problems. The Edinburgh Children’s Hospital is still lying empty and not in a condition to open, while in Glasgow the recently opened Queen Elizabeth University Hospital has seen a number of deaths from hospital-acquired infections.

None of this is aided by the frequent response of SNP politicians that the NHS in Scotland is the best performing NHS in the four nations of the UK. That isn’t exactly a positive case and any comfort to patients in Scotland. Despite this Alex Massie points out that for all the SNP’s problems its strength should not be underestimated and in his assessment ‘there is little evidence (that) this long era of SNP supremacy is liable to end soon.’

There is a wider sentiment in the SNP about the Derek Mackay case. It is important to understand that the SNP sees itself as a family and that those within the party pre-2014 grew up politically together, joined when they were a party of outsiders, won office in 2007, and have been bonded by this experience.

Mackay was totally of this community: loved by many in the party and loving them back – and seen by many as a future leader of the party post-Sturgeon. His betrayal of that bond has left people feeling anger, dismay and let down, and generally asking how could someone be so stupid and engage in actions so undermining and damaging to the cause. Mandy Rhodes, editor of ‘Holyrood’ magazine put it: ‘What is it about men in positions of political power? Do they believe in their own invincibility or is it a desire to push risk to the limits on some rollercoaster thrill trip on the way to self-destruction?’

This is also an occasion of ridiculous hyperbole. Leaving aside the solitary social media sirens the winner by a mile in the mainstream was the ‘Sunday Times’ Michael Glackin who wrote after the Mackay scandal that ‘sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remember you’re not in a Third World country, one with no history of democracy or political institutions.’

The current state of the SNP is that, for all its dominance, difficult questions will come more to the fore. Increasingly within and outwith the party people are asking what the party’s purpose is, how it does politics, and how it advances independence. It faces along with other difficulties the prospect of the trial of Alex Salmond, former First Minister and leader of the SNP, next month. This will throw a light into the darkest recesses of the senior SNP and government, and its political impact for the SNP is unlikely to be benign.

The party has been in office for thirteen years, and when it goes to the polls in the May 2021 elections for fourteen. This is a significant period of dominance and holding power – and with some downsides. The party now has a long track record in office and as well as numerous achievements has made many mistakes and failures. It has inevitably become associated with the present day state of the country and the domestic status quo.

Here the leadership and wider culture of the party come into play. There has been an absence at the top – since Sturgeon took over in 2014 at peak SNP – of explaining the party’s modus operandi in office. Instead, there has been the picking and dropping of themes depending on the political weather, with Sturgeon saying as First Minister in 2015 that ‘I want to be judged on this … the education of our young people’, comments she wouldn’t make now, alongside the remorseless centralisation, managerialism, self-congratulation, and drift.

The party’s mantra post-2007 used to be competence – marking a pronounced break with Labour incompetence and continual deference to London. It was competence with a purpose: framing a social democracy proud to trumpet its progressive credentials and, under Salmond pre-2014, marking out the terrain of a distinctive Scottish social contract and citizenship.

All this has receded. Any consideration that Sturgeon would be a more radical leader than Salmond did not calculate for Sturgeon’s caution as a politician. Because of this, for all Salmond’s embracing of freewheeling free market economics, the Sturgeon era has been one of less assertive social democratic statecraft than her predecessor. That is partly down to Sturgeon, and also that Salmond won political room for manoeuvre by his victories of 2007 and 2011. Sturgeon for all her victories has been trying to manage a popular coalition while the length of office slowly erodes choices.

The ecology of the SNP is a complex one: the leading party of the nation with 120,000 members. At the top of the party in the ministerial ranks in the Scottish Government there is exhaustion, with the grind of day-to-day administration, and cumulative effect of command and control politics and micro-management taking its toll.

Kevin Pringle, a former SNP adviser says, on the state of the party in government after the Mackay scandal: ‘There is the fiction on the government side that everything is being done for the best in the best possible way’. He comments about the attrition on ministers and the world they inhabit: ‘The house that politicians have built for themselves isn’t real life. Some can live with that pretence better than others, but I think most will be damaged to some degree.’

Meanwhile the grass roots of the party, allowing for the inactivity of many, are a collective hive of ideas, energies, passions and debates on politics, Scotland and winning independence. There are ideas aplenty about policies and campaigning, as well as awareness that SNP headquarters under Peter Murrell see members as a resource to be instructed and an endless cash cow.

All this raises challenges for the SNP particularly in the run-up to the 2021 elections and beyond. Are we at a transitional point in the SNP where the Salmond-Sturgeon era which shaped the party and Scotland is coming to an end? One thing is sure – which I wrote about on these pages last January – is that this is undoubtedly the end of the era of the imperial SNP. This means the Nationalists will no longer be able to automatically carry all before them, despite the weaknesses of their political opponents with the atrophy of a decade plus in office and the rules of political gravity kicking in.

It is not some afterthought that in Scotland post-2014 where debates have happened up and down the land in every family, household, friends and workplace on the subject of independence, one single place has been completely immune to this. That isn’t the Scottish Conservatives or Labour. Rather it has been SNP Annual Conference. This has been the ultimate control politics and leadership belief that party members are not to be trusted to discuss the political issue they care most passionately about.

Independence has to be real – not an abstract or fantasyland without detail. The SNP have deliberately avoided facing the difficult choices and trade-offs inherent in independence – and which large parts of Scotland are waiting for them to address so they can consider embracing a more human, honest, grown-up politics. We are still waiting. Educationalist and psychotherapist Colin Kirkwood thinks that independence can be an ‘abstraction’ driven by ‘overcentralisation and the need to dominate’ and this can become ‘a dangerous chimera, promoted by those seeking power for themselves’.

Rather the future for the SNP – a party which embodied the future in 2007 and 2011 – is that it is going to have to face the strategic choices it explicitly avoided post-2014. These were also evident pre-2014, came to the fore in the latter stages of the indyref, but have become pronounced with the passing of time since 2014 and the refusal of the SNP leadership to openly acknowledge the choices it faces.

This is the distinction between – in the words of Ben Jackson, Oxford University academic – the SNP leadership’s version of independence as continuity and an extension of the dynamic of devolution, and the radical politics of seeing independence as a rupture with the British state. These twin tracks of independence, politics and Scotland, managed to co-exist with each other in the 2014 indyref, but are ultimately incompatible.

The first presents independence according to Jackson as a Scotland where ‘the policy stakes were gently lowered so that independence became a gradual process … averse to a once and for all transformational moment in which Scotland would suddenly return as a sovereign state.’ The second became increasingly vocal in 2014 and ‘saw the transition to Scottish statehood as a decisive rupture from the British model of politics and economics.’

In reality both have limitations. The first is independence as continuity Scotland and attempting to not threaten any vested interests here, in the UK or internationally. The second looks to break with the existing economic, social and political order of the UK, but overstates the power of the forces of change in Scotland or the capacity of a country of five million people to buck the global order. The absence of open debate is not good politics and in Jackson’s judgement: ‘Movements that cannot articulate the goals of their leaders with those of their activists and supporters usually end in disillusionment rather than gratitude.’

This divergence between two different Scotlands has become associated with positioning on the timing of a future indyref. The radicals want a vote as soon as possible while the British state is in disarray. The more cautious want to leave a vote until they can be sure they can win. This appears a disagreement over process, but in the absence of a wider, substantive debate it has become the only real conflict.

This is a reflection of the limited politics of the SNP leadership and how, with the passing of time, they have become more obvious to everyone – from the bulk of the SNP to their political opponents in Scotland and Westminster.

Scotland does not win independence by default or the UK just simply imploding. The SNP have changed Scotland and brought independence out of the cold and into the mainstream. But by so doing they have been changed and become like the establishment forces they used to detest.

Scotland, the politics of independence and the future of this nation need more than a contest between two philistine, defensive nationalisms – Scottish and British – and we deserve and have to demand more than two competing conservative versions of insider politics.