The SNP’s Depute Leadership Contest could aid a more honest version of independence and post-Brexit politics

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, August 7th 2016

The SNP is about to have a leadership election. A depute leader contest.

Given the SNP is in government in Holyrood – with 63 out of 129 MSPs – and last year won 56 out of 59 Westminster seats, this will have some impact.

Rarely do Deputy Leaders count in parties. Labour has had one since 1922 and none were that important: John Prescott didn’t restrain Blair, and Tom Watson can’t show Corbyn the door. Tories don’t have a formal deputy leader, but often an informal one, when the post of Deputy PM is created – held under Thatcher and Major by Willie Whitelaw, Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine. Whitelaw did have a say, and was a restraint on Thatcher.

The SNP is a bit different. There is still a culture of collective leadership although it is weakening. The party is away to elect its 18th depute – five of those who previously held the role going on to become leader – including the last three, Salmond pre-1990, John Swinney, and Nicola Sturgeon (as well as Gordon Wilson and Billy Wolfe before them).

Four candidates have put themselves forward for the vacancy caused by the resignation of Stewart Hosie – Angus Robertson, MP and Westminster leader; Tommy Sheppard, MP; Alyn Smith, MEP, and Chris McEleny, councillor. Each needed 100 nominations from members in 20 different branches; there was never any doubt the first three would achieve this, but it was in doubt until the last minute with McEleny.

Angus Robertson is the favourite. Each week the UK Parliament sits he quietly impresses in Prime Minister’s Question Time. His vision stresses his leadership credentials, while talking vaguely about a ‘more active party’.

Alyn Smith recently created ripples when he made an impassioned speech in Brussels imploring Europe: ‘don’t let Scotland down’. Making a priority of European links gives him some distinctiveness: in his words, ‘we choose Europe as our future, Westminster is our past’.

Tommy Sheppard is the new boy in town. He only joined the SNP two years ago after over twenty years in Labour. He promises to be a campaigning depute if elected; indicating that the lengthy White Paper on independence might need some revision – it should be ‘looked at and reviewed and dusted down and re-presented.’

Finally, Chris McEleny as a local councillor has been raising the lack of grassroots participation in party deliberations, while calling for a 50p higher tax rate. He has gained the support of Nationalist icon Jim Sillars, who noted that it would be positive to have a ‘socialist’ as depute.

One noteworthy dimension in the debate is geography. Robertson represents Moray as an MP, Sheppard Edinburgh East as an MP, Smyth is an MEP, and McEleny is an Inverclyde councillor. The party has to seek to balance its new found Central Belt support, and in particular, West of Scotland and left-wing advocates, with not forgetting the importance of its earlier North East heartlands. This matters as much as any other divide in the party.

The depute contest carries more importance considering the absence of any substantive debate in the party on independence. This was meant, after all, to be ‘the summer of independence’, but that has been put on hiatus by Hosie’s resignation and the Brexit vote.

In normal times Robertson would be a shoo-in. But these are not normal times and the SNP membership are known to surprise. More important are the views of the 120,000 plus members, most new. Survey evidence of party members who have joined post-indyref shows that they aren’t very active – 55% of them not having attended any party meeting, they are mostly aged over 50, and are only a bit more centre-left than the pre-2014 membership. They could be a surprise.

The SNP now faces the pressures and expectations of success. But that brings big questions. Namely, with all these members, monies and elected representatives, what sort of party does the SNP aspire to be? Since 2014 it has been too busy fighting permanent campaigns to give this much thought. So far the command and control model of recent years hasn’t been questioned, but that is because it has brought success, which won’t always be the case.

Finally, there is the issue of independence. Angus Robertson has said that Scotland is on ‘the brink of independence’. Nicola Sturgeon says a new referendum is ‘highly likely’, but at the same time has posed five questions in relation to Scotland’s interests and any Brexit deal.

There are some straws in the wind which could indicate a more open approach: one allowing for difficulties and challenges post-independence. SNP MP George Kerevan stated that the first years of independence would be financially challenging, and the country would need to ‘cut its budget coat to fit its fiscal means’, with the prospect of up to five years of spending cuts.

Angus Robertson replied stating that he didn’t share ‘all of George Kerevan’s analysis’, but that ‘I think it is incumbent on politicians of all political persuasions to say that not everything is going to be easy, and, of course, establishing a sovereign state is a big step.’ We will have to wait and see whether this is a holding statement, or could indicate that the SNP are willing to embrace a more honest version of independence.

Recently people have bemoaned the absence of the silly season in news – considering the grevious nature of much of the global news – but in Scotland we seem to be living in a strange period of stillness and almost a phoney war. There are odd social media flare-ups and arguments, but all they show is that politics are currently operating mostly in a vacuum, waiting for something to happen.

That something is Brexit, yet the SNP leadership has a strategic choice. They need to create a political space where Scotland can reflect on the huge choices Brexit means for us, none of which are simple. What would, for example, be the consequences of a hard border with the rump UK?

The SNP have to undertake a twin-track exploration of this, while investing time in a new version of independence, contingent on the unpleasant truth that Brexit whatever it means doesn’t automatically lead to independence. Now that’s a set of big issues for the depute contest and issues which matter to all of us.