The SNP has got us where we are, but the SNP on its own isn’t enough in the future
Without the SNP there is significant doubt that we would ever have got a Scottish Parliament. It is true that Labour legislated for it, but they were first brought back to devolution in the 1970s by the electoral threat of the SNP. Without the SNP there would have been no indyref1, and without them there will be no indyref2.
Therefore Scottish politics owes a great deal of gratitude to the SNP. Just for one second imagine politics over the last 40 years without the SNP. All Scotland would have available to show any dissatisfaction with Westminster and desire for self-government would have been to vote Labour or Lib Dem (with the Greens under FPTP remaining a minuscule force, and without the SNP there being no guarantee Labour reverted to its earlier home rule stance).
All of the above is increasingly important as the SNP prepare to meet for its Annual Conference in Glasgow, but it is also true that the SNP on their own are not enough. And blind loyalty to one party is different from passionate support for ‘the cause’ and, even at times, counter-productive. The SNP contributed hugely to getting us where we are. But they are not enough to take Scotland to the next stage: winning an indyref and making the politics of a new independent state.
The SNP have high poll ratings as a party, Nicola Sturgeon polls well as First Minister, while there are impressive trust ratings for the Scottish Government. After nine years in office, the SNP have ratings that its political opponents would die for, and the envy of the developed world.
However, there are two caveats on the above. Nothing lasts forever. The SNP haven’t completely reinvented the laws of politics and what goes up eventually comes down. There is no sign of that yet, but the physics of political gravity suggest eventually that they will.
Such popularity also comes at a cost. It does not liberate you. It gives politicians a strange mixture of nervousness and arrogance, as they do everything in their power to retain their ‘Big Tent’ appeal. There is an over-awareness that everything should be geared towards the maintenance of that alliance and coalition. And there is also at the same time, seemingly paradoxically, a creeping arrogance that typically comes with ministers being in office for what will shortly be a decade. In this mindset, every problem becomes solvable by ministers and every solution entails ministers and government taking more power into their own hands.
The SNP’s centrist agenda of steady as she goes safety-first politics has been disguised by the theatre and drama of our times. First there was the sheer novelty of the party winning in 2007 and entering office and forming a minority government, followed by majority government and the helter skelter experience of the indyref, and then the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister.
Nine years is enough of a period to be able to discern some big patterns: some positive and some negative. On the former, these include the shallowness of the SNP’s legislative achievements in its near-decade in office. For all the party’s much pronounced social democratic credentials, there is little evidence of legislation and practice that has advanced a politics of social democracy, redistribution and greater equality. We have had a lot of rhetoric and assertion, but too little movement, even allowing for the powers of the Parliament.
Such sentiment is beginning to be more slowly talked about, with this week former Minister Kenny MacAskill saying that the SNP in office under Nicola Sturgeon has been ‘marked more by timidity than radicalism’ and that if this continued ‘the danger is that her government end up simply managing, not leading, the political agenda; much indeed, as Labour did …’
On the positive, the SNP have presided over a transformation of how Scotland thinks and sees itself. The Scottish Government feels like a Government not a Branch Office. The office of First Minister has become the undisputed leader of the nation. And Scotland has, thanks to the indyref, significantly reappeared on the international stage for the first time in the modern era.
These are long-term shifts, maybe as (or even more) important than legislation. If we look at the big picture of how Scotland has altered as a society beyond government and politics, much of this has happened not at the hands of the SNP alone, but as part of a much more diffuse, diverse set of changes. This is Scotland’s ‘quiet revolution’ of recent debates – the weakening of liberal unionist and institutional Scotland – that is separate from the SNP and which, in parts it along with formal society, barely understands.
“Time is of the essence here. We are living in the shadows of the last days of the British state. The next few years are going to be stormy, turbulent and in places, ugly. British nationalism of a very uncivil and unpleasant kind has been let out and is free to roam and devour those it doesn’t like.”
Given these changes, the fact that the SNP has been so timid, cautious and conservative is even more pronounced. Take any number of examples – social justice, local government, broadcasting and culture – and there has been little bold, far-reaching or that imaginative.
This brings us to the SNP’s command and control politics and the need for them to let go the propensity to centralise, standardise and rationalise. This has combined with a politics of decision-making under Nicola Sturgeon which, as Mandy Rhodes observes in the recently published collection ‘SNP Leaders’ edited by myself and James Mitchell, really only comes down to Nicola in association with Peter Murrell, Chief Executive of the party and her husband. Such a concentration of decision-making can work for a period in good years, but it rarely ever ends well. Mike Russell in the same book has warned that the years of office have ‘eroded the reality of distributed authority’ in the party.
“The entire Westminster system, political class and British state is away to enter the most challenging and difficult times since the 1930s. This is a time of maximum danger and opportunity. We have to seize that agenda creatively and responsibly and be aware of the age we are living in: where power economically, politically and geo-politically is in flux and fluidity.”
Two fault-lines are emerging in Scottish politics which are explored in my forthcoming book ‘Scotland the Bold’ out next month. The first is the re-emergence of one of the big dividing lines between anti-Tory and Tory Scotland – this time as Nationalist Scotland versus Tories as the new independence-unionist divide. One can already see both sides preparing their rhetoric and there is a mutual advantage to both pre-indyref2 – mobilising their own sides, playing to their raison d’etre, and further squeezing out Labour. But this cannot be enough of a debate to define and win a future indyref, because it plays too much to a comfortable set of stories about Scotland, constantly referencing the 1980s and sins of Thatcher and Thatcherism and doesn’t address future challenges.
Then there is the perspective of the enlightened, professional, insider class versus the self-organising, self-determining DIY Scotland – the last of which we saw in action in the indyref, but which is part of a much longer-term and generational shift and change, not just here but across the West.
The first are the strata of society who have administered Scotland for as long as there has been a sub-state and which has grown increasingly important as state, public spending and the reach of patronage grew over most of the 20th century. This group is formal, institutional Scotland – and thinks it has the legitimacy, mandates and resources to make most of the important decisions in society. Fortunately, its worldview is one that is increasingly in crisis and retreat. DIY Scotland while having less resources has an energy, motivation and generational story. It also has a welcome distrust of the state and institutional authority that has let people down so often in recent decades.
One big question for the future character of self-governing, independent Scotland is where the ideas, self-criticism and debates emerge – something Pat Kane rightly raised last week in Bella Caledonia (‘Strategies for Yes need new Institutions’). What is required I think is an ecology of self-determination in which pro-independence institutions can establish, find an anchor and support, and grow. These would include many different types of bodies, but three are worthy of individual mention:
The think tank question. With the exception of Common Weal there is no independent supporting conventional think tank. There are numerous limits and criticisms of the think tank industry, but not having one is equally problematic.
An ideas/cultural journal. This wouldn’t be a ‘New Statesman’ or ‘Prospect’ as the market won’t sustain one, but a sort of mini-Scottish ‘Marxism Today’. It would have an ecumenical, generous and pluralist vision of self-government, and while being based and rooted in Scotland, about both Scotland and the world.
An independent cultural body. This would be about arts, culture, imagination and ideas which would sit in a place inspired by the energies and drive of National Collective.
All of these bring up big issues about organisational form, remit, business models and finance, which need detailed discussion. What also matters are values, vessels and voice: understanding where they sit, who they draw upon, and what kind of Scotland they try to reflect and champion. Equally, we have to assess the attitude of the SNP leadership to such independent minded, pro-independence initiatives. So far it hasn’t been that encouraging.
One reason for this has been that the SNP leadership have concentrated upon party strategies and building, and haven’t recognised or prioritised non-party initiatives. But it does increasingly look like there is more to this after so many years in government. It does seem as if there is a tendency to be wary of independent initiatives and instead want to have some element of control over as much of the independence movement as possible. It isn’t as black and white as that I surmise, but there is wariness in encouraging non-SNP spaces, and a lack of grasping the need for a diversity and ecology of self-government bodies and voices.
All of this is not a sideshow. Independence necessitates a ferment of ideas, claims and counter-claims and a rich soup of policies and proposals. That cannot wait until day one of an independent Scotland because on that day, Serco, KPMG and others will be there with their feet under the table and their Powerpoint pitches for outsourcing, privatisation and ‘smart’ public spending cuts.
Indyref2 cannot just be won by the SNP and SNP alone. The Nationalists need Green, Labour and Lib Dem votes and they need sizeable percentages of each if we are to be sure that independence will win, and win emphatically and well.
This begs a whole host of questions for consideration and discussion: about what can we best do now, how do we do it, and what kind of institutions and platforms do we most need and how do we create them and financially support them?
Time is of the essence here. We are living in the shadows of the last days of the British state. The next few years are going to be stormy, turbulent and in places, ugly. British nationalism of a very uncivil and unpleasant kind has been let out and is free to roam and devour those it doesn’t like.
The entire Westminster system, political class and British state is away to enter the most challenging and difficult times since the 1930s. This is a time of maximum danger and opportunity. We have to seize that agenda creatively and responsibly and be aware of the age we are living in: where power economically, politically and geo-politically is in flux and fluidity. That cannot just be left to the SNP, but entails a nuanced debate and interventions alongside the SNP to make sure that the different society many of us aspire to does happen. The Scotland of the future is being made now. That’s a challenge and responsibility to every single one of us.
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books on November 14th.