2007 - 2021

Festival of Democracy

Malcolm Kerr outlines some issues and opportunities for SNP members and activists in the brief season of the Holyrood 2021 candidate selection process.

The soundtrack for this year’s candidate selection process is the chopping of membership cards. It is a hard time to be an SNP activist, watching long-time local stalwarts become disenchanted, trying to persuade friends to remain in the Party, running out of excuses and defences. It doesn’t need to be this way.

Following the December 2019 General Election, we were fairly certain that the next national election would be the Scottish Parliament in May 2021. We had well over a year to prepare. The plan was to undertake vetting and selection of candidates during the spring of 2020. For three and a half months, HQ left text dated 30th March on the SNP website outlining a candidate assessment process which was clearly not taking place. Now that Covid lockdown has been eased, the process is to take place – on line! Presumably with Zoom interviews. Sadly, Keith Brown was not intending irony when he sent out his May email to members entitled “Use this time wisely!”. This process could have been finished months ago. Approved potential candidates (i.e those who have concluded vetting successfully) need to express their interest in a constituency to the National Secretary by 14th September.

There is a plus side (let’s remember). ‘Yes’ is now the preferred Independence option (at 54%), our First Minister has an unprecedented level of personal approval across the country for her handling of the pandemic crisis, and we have an opposition in complete disarray. As a nation, however, we have a reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

For observers of the SNP’s HQ and NEC performance over recent years, we have come to expect very little. The slo-mo car crash around the 30th July NEC meeting was, even so, hard to watch, and not least because we have known for some time that it had to come. Any ordinary Party member can only glean small insights into what actually happened at the NEC. Minutes (if minutes are kept) are not available to us, but we can usually rely on individual NEC members leaking their account to the Press.

Two items of business stood out. First the decision to deny James Dornan MSP the right to put his name forward for selection in Cathcart, the Scottish Parliament seat he has held and served for years, and second, the decision to discourage Joanna Cherry from seeking the Edinburgh Central nomination by requiring MPs to give up their Westminster seat when selected rather than once elected. An anonymous NEC member duly released a detailed account of the proceedings, and it was not flattering to the Party hierarchy. The James Dornan decision was reversed the following day when it was found ‘unconstitutional’. It isn’t clear how the SNP’s CEO, Business Convener and National Secretary had all failed to notice this flaw in the plan at an earlier stage! The salient features of this ‘handbags at dawn’ episode are that it was initiated by a faction very close to the Leadership, and that it failed.

There is also a credible view that the ‘Dornan Affair’ was only ever intended as a diversion to deflect from the core intent: pursuing an equally unconstitutional change to the candidate selection rules, effectively debarring Cherry from standing for Holyrood, as was her right. For some members this chicanery has been the last straw.

George Kerevan gives a helpful account of what has happened to the SNP after 13 years in office. The shift to the right in policy terms has been accompanied by the rise of a powerful Party bureaucracy. Policy is made by employed special advisers rather than members. Corporate lobbyists have easy access to ministers. With success in Westminster elections, a large number of MPs and their staff have become dependent on our opponents (the UK State) for salaries and pensions. There is a powerful system of patronage and a career ladder to keep aspiring high flyers in line, and ensure their loyalty. My own extensive experience over the years confirms that Party HQ and the Leadership now have a deeply ingrained disdain for members and especially for the volunteers who run the branch and constituency networks.

Associated with this is the large cohort of MPs and MSPs, their energy perhaps sapped by the routine work of representing individual constituents, whose focus and drive appears suppressed by a combination of healthy salaries and a position of relative impotence in relation to the tiny select Leadership group.

Bernadette McAliskey, MP for Mid Ulster in the early 1970s noted: “My function in life is not to be a politician in Parliament; it is to get something done”. In 2015 she warned the SNP of the risks of ‘settling in’ in London, and becoming absorbed in the Westminster culture. (Historians may correct me here if I am wrong, but I doubt if there is any historical precedent for the achievement of its goals by an Independence movement dominated by a centralised bureaucracy and superannuated members of the colonial administration.)

People get quite worked up around candidate selection. The stakes are high, whether it is the power or the salary that is the attraction, and it is often seen as a ‘sell your granny’ time, when anything goes. Individuals can develop a sense of entitlement over a term or two in office, and tend to try to throw their weight around. Threats are made. Colleagues are denigrated. Established incumbents may start to regret an abrasive demeanour or that indiscrete affair with an activist. It is all a bit too much like Old Labour for me. Many MSPs have come, over the years, to regard the constituency they represent as ‘theirs’, and to see any challenge to their position as a disloyalty and an affront. This culture has to change.

Step back a little, though, and here is a more positive take. Julie Hepburn (@juliehepburnsnp. SNP Activist. SNP wing of the SNP. Eyes on the Prize.) tweeted on August 2nd: “I was 1 of 6 candidates in the SNP selection contest for Strathkelvin and Bearsden for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, and frankly I think that was a great thing! It was friendly, productive and great for internal democracy. I say that as a candidate who lost. Despite my personal disappointment, I think the local members benefitted from the choice.” She puts it well and goes on to heap praise on her successful opponent.

Referendum activists will recall the rhetoric around the power Scotland held on the 18th of September 2014. For a brief potentially transformative period, the people of Scotland held almost unlimited power. Of course, then, we gave it away again. For the Party and its members however, these short seasons of potential occur every few years around selection contests. The SNP Constitution is very clear about this: “Clause 4. Membership. The rights of membership include: (e) voting to elect the Party’s candidates at public elections.” As SNP members, we choose our elected members: they don’t choose us.

If selecting our elected representatives is a right, it also has to be a duty. Opportunities to influence policy and the general direction of the Party have diminished progressively over the last decade, with the collapse of the old style National Assembly, the centralisation of power inherent in the 2016 constitutional review, the loss of National Council, the absence of Party discussion forums (why am I writing in Bella?), and the slow erosion of National Conference into a rally.

Here’s some things we could ask of our potential candidates at selection hustings, though. These are concerns that are widely shared among members:

Independence. It is nice to think that the FM and her inner circle have a Plan B covered for when a Section 30 order is refused by Westminster. If so, or if not, why is it impossible to get a discussion about strategy at National Conference, the SNP’s ‘supreme decision making body’?

Currency. How would an ‘independent’ Scotland have fared economically through the pandemic without its own central bank to issue stimulus funds?

The GRA legislation. Can the devolved administration of a country where the opposition and Tory Press managed to ‘ulsterise’ the Baby Box afford to proceed with GRA legislation when England has ditched her equivalent? Or will the required expenditure of political capital be just too great?

UK Single Market. Yes, we need to control Covid, but the ‘Single Market’ train is on the track and approaching at speed, threatening to undermine all the advances of the devolution settlement. Is it possible any longer to be a ‘gradualist’?

There’s a need for a grassroots resurgence, with the wider membership assuming responsibility to take the Party back.

We need to encourage the NEC to focus on what is important, and create work-streams to deliver efficiency and best practice across Scotland including all our branches. We need to prepare the membership for campaigning, providing guidance, training and leadership. Above all, we need to examine and improve our values and behaviours, demanding the highest standards of integrity from ourselves and our elected representatives.

There is a lot to be done. We need new blood and this selection period is an opportunity to exert leverage. Ask candidates to demonstrate their commitment to a cooperative culture in the Party, to indicate how they plan to involve members, activists, local office-bearers and local councillors in progressing Independence. How will they relate to the wider Yes movement? How will they bring disillusioned ex-members back to the SNP?

Have a ‘Festival of Democracy’ in your constituency. See it as a failure if sitting members are not challenged. Use this time to get the Party back on track.



Malcolm Kerr is the SNP’s Constituency Organiser in Cunninghame North, has familiarity with the Party’s selection processes, but has no current personal ambitions within the SNP. Correspondence is welcomed at: [email protected]











Comments (20)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I accept your challenge, although I am a bit surprised that you do not share the view that formal British decolonization was aimed at handovers to people the Empire and its capitalists could do business with. If the British imperialists felt the couldn’t do business with them, the prospective Independent leadership might be removed by military force, as happened in British Guiana. I guess one need look no further than the success of the racist government of Rhodesia to achieve its goal of de facto independence:
    while South Africa got its independence earlier and with international recognition. My historical knowledge on these cases is weak, but I am aware of the wider pattern of neocolonialism, the more insidious and corrupting form.

    The danger appears to be achieving a state of independence without a binding, codified, popular-mandated Scottish Constitution to limit what an interim SNP majority government could do to consolidate power.

  2. Douglas Wilson says:

    The SNP has sucked the life out of Scottish civil society…

    In the 80s and 90s Scottish civic society was a force to be reckoned with. There were strikes of work, the anti-nuclear campaign was much more important than now, and then with the mass civil disobedience campaign against the poll tax,the groundwork was laid for the downfall of Thatcher. Millions of Scots refused to pay it. The day Thatcher resigned, one of my professors at Glasgow University, a staid character the rest of the year, opened a bottle of champagne at our tutorial which fell that day he was so delighted.

    The contrast with where we are now couldn’t be any starker. The Party has become everything, and within the Party, the great leader Sturgeon…

    The biggest stripping of the rights of Scottish citizens in history will be consummated at the end of this year and there is barely a murmur of protest much less a campaign of resistance.

    Gaelic is almost dead as a community language and shoulders are shrugged in response. The national sport entered into a precipitous decline two decades ago and no one seems interested in trying to revive it.

    The arts have become bureaucratized to the point of sclerosis ( the point of State funding of the arts is always to control what gets done, to temper critics and make people think twice about rocking the boat. It’s another means of social control. ) The universities, so important over the centuries to what and who we are, have become money making machines….

    The Catalan nationalists, the now defunct CyU ran Catalonia for 40 years “wanting independence”. The PNV, the Basque nationalist party, ran Euskadi for 40 years”wanting independence”. The former were just as corrupt and right wing as the PP in Madrid, and the latter just as right wing and fanatically reactionary catholic…

    The SNP is a conservative force in Scottish society, not a party of change…The SNP is part of the problem. The photo of this article says it all: the cult of the great leader… Surgeon basically is the SNP. It’s not healthy.

    We need to reinvigorate Scottish civil society, and I don’t mean through ethnic nationalist flag waving marches like AUOB.

    I can’t remember Scotland ever being as conservative as it is now…

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      Or another thing back in the 80s would be the campaign to free Nelson Mandela and end Apartheid, with the City of Glasgow being the first in the West to recognize Mandela as a political prisoner while Thatcher was calling him a “terrorist”. I mean, that mobilised Scottish civil society, especially Glasgow, it was a ferment at the time…

      The resistance to Thatcher in Scotland was so great that the Labour party had to give us a parliament, they were in our debt…. I mean, there was no question…

      But these things put Scotland on the map and gave it a name as a progressive country, a country to be reckoned with…

      But that’s all gone. The SNP have channelled all that energy into their own party and it translates into money and power for the party apparatus not resistance to Tory England. So, what’s the point of that? The party that is in cahoots with dukes and gamekeepers, that hobnobs with the rich and powerful. I see no appeal..

      You would hope that a new alternative, grassroots movement might emerge modelled on something like Podemos, which won 5 million votes at the 2015 European elections on a crowd funded budget of 120,000 euros…

      You would need a name, maybe something The Alternative From Below or maybe just copy the common term used in the Spanish speaking world for it, like the Candidate for Popular Unity, or better said the People’s Unity Candidate. Though “The Alternative From Below” has more of a mystery to it…

    2. Indyman says:

      I am beginning to think that the SNP under its current leadership will only actually make a move towards independence once control of the economy and housing has been completely handed over to the banks, corporations and offshore landowners like Buccleuch Estates. This is already happening. After their retirement from front line politics, the Sturgeon/Murrel duo will, of course be handsomely rewarded for their endeavours in bringing this about, following the well worn path trod by Tony Blair after his time in office. After all they can’t possibly be expected to manage on less than the £160,000 p.a. plus expenses that they are currently getting, can they?

  3. Ian McCubbin says:

    All very honest and I totally agree with the view.
    I guess the festival of democracy will have to wait u til covid 19 depletes to allow branch meetings in real face to face time.

  4. Douglas Wilson says:

    What I’m trying to say is that, if any other party was in power, the chances are that there would be a large and powerful movement underway in Scotland against the country bring removed from the EU against its will, that the effect of the SNP is to muzzle, neutar and stymie anything outside what it can control and command….

    It’s not a festival of democracy that we have, it’s a wake for the democratic civil society we had before the SNP came to power.

    If Scotland does not get out of the Union with England and realign with Europe in the next few years , it will end up completely assimilated within a generation. What made Scotland distinctive from England is receding fast…

    And yet there is no sense of urgency, no sense of outrage or anger or defiance in the words and body language of Sturgeon or any leading SNP member. It’s absolutely unbelievable. We are being removed from the EU against our will, and no one in the SNP seems to give a fck….

    1. Me Bungo Pony says:

      There IS a large and powerful movement in Scotland opposing Brexit …. its called the Independence movement. And your insistence that the Scottish govt strain every sinew to prevent it happening is in stark contrast to a vocal grouping who are adamant they have spent far too much time and effort doing just that, but should have been doing no such thing. A case of damned if you do …. etc.

    2. Arboreal Agenda says:

      What do you actually mean by ‘assimilated’? Why would it be significantly different from the hundreds of years of the Union? The EU has only be round a few decades. Scotland’s distinctive character and culture has ‘survived’ 300 hundred years of the Union and of course some of that distinctiveness has evolved as part and parcel of the Union. And before that it’s distinctive evolution and history is millennia old, and yet always entwined with that of England. Yet it is all going to disappear and Scotland become assimilated, Borg-like because Scotland leaves the EU, an organisation that was only joined in 1973? Have some faith in Scotland man, it ain’t going to be assimilated because history shows us it won’t be.

      1. Douglas Wilson says:

        As you must know AA, the Internal Market White Paper which the Tories are going to put into legislation allows London to overrule Holyrood on any policy matter they choose in the name of the “internal cohesion of the UK single market”.

        That’s already a completely unacceptable usurpation of Scottish sovereignty, and for those who point out the EU once did something similar for years, well it’s just not the same thing to share sovereignty with 27 different European nation States in a supranational organization like the EU, than it is to have London play that role.

        As for the erosion of our cultural distinctiveness, it has been well charted by Scottish writers, poets and artists over the 20th century, that is what the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920’s sought to react against and attempt to halt – to what extent that project succeeded or not is for another day.

        Scotland’s distinctiveness exists outside things like its indigenous languages, its generalist university education approach compared to the English preference for narrow specialization and its culture output, but the erosion of our two indigenous languages is clearly a major loss by any measure of nationhood if only because so much of our national literature is in Gaelic and Scots…to lose them amounts to a rupture or a severance with our past and a narrowing of our culture.

        We are the custodians of the indigenous Scottish culture which has been handed down to us and we must hand it down in turn to the future generations intact, but of course the SNP have done little or nothing in this regard either and in today’s Anglo-dominated media sphere, that amounts to cultural suicide…

        1. Arboreal Agenda says:

          OK so you are talking about two different things – the serious potential erosion of the powers of the Scottish Government by Westminster (a shocking possibility though I doubt it will amount to much myself but we will see), and the SNPs failure to protect and promote Gaelic and Scots. The first is obviously a straightforward political point though I am still struggling to see how it amounts to ‘assimilation’ since prior to c2000 there was no SG, yet the Union occurred 300 years earlier, or are you just saying the Union was cultural assimilation? I think that rather dismissive of 300 years of Scottish culture. And who is to say what that culture really is? Only nationalists? I would agree about the way controlling states can suck the life out of the arts by giving funding but with lots of unspoken strings attached and kind of tick box suppression of creativity but then, the government in question here is a nationalist one.

          How widely spoken is Gaelic and Scots in reality? Has it seen a major drop recently such that it clearly undermines the idea of a distinct Scottish culture? You concede there is much more to culture than an indigenous language(s) yet seem to place the most importance on those languages. I wholeheartedly support the promotion of Gaelic and Scots (though not from a nationalist perspective particularly) but I can’t help feeling you are using that pretty skewed argument as stick to beat the SNP with: trying to save ostensibly dying languages is not at all an easy thing to do for obvious reasons.

          1. Douglas Wilson says:

            The short answer is: Scotland has been culturally assimilated by England to a very great extent already, yes, of course.
            Over the duration of 300 years, but most especially over the last century and a bit a) since the arrival of the modern education system and b) even more so with the mass media,…

  5. Alin Scot says:

    Many are not keen to discuss these issues in a public forum but now have no option as the usual channels no longer work and that applies to SNP branches too and anything referred upwards is easily “lost”. Keith Brown’s national assemblies were successful but that meant listening and more importantly acting on the members’ wishes and therefore they quickly disappeared.

    With no avenue left for discussion within, there is no alternative than to communicate with the opposition listening in.

    1. Douglas Wilson says:

      You should coordinate massively within the party and threaten to quit en masse unless Murrell resigns ASAP….

      You can’t have a husband and wife team running an independence mvement, that’s what they have in Argentina FFS!!!With the Kirchners, with Nestor and Cristina, Nestor having died! And Argentina is one of the worst run countries in human history, though at least the Kirchners were on the Left, vaguely, but more than Sturgeon and Murrell for sure. Their economics are a bit like Kerevan’s…

      The supporters of Cristina identify themselves with the sign K+ and her opponents with K-. They use that sign as a shorthand within the Peronist movement (or maybe post-Peronist) which maybe we could copy in Scotland, with S+ and S-, though that might be confused with S for Salmond… Maybe N+, N-….

      Anyway SNP members, you’ve got to do something… It’s embarrassing to behold you all towing the blandest, most craven, cowardly and unimaginative party line in living memory….

      I have never felt more pessimistic about Scotland in my life, and that includes Argentina 78…

      1. Douglas Wilson says:

        The Kirchners also had a motto or a logo or an informal party slogan apparently: “we are everywhere”….LOL

        …and that’s just like the SNP have become, they’re everywhere in Scotland, every single institution in the land… your neighbour or dentist or landlady could be in the Party…careful what you say if you work in the public sector…

        Now I come to think of it, I suspect Mike Small might have recently joined the SNP. Am I right Mike? That would explain a lot if you had…

        Have you Mike? Have you lost faith and just booked yourself a berth on the gravy train Mike?

        I am genuinely depressed by the events of the last few years….to get beaten by Nigel Farage and that racist upper class twat Johnson is too much to bear….

        But not to offer any kind of resistance to their plans is a disgrace for anyone who calls themselves Scots…

        1. No Douglas I’ve not joined the SNP. No gravy train here I’m afraid, just a different analysis from yours, intolerable I know.

          1. Douglas Wilson says:

            Just teasing you, Mike…
            What are we to make of the Scottish Govt’s refusal to hand over the documentation requested by parliamentary committee in the Salmond enquiry?
            How can the paperwork in what should be a standard procedure possibly be “too sensitive to release” as John Swinney is claiming?
            I, for one, don’t believe him… I believe Swinney is lying.
            Add to that the hubris of Glasgow Academy wide-boy Justice Minister, Humza Yousaf, who thinks he knows better than the Scottish Police Federation and the Law Society of Scotland, and Swinney’s disastrous handling of the exam results, and I think it would be fair to say this Scottish Govt is beyond dreadful and that Sturgeon and Murrell are to blame and should go or be sent packing…
            It couldn’t be any worse with any other party, and Sturgeon isn’t going to call a referendum anyway…

      2. Hazel says:

        You are wrong to assume SNP members are doing nothing Douglas.
        My own branch has held meetings about the current situation since December. Office Bearers have communicated concerns to Murrell and MacLeod, with no response. We have spoken to our MP and MSP several times. Our branch is not alone in having concerns and trying to find solutions.
        We are coming up against a brick wall. Covid isn’t helping.
        Please do not assume that all SNP members are complacent. We care very much and are trying our best.

  6. campbell laing says:

    A great article by Malcolm. I know exactly where he is coming from. There is something sadly very wrong at the head of the party. Complaints go unanswered.There is no follow up to your complaint. That is after monthafter submitting it you have to ask if they received it. It appears as a closed shop to members. Have they forgotten that it is the members who make the party. it is the members who make the rules and expect other members to stand by them

    1. Hazel says:

      This is absolutely our experience too Campbell.

      1. Alin Scot says:


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