Some Advice for the New leader
The departure of Nicola Sturgeon has kicked off another round of the wild conspiracy theories that have swirled around her career. Sturgeon was a character that attracted vitriol and invective from all corners. My favourite conspiracy about her was that she just pretended to read books in order to project an image of herself as a bright spark. She was, according to detractors from either side simultaneously obsessed with independence to the point of ignoring all else – and yet also completely uninterested in independence and focussed solely on her own advancement.
The truth is perhaps more prosaic. She did attract support for independence – and for the SNP – from a wider range of the Scottish electorate by presenting a less bellicose face of nationalism – and by putting forward a social democratic suite of policies. She increased free school meal provision up to nine, developed ground-breaking legislation on domestic violence and coercive control, and as Dani Garavelli has noted: “Scotland’s tax system is the most progressive in the UK, and the Conservatives’ welfare reforms are being mitigated by the child payment – £25 per child per week for low-income families.”
But if these and other reforms marked Scottish social policy as being more liberal than the UK’s, this was a low bar, and hardly transformative enough to win over sufficient enough numbers to ‘the cause’. It did win over that progressive Scotland that would previously have been attached to Scottish Labour, but it wasn’t enough next to wider policy failures over education and drugs deaths and the litany of controversies and ‘scandals’ (of varying degrees of basis in actual reality).
What Sturgeon was good at was winning elections. While this was enough at first these victories didn’t lead to anything. The ridiculous and huge Westminster cohort have produced very little actual change to speak of. The lack of cohesion and strategy between the Westminster group and the Holyrood one is a failure of leadership but its also reflective of a truth that while the former had too much time on their hands, the latter had to deal with the details of running a country.
Now faced with neither a leader nor a strategy the SNP will need to re-make themselves. Unfortunately for them, and us, this process is already aligning around purely factional interests with Alex Salmond and Joanna Cherry promoting the younger and socially conservative Ash Regan and Kate Forbes – as are a surround-sound of the Unionists finest scribes and editors. If I was the SNP I would not choose the culture wars as the ground to fight. It’s the economy stupid, as the famous snowclone has it.
It’s early days – and the past twenty four hours has seen more candidates rule themselves out than in – but the problem with the candidates so far is that none of them has articulated a strategy for moving independence forwards. If the sole criteria for success is determining which element of the party or the movement they represent – or where they align on issues of trans legislation – then we are in deeper trouble that we realise.
Sturgeon was right that Scotland is in a position of stasis and deadlock. She was right that she had become a divisive figure. She had become the central point of focus for hatred from all sides. For some within the independence movement she was a failure or a traitor, while for those from a unionist perspective she was the devil incarnate, or at least (hilariously) Jimmy Krankie.
To shift the dial for Scottish independence, and to avoid repeating the conditions that led to this state of affairs, the SNP should do five things.
First, avoid creating the problem in the first place. Avoid replacing one ‘great leader’ with another. Avoid the New Labour trope of creating a presidential-style leadership model where everything is parsed through a single person. Instead create a team and multiple leaders.
Second, frighten the horses. Gaining independence is about change, radical transformative change, to pretend otherwise is just nonsense. Breaking up the British state is the task. Your not going to do that without making some noise. Britain is already broken. Say it. This idea that we can slide seamlessly and without ripples away from the Union is both completely misleading and completely dispiriting. There is no ‘juice’ in this approach and its been a proven failure.
Third, there needs to be unity between the Westminster and the Holyrood branches of the SNP. The MPs need to have a plan for what they are doing and why. It seems really unclear what their actual purpose is – beyond representing their constituencies and collecting their salaries, What are they there for?
Fourthly, and this shouldn’t need saying but it does, they need to campaign. Despite the hysteria of the unionist community the SNP really aren’t obsessed about independence. The case needs to be made and re-made and needs to be put to the people in new forms and by new mediums. This is NOT an argument for speaking to the converted or for going along to endless rallies and marches of the Yes movement. The Yes movement are not who they need to be speaking to. This entails much more than the half-hearted mealy-mouthed ‘papers the FM published over the past year. People need dynamic detailed plans and they need the building blocks of a new state to be put in place and tried-out. None of this happened. As Jonathon Shafi has written: “The existing “revamped” prospectus for independence, farmed out to the corporate lobby, doesn’t stand up to even mild scrutiny. The new “White Papers” amounted to no more than short-lived publicity stunts which came to a halt without notice or explanation.”
Fifth, they need to change. There needs to be transparency and honesty, two things that have been absent and allowed the festering sewer of wild conspiracies to bloom. Professional political parties like control and secrecy, but after a while the benefits that tactic brings is outweighed by the suspicion it provokes. One key thing to be open and transparent about is the tactic for re-entering the EU. This is a popular idea that demarcates it from other parties. It’s the clear blue water between Labour and the SNP, it’s the clear blue water between an independent Scotland and remaining with Britannia Unchained. But it’s not really viable within the current, discredited, currency plan. That needs to change.
To move beyond stasis and deadlock these things need to happen. Reflecting on Sturgeon’s time in office we are in a paradox. New polling from the Ipsos Knowledge Panel, conducted the day after Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, found that three in five of the Scottish public (59%) say that Nicola Sturgeon has changed Scotland for the better, but also that a majority of the public think that her resignation will have a negative impact both on the case for Scottish independence and on the SNP. Both these things are true. If the SNP are to be resurrected they need to embrace change – which is darkly ironic for a party that proposes – at least in theory – dramatic, seismic political and constitutional change.
The single thing that is needed is for the SNP – and the independence movement – to show how creating a functioning democracy will improve social conditions for millions facing economic crisis on a scale they’ve never experienced before. This and only this will change things. The irony is this isn’t actually difficult to do. For whoever replaces Nicola Sturgeon this is the task at hand. All flows from this. This is about Raploch not Bannockburn.