The future of the SNP, movement building and political change
The SNP leadership contest is a watershed moment. It has thrown up serious questions about the character and continued dominance (or not) of the SNP, narrow range and quality of candidates, and the state of progressive politics in Scotland and the independence debate.
Besides this, much of the current commentary reveals even more about the current condition of Scotland by portraying a set of stories about its recent journey and the nature and content of the devolution project. Beyond that, it is projecting different interpretations of political change – some deeply problematic.
On the SNP leadership contest, all around is outlandish comment. Historian Tom Devine said in The Herald that Kate Forbes was being ‘crucified’ and ‘hounded out of the opportunity to hold high office’ if she wasn’t elected First Minister. Spectator editor Fraser Nelson said that ‘Protestants are now hounded out of public office, as Kate Forbes has shown’; while Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg compared the treatment of Forbes to Mary Queen of Scots.
To add to this, independence supporters such as Ruth Wishart made the case for Forbes as the best candidate for Yes with no real evidence; while Kevin McKenna seemed to take exception to cosmopolitan, modern Scotland. A reality check to all this was provided by a poll which showed that 58% of Scottish respondents thought evangelical Christian views were no barrier to top political posts, but 40% thought opposition to same sex marriage was, with 44% disagreeing.
The Importance of Telling Stories of Modern Scotland
Unsurprisingly, considering what a major moment this is, some comment has widened its perspective from the immediate to a longer take. One such piece was offered in the New Statesman’s current issue by Chris Deerin entitled ‘The undoing of Nicola Sturgeon’. This opened with Deerin’s reflection of sitting in SNP Edinburgh HQ in 1996 and coming to the view that the party were a marginal, near-irrelevant force who were ‘little more than an electoral afterthought.’
This judgement of the SNP pre-1997 was one shared at the time with unreconstructed Labour dinosaurs – the sort of people who did not want their party to agree to a PR-elected Scottish Parliament as they saw this ‘as Labour giving their majority away.’
Yet this dismissal of the SNP pre-1997 is both superficial and questionable – and seen as so at the time by important players in Scottish politics such as Donald Dewar, Jim Wallace and Alex Salmond, then SNP leader. All of these figures grasped the strategic importance of the SNP to the home rule project.
It was not just the fact that pre-1997, as John Major’s Tories imploded, that the SNP had become the second party of Scotland in popular support, positioning themselves as the main challengers to Labour in a devolved Parliament.
Equally important Dewar, Wallace and Salmond recognised that the SNP was critical to decisively winning a referendum on a Parliament, and Labour and the Lib Dems did not have the voters on their own to win by a decisive margin (the SNP being the potential difference between a 50% plus win and a 70-75% one). From this understanding, advanced by pro-home rule businessman Nigel Smith in 1995-97, came behind the scenes research on how to win that referendum, and to do so through building relationships which would enable Labour, Lib Dems and SNP to come together publicly in a cross-party platform post-1997 – which became the Scotland Forward campaign group in the 1997 referendum.
Far from the SNP not mattering pre-1997 the opposite is true. The SNP were one of the key players in making sure a home rule consensus existed by joining together the devolution and independence wings. This was something all the main players, aided by Nigel Smith’s skilled backroom diplomacy, understood and acted upon. To present a contrary view of the above period suggests a lack of understanding in how devolution came about and the rise of the SNP subsequently.
Another strand in the New Statesman essay throws up questions for how journalists and commentators interact with politicians. Deerin reflects on past exchanges with Nicola Sturgeon when she was First Minister and on one specific time when he said to her: ‘I liked her, I told her, and asked her why she thought this was.’ This question from a few years ago is something that Deerin has no embarrassment in revisiting. But it is revealing; trying to be ingratiating, looking for approval, and not how a journalist should question power. Yet in a wider way it is how part of the Scottish media have continually acted towards those with power – fawning them, offering cover and refusing to ask the questions that need to be asked (‘succulent lamb journalism’ anyone?).
A very different interpretation of recent decades and where we are was offered by the long-standing BBC journalist Allan Little in an extended essay which examined the journey and condition of Scottish self-government: ‘The story of Scottish independence: what next?’
The take of Little has lots to commend it including the author’s own reflections on growing up in the village of Glenluce in Dumfries and Galloway in the 1970s and provides a perspective with a sense of time, place and authenticity. Little is aware that Scotland has changed dramatically and that in his childhood ‘Scotland was a very British country’ with ‘working class communities’ with ‘proud civic identities’ and a sense of ‘Labour solidarity’ – all of which contributed to that Scottish expression of a British story.
Little observes that through his adult life he has experienced ‘a long, slow generational pivot away from the robust, secure unionism of the Scotland I grew up with’ which has informed the self-government and independence debate, but he now ruminates: ‘I have a clear sense of what we have been pivoting away from – just not what kind of Scotland we are pivoting towards.’
What can we take from the above? One is that insider class Scotland want to tell a story which consistently offers cover and validation to those with power, privilege and influence. This is a version of Scotland as old as the hills, but has become problematic in a modern, diverse country where public power is increasingly contested, and it does a disservice to the politics of Scotland and potential of self-government. It chimes with the self-interest of whoever is the ‘in’ political class – Labour or SNP – and their desire to minimise accountability and transparency of whatever they do.
Another is that other interpretations are available that offer a richer tapestry of the state of contemporary Scotland, of longer-term factors that go beyond not just party preferences but insider groups and elites. Such opinions with a more generous, democratic take of our country have many attractive characteristics but do not triumph just because of that. Rather how Scotland sees itself, the stories we tell one and another, and the values we embody, are made and remade every day. They link to the daily conversations we have, the voices present and missing, and the nature of our public culture and public sphere.
The limitations of the SNP’s take on political change and independence
One critical dimension of Scottish life which our mainstream politics tends to ignore are the characteristics of public culture in Scotland. An increasingly self-governing Scotland has to have at its centre not just a powerful Parliament, but a wider culture of public engagement, dialogue, reflection and debate that informs party politics but goes far beyond that into other areas of society.
This has been conspicuous by its absence in recent times and in particular post-2014, and one of the major obstacles to addressing it has been the conservatism and control mindset of the SNP. Nowhere has the SNP seemed to grasp that advancing self-government and independence might involve nurturing a public culture and public sphere of deeper engagement and exchange. And this has contributed to the obvious stasis in public debate and retreat of some into bitter, partisan, intolerant views.
The SNP’s formal take on what is political change has been a major issue in this, but such an account did not emerge overnight. Indeed, we can see in retrospect that the high-octane days of the indyref campaign of 2011-14 were an exception to the narrow, constrained way the SNP traditionally does politics. The SNP is not a ‘movement’ or ‘social movement’ party and post-2014 it has not known how to respond to the democratic surge of 2014. There has also been a failure by the wider independence forces to engage in serious, sustained institution building – with some as one observer put it ‘waiting for approval from the SNP’ and others happy to engage in a politics of rhetorical radicalism.
In the 2004 SNP leadership contest I persuaded the party to have a public debate with an audience who were not party members (the idea coming from a discussion between myself and SNP activist Gordon Guthrie who assisted and contributed to delivering the event). I told the party they had to get into the habit of not talking to themselves, but gearing their debates towards the general public.
The party agreed and I organised a leadership and depute leader contest – the first with Salmond, Roseanna Cunningham and Mike Russell; the second with Sturgeon, Fergus Ewing and Christine Grahame.
Introducing the event in central Edinburgh, I made the point that the SNP needed to grasp that its debates should matter to the public, and how it consistently framed the politics of independence, including the phrase that such change was about ‘the full powers of a Parliament’, narrowed the potential of change. It passed without note on the night and the debates were a success, but a year later a senior SNP figure told me that Salmond was still annoyed with me for that observation.
One point that is increasingly obvious is that a very constrained version of politics and independence still dominates a large part of the SNP. The party sees independence as something ‘normal’, but to reduce any idea of disruption it focuses on the ‘powers’ of the ‘Parliament’ to the exclusion of wider cultural and political change. Sadly, the evidence of the SNP’s actions post-2014 has been of the triumph of that limiting politics centred exclusively on politicians and the Scottish Parliament, to the detriment of wider democratic engagement.
It is not surprising that too little political party debate in Scotland actually understands the wider trends and currents shaping and affecting our country. That is the nature of much of what passes for party politics. But it would be more helpful if they did not have an approach to politics which is not only shallow and superficial, but which has in the case of the SNP wilfully turned its back on a politics of a wider idea of independence – of self-determination and giving citizens a greater say and voice in the decisions that matter in their life.
Independence must change to remain relevant, progressive, and to represent a cause which is not captured by the insider class or that represents the status quo. In short, independence has to have a set of stories about modern and future Scotland, and articulate a set of ideas about Scotland which chart a path from the present into tomorrow’s Scotland.
That would be a SNP leadership contest worthy of its name, but sadly the party look as far from understanding the need for change – in party, politics, how it embraces change and gives meaning to the idea of independence – as it has been in quite a long time. There may well be more rocky times ahead for the Nationalists and their unchallenged ascendancy may be coming to an end, requiring a different political approach from everyone supportive of independence and wider societal change.