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.



Comments (26)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Plus there are some auld farts proposing increasingly deranged, rash and unhelpful moves in desperate hope of seeing Scottish Independence before they personally snuff it. Apparently.

    Anyway, this article suggests that Devolutionists might side with Independentists to support Independence if they feared Devolution would be lost. Maybe.

    But if you feel that so many comments are ‘outlandish’, what service does it do to the quality of public debate to so regularly note, quote and namecheck? Doesn’t that unnecessarily amplify these already-amplified voices? Presumably, in a Darwinian sense, this merely encourages such extremism.

    This article takes a longer-term view than simply a harvest of the current commentariat crop; but what is needed is a longer view forward in time, not always backward and rehashing past insider gnat-battles. Where do we need to get to? What are the development paths optimised to reach and go beyond? When can we enjoy a present where the stupid concerns of party politics are well behind us?

  2. Colin Kirkwood says:

    The present discussion among the people of Scotland is impoverished. Part of what is missing is the free and wide ranging discussion of the meaning(s) of the word democracy itself. We are still suffering from an unconscious and internalised assumption that democracy means representative democracy. This assumption persists in spite of all the good recent work unearthing what democracy originally meant in Athens, for example by Robert Garland (Athenian Democracy: an Experiment for the Ages, 2018) and how those experiments were subsequently received and trashed (The Reception of Athenian Democracy from the late middle ages to the contemporary era, edited by Dino Piovan and Giovanni Giorgini, 2021). Any argument will do to discredit the idea of participative or direct democracy: for example that it excluded women, slaves and foreigners. Yes, it did, but that reflected the nature of society in that era: it does not discredit that version of the meaning of democracy. Hostility towards direct and participative democracy reflects a fear of anarchy, violence and, in an underlying sense, a fear of the people themselves. In Scotland the SNP and the other parties have substituted virtue signalling, progressive posturing and something called expertise, for the real democratic involvement of the people. The game of the war of the parties is played in order to keep the people themselves at bay. The word Scotland has been substituted on all sides for the people of Scotland, who are expected to stay in front of their TV sets and consume the rubbish that now passes for culture. Does anybody else remember the words of that visionary of 40 years ago, Jimmy Reid: Alienation, our profoundest word yet….. Hello! Is anybody out there?

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      Well said Colin.

    2. Alistair Taylor says:

      We could do with a few more Jimmy Reid’s!
      Btw, are you related to Roddy Kirkwood? Glasgow Uni, 80’s.
      He went to NZ, I think.
      A lot of people with a bit of gumption left.
      We would come back though.
      In a heartbeat.

      1. ColinKIrkwood says:

        Hi Alistair. No, I’m not related to Roddy Kirkwood and haven’t come across him.

        The only other Kirkwood who writes that I know of is my son Paul Kirkwood. He is a legal mediator and has written some very good pieces drawing on international experience of law and legal mediation.

        I think the growing interest in mediation is really heartening and worthwhile.

        Good wishes.

        1. Alistair Taylor says:

          Thanks Colin.

  3. florian albert says:

    Gerry Hassan writes that ‘all around is outlandish comment’ with reference to the SNP leadership contest.
    An alternative view is that this contest has shown up a dark and unpleasant side of ‘progressive Scotland’ in general and of the SNP establishment in particular.
    Two other pro-independence figures are worth quoting.
    Robin McAlpine could reasonably considered an insider. In his blog recently he wrote; ‘I’ve never known a party (meaning the SNP) to be quite as consistently vicious.’
    Alex Bell, formerly Alex Salmond’s Chief of Staff, writing in the Sunday Times, described the SNP leadership as ‘intolerant, desperate and mean.’
    Also, ‘hypocrites and bullies.’

    If what Bell and McAlpine allege is true, and I tend to believe them, then the party, which has dominated Scottish political life for the last 12 years, is rotten. Dealing with this rot is far more important than ‘telling stories of modern Scotland.’

    1. Gerry Hassan says:

      Some good comments above.

      Obviously telling truth to and challenging power is a fundamental that matters. But it is not an opposite to ‘telling stories of modern Scotland’ – by which I mean how we understand and interpret the long-term changes going on in Scottish society.

      One account of contemporary Scotland – including one expression I cite above – articulates a version of the past 25-years which is abt consistently not asking questions of insider groups, politicians in power and elites – and can be seen across society – politics, business, society. It did this under pre-devolution, Labour devolved Scotland and now under the SNP.

      The SNP are not in a good place, are atrophying and suffering from the long dominance of Salmond and Sturgeon, and the manipulated democracy of the Sturgeon era in the party and country. I would not go with the OTT comments of McAlpine and Bell (who are both now far removed from the SNP) but I would pose it in a different way from their sweeping comments. The difference is that I would see it in a wider framework: a) the SNP with all the above negatives still have some advantages (electorally popular; 100,000ish members); b) while many of their probs have got worse under the Sturgeon era many of them are also a product of longer-term factors: the power of that insider account not asking questions of power; the tradition of the lack of accountability in public life; the weak nature of what passes for democracy in Scotland.

      1. JP58 says:

        Gerry – are many of the criticisms of SNP in power not partly a criticism of devolution settlement itself?
        Since Brexit powers appear to be going back to Westminster rather than further devolved to councils and communities devolution is very vulnerable at the moment from attack by Westminster while the limitations for Scotland’s development under current devolution settlement are becoming more and more apparent.
        I agree the SNP need to reach out to wider independence community and acknowledge that they are political wing of movement rather than whole movement. I would like to see other political parties in Scotland acknowledge that >50% of electorate desire more powers for Scotland short of independence and actually with this process without looking over their shoulder to their London party bosses.
        The SNP appears to have become more and more centralised and managerial which does not lend them to being inclusive. One defence of this would be that this is in response to unceasingly hostile media within Scotland and across UK and Westminster’s hostility to devolved parliaments.
        The one thing the SNP have going for them at present is the sheer lack of alternatives provided by all other parties in Scotland to anyone sympathetic to independence in Scotland or even wishing to see Scotland develop in a way that is different from the failing Westminster governments.
        As Alan Little’s excellent report highlighted more and more Scots feel less and less connected to Britain today. I cannot see this trend being reversed in future which is why desire for independence will not fade away and will need some form of political input and leadership preferably from more political parties in Scotland.

      2. florian albert says:

        While Gerry Hassan views recent events in terms of an insider/outsider conflict going back decades, is it not better to view these events in terms of political power ?
        The SNP establishment is under threat. Its response is to try to destroy the career of the threat, Kate Forbes. Her weakness is seen as her religious beliefs. This suddenly becomes a defining issue despite never having been so previously.
        There has never been any reluctance in Scotland to assume the worst about the Conservative Party and politicians. SLAB was infamous for its lack of fraternity. The SNP has been treated more leniently – until now.
        One explanation would be that so many commentators, mostly on the left, have abandoned support for Labour (and the Union), in favour of independence. If the SNP falters, so does the cause of independence that they have rallied to.

        1. Gerry Hassan says:

          Dear Florian Albert,

          It is not an either/or between ‘insider/outsider’ and ‘political power’. Clearly it is: a) abt both; b) the former is informed by the latter; c) the current state of the SNP, indy and Scottish politics is shaped by multiple factors not one.

    2. Evan Alston says:

      Florian, did you read Gerry’s article ?

    3. Alec Lomax says:

      When did McAlpine ever stand for election ?

    4. Alec Lomax says:

      ” Alex Bell writing in the Sunday Times”

  4. Paddy Farrington says:

    I agree with much in Gerry’s article about the need for the SNP – and the independence movement more generally – to embrace a wider political agenda than that represented by parliamentary politics at Holyrood. However I am puzzled by the absence of any reference to one major attempt to do so by Sturgeon’s administration: the deal with the Scottish Greens. While this is limited to Holyrood, it has nevertheless forced the SNP to relate more openly to and take on board another set of agendas, in the process challenging some of the more conservative elements within the SNP. It is noteworthy – and depressing – that this potential for a new alliance is now under threat, and is being fiercely challenged by conservative forces within both the SNP and the wider independence movement. Such alliances – which should be expanded to include the labour movement – are essential if independence is to “articulate a set of ideas about Scotland which chart a path from the present into tomorrow’s Scotland” as Gerry rightly argues, and leave behind the poverty of thinking encapsulated by the ridiculously named ‘voter empowerment mechanism’.

    1. Gerry Hassan says:

      Thanks for the above comments which make a number of good observations.

      You are right to say I did not address the influence of the Scottish Greens. The reason being I was addressing the SNP and its relation to wider indy currents.

      In this my judgement is that the SNP-Green agreement of govt has not substantially shifted the way in which the SNP does politics as a party or government. Despite two Green Cabinet ministers Sturgeon remained the same kind of FM she had become; there was no real Cabinet govt and ministerial responsibilities were often micro-managed by the FM and her office; and alongside this no sense of a more collegiate leadership emerged in the SNP in how it did politics as a party or govt.

      This is not really surprising considering by time the SNP-Green deal was put in place the SNP had been in office 15 years.

  5. JP58 says:

    I am very surprised to see a critique of SNP rule since 2007 and no mention of:
    Austerity – imposed on Scotland by Westminster since Bank Crash which has caused so much financial and social damage.
    Brexit – imposed on Scotland by Westminster with ongoing effects since 2016.
    Covid – once in a hundred years pandemic whose effects on health& economy will last for many more years.
    Added to the limited financial powers of devolution settlement and an overbearing Conservative Westminster government any Holyrood government was going to struggle to make big changes. I would refer you to George Gunn’s recent article on how devolution was set up to fail.
    Have the SNP become a bit managerial and tired- yes all governments in power do after a number of years.
    Have the SNP government made mistakes- undoubtedly but again which governments do not over a period of time.
    I am not an SNP member and my voting pattern is like many others anti Tory first and pro Scottish society second. When I look at other parties in Scotland I still think the SNP, despite their acknowledged shortfalls, are still the best fit for my social democratic outlook on life.
    Lastly to many commentators on this site a dose of reality. Independence can only be achieved by persuading a broad cross section of society that it is beneficial to them and society. This means that the political party promoting independence has to be a broad tent appealing to a wide section of society and therefore has to avoid appealing only to small sections of political spectrum. The route to doing this IMO is convincing the electorate that Scotland will be a richer country if independent by having far more control over its abundant resources and financial levers. Without doing this we can all talk about the reduction in inequality and improved living standards and opportunities we wish to see for all residents of Scotland till the cows come home but we will not convince a sceptical public who remain to be convinced of merits of independence.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @JP58, I am not convinced that riches are at all the point; I imagine security (in its broadest sense, including food security, energy security, public safety, shelter, mitigation against climate harm, demilitarised politics) will be a much higher priority in future.

      1. JP58 says:

        Your priorities resonate with myself and most respondents on this site however we are no more than 45%.
        The people we need to win over do need convincing that an independent Scotland will be prosperous enough to thrive and to be honest I find it odifficult to argue against that.

  6. Wul says:

    I have found it a source of considerable frustration over the last 10 years that the SNP has never properly articulated and promoted a vision of what an independent Scotland could become.

    To phrase it another way, they never answered the question; “Why should I want Scotland to be independent?”, “What is there for me to get excited about?”
    If their honest answer is; “So that Holyrood’s politicians can have as much status as Westminster’s” or “So that Scotland’s wealth can be handed to a Scottish insider elite instead of an English one”, then what’s the point?

    I think the SNP are, in fact, scared of the Scottish people. Scared to give us power. Scared to encourage our agency. Scared of what we might vote for post independence. If the SNP couldn’t create a majority movement for Scottish independence after the unbelievably shitty 10 years we have just had, then they are truly useless.

    1. Frank Mahann says:

      Don’t worry, pal, Governor-General Jack will see you’re OK.

      1. Wul says:

        Frank, I don’t want, or need, Alister Jack to “see I’m OK”. Thanks pal.

        I am well able to imagine a better Scotland, without the SNP spelling it out for me. And I have confidence that my fellow pro-independence Scots are capable of the same imaginative leap. To me, the SNP and Scottish independence are two very different things. I can be dissatisfied with the SNP’s performance and still strive for a better future for Scotland.

        1. Frank Mahann says:

          And, pray, how is that imaginative leap going to be realized? Only through the ballot box, and the only body that is going to achieve that is the SNP.

    2. Alistair Taylor says:

      Aye, well said Wul!

      I think that the “Scottish people”
      once fully engaged, are a powerful force of nature!
      At least, that’s what the vibe was, for me, the other evening in Glasgow.
      People are hungry for change. Viscerally so. Passionate.

      Down with the Tories.

      Sure, maybe I was a bit jetlagged.
      Maybe the pint of Guinness in the Horseshoe Bar went to my head.
      But, …

      There is a huge potential energy just waiting to be released. Pent up frustration, anger, and needing an escape valve.

      Brexit Britain, no thank you.
      Devolution is toothless.

      Bring forth the potential of Scotland.

      (I lived in Scotland for 40 years. Have lived in Canada for 20.
      The “United Kingdom” is finished.
      Down the bloody toilet. Let England sort out it’s own mess).

      That’s my 2 cents worth.

  7. Gerry Hassan says:

    Many thanks for all the comments folks; and the even more comments people have sent me directly.

    We are at a watershed and a time for reappraisal. What the SNP & wider indy cannot do is carry on as before – just thinking the ‘one more heave’ will take indy over the line; or that we can just browbeat the Scotland yet to be won over by invoking the ‘mandate’ argument (the same logic that gives us the UK Westminster ‘elective dictatorship’) or thinking there is some easy escape process (UDI, special Scottish elections).

    Both of these approaches – continuity independence and fantasy escapist indy – get in the way of indy doing the hard stuff and thinking: how indy changes its offer and politics, listens to those still unconvinced, and adapts to a climate of a potential future Lab Govt. And I think both – the Sturgeon SNP leadership way of doing things and the more Salmondesque stance actually damage the prospects of winning indy and hold Scotland and Scottish politics back.

  8. Russell Taylor says:

    I agree with the main points here, but the trick is to maintain support for the SNP as the only likely vehicle able to deliver independence, while forcing it to change by mass pressure from below. A clear set of aims is required and unfortunately they are currently missing. I personally would build for UDI, despite Catalonia’s experience. It won’t happen overnight, and there will be violence from the British State, but we should be preparing now for it.

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