The Crisis of the Story of Nationalist Scotland: Six Suggestions for a Different Politics of Independence
The SNP crisis continues. Everyday at the moment sees drift, division, disunity and backbiting, with folk trying to say helpful and loyalist things and putting their foot in it.
Welcome to the world of things going wrong, where the laws of political gravity and entropy reign, bits of masonry fall off the once impressive House of the SNP and its last custodians Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell. And it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better; so strap yourself in for what will be a very bumpy ride.
This will have huge consequences for Scottish politics, the SNP and independence. People across the political spectrum will need to rethink basic assumptions. But we have been at a similar place before when the long dominance of Scottish Labour imploded, and while not exactly the same it does offer some pointers of what to do and critically what not to do.
Humza Yousaf has been left presiding over the debris with little mandate, clue or direction, and can at best hope to survive the gathering storms. His narrow 52:48 victory, the implosions in the SNP just off stage, the fact that the media smell decay and drift (as indeed do many SNP members) are all adding to the sense of crisis.
Leading SNP figures are not helping as they try to adjust to the new realities. Michael Russell, acting SNP chief executive said: ‘In my 50-year association with the party this is the biggest and most challenging crisis we’ve ever faced’ and what is obvious, but will still be a shock to some: ‘I don’t think independence can be secured right now.’ Ian Blackford, former Westminster leader, declared: ‘I would appeal to everyone in the party to come together’: the implication being that everyone is not doing so.
Kate Forbes, now on the SNP backbenches, spoke for many in the SNP when she wrote in today’s National of ‘the shock, confusion and hurt’ and ‘sense of loss and bewilderment’ felt at each new revelation about the goings on inside the party. She also gave voice to something missing in recent times from the Sturgeon-led SNP: of the party as a human community with shared stories, hopes and disappointments. That kind of language points to one way back for the SNP eventually.
The Power and Collapse of the SNP’s Story of Scotland
Beyond this a deep malaise is evident. The SNP ascendancy and success was based on a powerful, convincing story of Scotland, the Parliament and devolution. This had major impact on the SNP victories of 2007 and 2011, particularly in comparison to the dearth of any Labour story about what the Parliament and devolution they had campaigned for so long was meant to be for and achieve.
No longer can this be said of the SNP. They have exhausted the well from which they have drawn and sketched out their story of Scotland. They no longer have a convincing story of Scotland, the purpose of the Parliament and the change it is meant to bring, or indeed, of Scotland’s future. Underpinning this is the wear and tear of 16 years of office and patchy record of the Nationalists. Add to that the reality that independence is, as Mike Russell pointed out, on the backburner for now.
Something else is going on. ‘Labour Scotland’ from 1945-75 presented itself as the bright, optimistic articulation of modernity: advancing government and public intervention as an expression of the good society transforming life chances across the country in education, health, housing and wider public realm. This version of Scotland eventually ran out of steam, unable to deal with rising individual aspirations; aided by Scottish Labour becoming driven by its own self-preservation, clientism and patronage.
The SNP’s ‘up’ years from 2007 to 2014-15 were filled with a sense of purpose, possibility and their story of Scotland informed by a new found belief in modernity and a bright, shiny future where government and state would be progressive and enlightened. This was always even at the best of times somewhat of a mirage, not understanding the lessons of the implosion of ‘Labour Scotland’, crisis of modernity and social democracy across the globe, or the widespread popular revolt against the state – thinking instead that Scotland and the SNP was somehow exempt from all of these.
This gathering crisis is informed by a shift in how people see authority, which was once all-powerful and pervasive in Scotland and then seen as enlightened, benign and progressive at the high point of ‘Labour Scotland’ from 1945-75. No longer can that be said of authority in Scotland or anywhere: part of a pattern whereby society has become more disputatious, argumentative and questioning, where all authority including that of professionals and experts has to continually win people’s trust. This is equally true of the SNP’s version of the state and its obvious limitations.
That tension between the SNP’s reinvention of modernity and a more self-organised, diverse Scotland was evident in the independence offer of 2014. And it has become a chasm in the years since to the point today where the Nationalist vision of modernity and their story of Scotland have become increasingly threadbare and unconvincing.
Just over ten years ago at the first ever talk on my book ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ at the SOLAS Festival, the first question after my presentation came from Andy Wightman, land reform campaigner and future Green MSP. Andy asked with an element of soft provocation how long it would take for ‘the Strange Death of Nationalist Scotland to come true and to what extent was it inevitable and shared common characteristics with the demise of Labour?’ It was a good observation a decade ago and a good one now: the descent of SNP Scotland was always written in to its contradictions and limitations.
One veteran SNP member at a recent Leith meeting I was speaking at asked me, after my critique of the state of the party and independence, ‘Do you like the SNP?’ She was clearly looking for reassurance and validation in a world turned upside down, compared to a few months ago. Afterwards I thought how understandable it was and could visualise similar comments made in a cold Maryhill Burgh Halls Labour Party meeting 20 years previous: symbolic of a party losing its way and place.
What then do the SNP and independence do? For a start they need to understand that the political weather is changing and the years of dominance of the Nationalists come at a price. Add to this the blunt fact that the SNP under Salmond and Sturgeon morphed into a court party – characterised by access, patronage and privilege – and the SNP became a system party representing an insider class version of politics with too many similarities to Scottish Labour when it ran things.
Politics will get much more tough for the SNP, opponents will become galvanised and the elections of 2024 and 2026 more difficult. The political generation of Yousaf and Kate Forbes who have only known the good times will struggle to adapt to such a different political environment, as will many of the grass roots members.
Richard Rose of Strathclyde University has studied every single UK election since 1959 and writing in The Times thinks the SNP will still gain at the next UK contest from a divided unionist vote and that by 2026 ‘the SNP might have a new leader and new strategy for governing [and] could remain the biggest party in the next Scottish Parliament.’ But challenges there will be and for some in the SNP it will be very difficult, even impossible, to adapt to, in the words of Forbes, ‘gale-force winds’ and ‘the stormiest of weather.’
Six Suggestions for a different direction for Scotland, the SNP and independence
Here are six suggestions for a change of direction, different SNP and version of independence. The SNP will be in office in the Scottish Parliament at least until 2026 – so it could embark on this new course under Yousaf and begin renewal now, or it could await the election of a new leader, which may come sooner rather than later, if bold action does not happen immediately.
First, think about policy. Scottish politics despite 24 years of the Parliament and hundreds of laws is policy-lite. Many parliamentary acts are tidying up exercises undertaken by a civil service mindset. Thinking about policy which addresses big stuff – child poverty, early years, revitalising local government – would be a good start.
Second, policy is not everything. Delivery and practice matters, something politicians and many academics ignore. Delivery and practice is how real, sustainable change happens and is often fuzzy and messy. The Sistema Big Noise Orchestras; the work of the Violence Reduction Unit; the spaces where local champions bring people together and make a difference often despite not because of the system.
Third, focus on the ‘missing Scotland’ – those marginalised, forgotten and let down by the official narrative that our country is getting fairer and more equal. One major scandal and scar on the complacent story of Scotland is our disgraceful drug death total – the highest anywhere in Europe per head – aided by cuts to frontline services.
Fourth, Scotland’s policy community is poorly supported and ill-equipped to contribute as constructively as it could. There are too few places of expertise which aid deep thinking, go beyond silos and bring together people beyond those whose self-interest and status is interwoven with official narratives of devolved Scotland. Independence needs a pro-independence research body and think-tank but so too does Scotland’s centre-left constituency; indeed we need a plethora of such initiatives.
Fifth, stop buying into and giving sustenance to ‘the official story’ of Scotland: that we are a community more moral, enlightened and progressive than elsewhere. The SNP version of this has said until recent events that Scotland is the one country anywhere in which social democracy has stood up and remains unbowed. This was always delusional and Scottish exceptionalism, considering the scale of our inequalities on any measurement. But it also overlaps with ‘the official story’ of Scotland – of devolution and the insider class slowly making incremental progress without shifting power or threatening their privileged position. Any politics of real change – egalitarian, rooted in social justice, and any version of independence connected to everyday life – would relentlessly question this.
Finally, doing a politics of depth, reflection and pluralism, aiding an ecology and eco-system of ideas, has to link to and be informed by a new story of Scotland – or more accurately a set of stories. This new story/stories has to be less about the Parliament, devolution and even independence as an abstract. It should be firmly focused on the kind of society we want to live in and create, the kind of people we want to be collectively, how we connect to and support one another, and the networks and relationships we build to nurture and aid better lives.
This is about a kind of Scotland focused on self-government and self-determination made real and tangible: in the everyday exchanges and relationships we have, in our lives and communities and shifting power from that supposedly benign all-knowing political centre to as widely as possible dispersing it across Scotland.
That kind of vision – breaking with the limits of devolution, official stories, insider class politics and the patronage of the court party – would be a dramatic shift compared to the past 16 years and 24 years of the Scottish Parliament. It would require a different SNP and different idea of political and social change as well as independence.
But then every crisis carries within it the birth-pains of the new and opportunity. No one should ever think long-term political change would be easy, but now is a moment to take stock and map out a different direction and future. Making a start now would be good for the SNP, independence, Scottish politics and a society which frankly needs to see a different approach and break with the recent past urgently.