‘I bitterly regret the day I compromised the unity of my party by admitting the second member’ Oliver Brown, Witdom
With his usual wit, Oliver Brown captured the challenges faced by all political parties. For many activists, the party is all important – ‘my party right or wrong’ – through all the trials and tribulations. Brown spent a lifetime up to his death in 1976 campaigning for a democratic, socialist independent Scottish republic but he was less consistent in how this was to be achieved. He acknowledged and encouraged debate. The party was a vehicle to pursue goals rather than an end in itself. Brown had been a member of the Labour Party, Scottish Socialist Party (one of a number with that name that come and go) and the Scottish National Party (SNP).
In the recent past, as party membership declined across many liberal democracies, there was academic interest in the idea of ‘parties without members’. No doubt there are party leaders who, in moments of despair, must have seen merit in dispensing with pesky members. But members remain the life blood of parties providing ideas, campaigners on the ground, party funding and recruits for elected public office.
Understanding the internal workings of parties is important in any democratic polity. But lack of transparency contributes to lazy tabloid trivialisation like focuses on personalities. Parties hide or suppress internal disagreements for fear of headlines suggesting a ‘Split’. Party leaders exploit this fear by urging members to get behind them. It is often asserted that divided parties lose elections and there is ample evidence that divided parties are seen as less capable of governing competently. But the key questions are whether a consensus exists on key issues, whether a divisive issue undermines capability to govern and how internal debates are conducted. Healthy internal debate does not undermine a party’s electoral chances.
Historically, the key division within the SNP has been on strategy rather than public policy. In its early years, this focused on whether it was best to pursue self-government as an independent party or working with(in) another (Labour) party. Later, the issue became whether independence could be achieved in one leap or through step changes. That evolved into a simpler debate on whether devolution was a stepping stone to independence or would block progress.
Policy was hammered out at party conferences and national councils. Policies were fiercely fought over but a consensus was discernible. The party disagreed on how these policies should be packaged and presented. Battles over image drove deeper divisions until this was resolved and the SNP described itself as ‘moderately left of centre’.
Many inside the SNP assumed that devolution resolved the gradualist-fundamentalist division. As one senior figure remarked post-devolution: ‘We are all fundamentalists now’. Everyday policy might have been expected to come to the fore in internal debates given that the SNP faced the prospect of governing for the first time in its history. Instead, policy was debated primarily with electoral considerations in mind, a common enough feature in successful political parties. But it limited the scope for policy innovation and development.
The surge in membership following the 2014 referendum has not significantly affected the SNP’s policy profile. The recent emphasis on gender, including the gender recognition debate, owes more to the leadership’s preferences than any pressure from party members. But the surge has affected the party’s demographic profile and offered a much broader pool of potential recruits for public office allowing for a change in the party’s image.
Signs of discontent are evident as we approach the Holyrood elections. Competition to stand as the party’s candidate can be more important than elections in determining who becomes councillor, MSP or MP (and thereby who go on to senior public office). This competition tells us much about a political party.
Loyalty is all
In Henry Drucker’s 1979 classic, Doctrine and Ethos of the Labour Party, he suggested that Labour exhibited a strong loyalty to those who serve it that is ‘not cross-cut by a demand for efficiency and effectiveness’. In other words, unlike the Tories who have been ruthless in disposing of perceived weakness, Labour’s sense of solidarity often allowed under-performers to remain in office. Drucker’s interpretation was written before the ‘mandatory reselection’ battles of the 1980s. These proved highly divisive and damaging because they manifested deep ideological divisions in the party. A number of less than impressive Labour MPs had no difficulty being reselected by reflecting the dominant view of the Constituency Labour Party. Ideological purity had been more important than efficiency and effectiveness.
‘Mandatory reselection’ has long been part of the SNP’s internal politics but in practice the SNP has been like the Labour Party as described by Drucker. Challenges to incumbents have been rare and even in the current round of candidate selection remain highly unusual. This loyalty to incumbents may partly reflect more opportunities (vacancies) with a high number of SNP MSPs retiring in May. There has been much speculation on what has motivated high profile senior SNP figures to retire at this stage but the obvious explanations seem most plausible. Those standing down are mostly people who now have no further personal political ambition, know only too well the wear and tear that a political career has on not so young bodies, and will assuredly play a very active part in any forthcoming referendum. This is the passing of part of the generation which entered politics when the prospect of Scottish devolution was far from certain, far less independence.
After the SNP inflicted some serious damage on itself in the run-up to the 2003 election, when the party gazed at its navel with heated internal battles for places on the regional list, it resolved to avoid any similar indulgences. Battles for places on the list are now less significant as the SNP holds a much higher proportion of constituencies but this has simply meant that the battles are fought out over new terrain.
None of the MSPs being challenged are deemed poor constituency Members by their challengers. This suggests that they are perceived as ineffective or at least less effective than their challengers or lacking in policy ideas. It also suggests a sense of frustration and trepidation. Frustration that the party remains ill-prepared for the coming independence referendum and fear of failure without a more ruthless approach in managing its key resources, ie its membership.
Policy on the back-burner
Policy differences remain secondary. There is little evidence of deep divisions on policy but more on strategy and party image. The SNP leadership is keen to project an inclusive image encouraging more women, ethnic minorities and disabled candidates to stand, to project an image of a party that represents all of Scottish society. This trumps evidence of policy expertise or engagement.
Edinburgh Central, a seat the SNP does not even hold at present, has attracted most attention not least as it was seen as a battle between Angus Robertson, former Moray MP, and Joanna Cherry, current Edinburgh South West MP. Interest was increased by commentators portraying this as a dry run for a future SNP leadership contest, though neither candidate has currently the breadth of support necessary to win a leadership contest. Marco Biagi, who once held the seat, succumbed to pressure to put himself forward. This former MSP fizzes with policy ideas pertinent to the constituency and Scotland but has only emerged because local members sought a unity candidate.
With very few exceptions, the current contingent of SNP MSPs have been remarkably loyal to the leader, more lobby fodder than brimming with policy ideas. If they have acted as an early warning system bringing policy concerns to the attention of the Scottish Government then they have been ignored. Policies designed to project inclusivity which required more thought and consultation have run up against opposition outside Parliament but, fortunately for the SNP, have not attracted much wider public hostility. There have been U-turns and some under-developed policy formation has been abandoned but well past the point when hostility might have been expected.
A party for all
For the most part, the Scottish Government approach has been one of avoiding offence in an attempt to broaden support. There has been no shortage of policy announcements and great rhetoric on matters of equalities but challenging Scotland’s deep inequalities cannot be done without challenging established interests. This has been all too obvious in the response to the pandemic. The appointment of Benny Higgins to head up the Scottish Government’s recovery programme was never going to lead to the boldness that the situation demands or take advantage of the opportunity offered by a public open to new ideas. There was a day when anyone associated with the Duke of Buccleuch would have been anathema to the SNP but in its desperation not to frighten the horses, the current SNP leadership is willing to abandon what its membership in its heart knows is required. The SNP is simply letting a good crisis go to waste.
The SNP struggles to balance the need for new ideas and healthy policy debate with its desire to present an inclusive image. Policy debate has become the prerogative of the leadership, influenced by interest groups and lobbyists. Image has become all important. In his final column, written shortly before his death, Oliver Brown argued: “To induce people to think is more valuable than to convert them to your point of view.” But that is now a luxury the SNP has decided it cannot afford. There are rare windows of opportunity, occasions when public opinion is amenable to radical change. Instead of a fervent of ideas and debates, Scotland is offered grand rhetoric but little change.
Further reading: Ben Jackson, The case for Scottish independence; Torcuil Crichton, MacAskill flails Sturgeon, Daily Record, September 4; Gerry Hassan, Why are SNP politics so cautious?, openDemocracy, 17 October 2019