SNP divisions go well beyond healthy debate. This is not normal for a party likely to improve on its historic best electoral performance. There is a danger that it will undermine its performance in May but more likely damage its chances of winning an independence referendum that might follow.
There are many causes. One dimensional interpretations of the party’s troubles should be treated with care. Neat mono-causal explanations, especially focused on personalities, tell us more about the explainer than the explained but it suits the SNP leadership to portray the divisions as a coordinated effort to undermine Nicola Sturgeon.
Social media has been blamed but media, in any form, only provides a platform. It has not created the anger and bitterness. Social media may amplify messages and provide a platform for those who would otherwise struggle to get noticed but it does not explain the deep divisions. It contributes to polarisation and does not reflect complexity or diversity.
The notion that there is a clash between members who joined before and after the post-referendum surge or that there is a generational division can be easily dismissed. Survey evidence shows remarkably little difference between those who joined the SNP at different stages and the generational myth lies only in the eye of the beholder. Explanations need to enter the more challenging areas of strategy and ideology.
There has also been no credible strategy to deliver a referendum.
One factor is frustration at the perceived lack of progress in achieving independence. Perceptions and expectations are key and the SNP leadership has contributed to this problem. Sturgeon misread public opinion in the immediate after of the Brexit referendum. She assumed that there would be a decisive shift in favour of independence and has repeatedly marched her troops to the top of the hill only to have to march them down again. Research suggesting that a UK vote for Brexit while Scotland voted Remain would not have an immediate decisive impact on support for independence proved accurate. There was the prospect that voters might gradually move in that direction but that could not be taken for granted.
SNP members appeared to understand this better than the leadership. Survey evidence after the independence referendum suggested that members wanted a referendum as soon as possible but only when there was a high chance of winning. Intoxicated spin of evidence from opinion polls has not helped. Support has grown but far from the consistent and convincing lead that would be necessary to risk another referendum. We hear less these days about the 60% that many members predicted lay just over the horizon. Members want to believe the leadership’s claim that independence is ‘completely inevitable’ but on this they have literally been misled.
There has also been no credible strategy to deliver a referendum. The SNP ‘feeble fifty’ jibe when Labour’s 50 Scottish MPs (69%) failed to deliver devolution after the 1987 general election has come home to roost. With 48 (81%) of Scotland’s 59 MPs, the SNP is unable to deliver a referendum. The SNP Constitutional Affairs Minister has quoted Kenyon Wright of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, ‘‘What if that other single voice we know so well responds by saying, “We say No and we are the State”. Well, we say Yes and we are the People.’ The SNP dismissed Wright’s empty rhetoric back in the days of the Constitutional Convention but the SNP’s ‘Plan B’ is no different. Great rhetoric but without substance.
While emphasising the case for a referendum due to a ‘material change in circumstances’, the SNP has failed to address how this affects the case for independence. There is a sense amongst many SNP activists that there has been little preparation or that the preparation has been poor. Independence in Europe does not solve Scotland’s problems regarding free movement but only moves the problem. Scotland faces a choice of losing free movement with European Union states or with the rest of the UK.
Economic policy divisions – and others
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the SNP leadership could have handled the transgender debate with greater sensitivity.
The party and wider movement is split on currency as well as the economic and social prospectus of an independent Scotland. The SNP’s 2019 conference rejected the leadership’s proposal by 781 votes to 729 that an independent Scotland’s currency would be the pound sterling until a separate currency ‘can be safely and securely established’ in favour of moving to a separate currency ‘as soon as practicable’. But this resolved nothing and has only led to fierce arguments on how soon is soon. The Growth Commission established by Nicola Sturgeon, designed to appease business interests and project an image of fiscal responsibility, provoked strong opposition while failing to attract support from business. The SNP has moved to the right on the economy while simultaneously losing previous support in the business community.
Other issues have split the party and movement. Party loyalists have contrived to portray opposition to the leadership’s transgender policy as caused by a disaffected element out to undermine the leader. There is ample evidence that many Sturgeon supporters disagree with her on this issue. Irreconcilable ethical principles arise in some areas of public policy and cannot be ‘solved’ but need to be negotiated. Leaders need to take a stance but also need to emphasise where common ground exists and make an effort to reach out respectfully to those with whom they disagree. Regardless of views on the issue, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the SNP leadership could have handled the transgender debate with greater sensitivity. Portraying those who disagree with a policy as disloyal to the leader is a sign of weakness. Spin from the SNP’s headquarters suggest that perceived electoral considerations have been paramount in the development of the policy, encouraging robust partisanship at the expense of responsible leadership.
The Salmond v Sturgeon saw
What we are witnessing is the kind of internal bloodletting normally associated with the aftermath of a major defeat.
Much has been made of the breakdown in relations between Alex Salmond and Sturgeon and superficial commentary has sought to place this at the centre of the SNP’s troubles. The criminal charges against Salmond may have been dismissed but the damage done to his reputation is irreparable. His political career is over. But Salmond has been Sturgeon’s useful bogeyman in internal SNP politics just as Boris Johnston is her bogeyman in electoral politics. Critics of the SNP leader and journalists offering more nuanced and informed commentary on the party’s trials and tribulations are crudely dismissed as ‘close to Salmond’. Salmond has nothing to lose and the bogeyman has now become a real threat to Sturgeon.
There has been speculation that a new pro-independence party may contest Holyrood’s elections, even that this might mark the former leader’s return to electoral politics. It is more likely that the emergence of new organisations, notably Now Scotland, reflect concerns about the SNP’s direction under Nicola Sturgeon and a desire for more pluralism within the wider independence movement. We are looking at a situation similar to the Brexit referendum when Leave EU and Vote Leave fought to become lead campaign organisation. The SNP will remain firmly under Nicola Sturgeon’s control at least until May’s Holyrood elections but she will struggle to control the campaign for independence in any future referendum.
What we are witnessing is the kind of internal bloodletting normally associated with the aftermath of a major defeat. Much is a function of frustration and an inability to manage internal debate. The SNP needs a period in opposition to sort itself out. It has no credible roadmap to anywhere other than victory at the next Holyrood elections. It hopes that a big win will restore Nicola Sturgeon’s authority. If that happens, it is likely to be short lived.
Further reading: #Indyref2: the economic issues are different this time, Graeme Roy, The Conversation; The poison feud, Stephen Castle, New York Times; Only the Scottish people are sovereign, George Kerevan, The Scotsman; Reasons to be cheerful, James Foley, Source Direct; The final showdown, Iain Macwhirter, Herald;
Image of Scottish Cabinet May 2011 via Scottish Government flickr CC BY 2.0I