Fundamentalist/pragmatist tension has been at the heart of the Scottish National Party (SNP) since its foundation. Such tensions are common in parties advocating radical change.
Fundamentalists defend the party’s soul and ensure its core values and beliefs are not lost sight of in the pursuit of power. Compromise is not part of their vocabulary. Pragmatists seek power, accept the limitations of context and hope to prevent the party from speaking to itself alone, thereby becoming pure but impotent.
Both are necessary in any party of change but their relationship can be uneasy. It is common for parties to recoil into a fundamentalist foetal position, refusing to engage with the outside world, after a heavy defeat. Pragmatists are better at winning elections but tempted to compromise to stay in office.
The odd couple
At first sight today’s SNP looks odd. Fundamentalism is ascendant at a time of unprecedented and sustained electoral success. But on closer examination we see a more complex picture requiring an understanding of how the SNP came to its current position.
The SNP went through a long fundamentalist phase after the 1979 devolution referendum and the loss of nine of its 11 MPs. Its message was ‘independence – nothing less’, even ‘independence – nothing else’ but gradually, and after many hesitant steps and reverses, pragmatism triumphed when the SNP endorsed and campaigned for devolution in the 1997 referendum.
Pragmatism appeared to have conquered fundamentalism post-devolution. The SNP issued a pledge card in the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The last pledge was to hold an independence referendum but left open the possibility of including a third option on the ballot paper in the hope of attracting Liberal Democrats’ support. The referendum then became a staple in SNP manifestos, intended to assure voters sceptical of or hostile to independence that they could safely vote SNP as independence would be decided separately in a referendum. At the same time, the hope was that promising a referendum would appease fundamentalist activists.
In 2007, an emphasis on building a positive image of competence and de-emphasising independence, combined with a loss of voter faith in Labour, allowed the SNP to squeak through to become Scotland’s largest party in Holyrood. A ‘National Conversation’ was held in which a range of constitutional options was considered with the stress on portraying the party as capable in government, willing to work constructively with London and, above all, positive campaigning.
This last became a vital part of SNP strategy after 2003. The party sought to abandon the debilitating politics of grievance and embrace hope and positivity. The SNP knew well before the Supreme Court recent ruling that Scotland was not a colony and that suggestions hinting at anything like this were absurd and unhelpful to its cause. Alongside this relentless effort to appear positive, the SNP did indulge in subtle negative campaigning but succeeded in convincing most people it stood for positive outcomes.
Competence pays off
Ironically, fewer voters saw the constitutional question as the most important issue in the 2011 election than in 2007. The SNP was deemed by voters to have performed best across all devolved areas. In part, it was the beneficiary of low expectations. It was not difficult to appear competent against expectations that an SNP Government would be accompanied by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as its opponents had long predicted. But the commitment to a referendum, however muted, could not be ignored. As over the previous 20 years, the SNP sought a three-option referendum but Prime Minister Cameron was opposed, preferring a straightforward binary choice. Polls at the time of the Edinburgh Agreement suggested independence would be heavily defeated – and its opponents assumed this would spell disaster for the SNP. But removing the middle ground option created an opportunity for the SNP. A large body of voters was now up for grabs and the independence vote was almost bound to go up even if it did not win the binary battle.
The intensity and duration of the independence referendum campaign contributed to a polarised electorate. In 2015, in its wake, the SNP explicitly rejected holding another referendum and achieved its best ever result at a UK election. But the SNP leadership had a rush of blood to the head following the Brexit referendum. Having played little part in the Brexit campaign, putting less money into it than into a Holyrood by-election, the party rediscovered its commitment to the EU and fundamentalism with it.
Europe matters after all
The SNP had embraced European integration in the late 1980s largely to resolve its British problem. It wanted to kill the ‘separatist bogey’, the notion that an independent Scotland would be cut off from the rest of Britain. As part of the European Communities, an independent Scotland would be able to engage freely with the rest of the UK, its main trading partner, as both would be part of this larger European polity (and single market/customs union).
The SNP had earlier invested heavily in Independence in Europe for a few years but over time this theme receded in importance as devolution took precedence in its thinking. EU membership was an issue in 2014 but less significant at the time than some would have us believe. Each side claimed that membership would be threatened if the other won but there was little serious engagement with how either the UK or Scotland should engage with the EU.
Brexit brought the issue back to the fore and the SNP thought it saw an opportunity to highlight Scotland’s vote in favour of membership while rUK had voted against. It was as opportunistic as the SNP’s anti-EC stance four decades before. In 1975, the SNP had assumed that Scotland would vote for withdrawal while the UK would vote to remain. The SNP had to wait another forty years to highlight divergent views on Europe but, in 2016, its assumptions were reversed.
Brexit created at least as many problems as opportunities for the SNP. Brexit removed the original logic of Independence in Europe. The SNP’s British problem, assumed to be resolved by embracing European integration, sprang back to life. Scotland might, as supporters claimed, shift its interdependence from Britain to the EU as Ireland had successfully done but this would take considerable time and would require policies, not just constitutional powers, that the SNP has been unable to articulate.
Back to basics…
But the SNP learned important lessons from the independence and Brexit referendums as well as from reaction to its attempt to address weaknesses in its 2014 campaign. Its Growth Commission report provoked internal dissent and, equally, failed to win over the business community. The lesson learned was that addressing difficult issues was politically costly and to be avoided.
Fundamentalism returned with a vengeance. Policy development became subservient to fundamentalism. Negative campaigning once more become the party’s preferred tactic to shift the focus away from the challenges that an independent Scotland would face or the performance of the SNP’s record in devolved government. Positive campaigning was relegated to sound bites as negative campaigning swept back.
The Supreme Court judgment can hardly have come as a surprise to the SNP but the party has treated it as if this was a defining moment or at least the pretext for another relaunch of its single-issue negative campaign.
…and the future
The report of the Commission chaired by Gordon Brown is a major challenge to the SNP especially with a Labour Government looking increasingly likely. The SNP finds itself in a situation not dissimilar to pre-devolution times. Back then in fundamentalist mood, the SNP said Labour had been stringing Scots along with promises to create a Scottish Parliament since Keir Hardie’s home rule commitment in the 1888 Mid-Lanark by-election. The SNP sought to polarise debate, helped by a Conservative Government that was deeply unpopular in Scotland and assumed likely to win again (on the strength of support in England) until close to the 1997 election.
But Labour won a landslide in 1997 and delivered on almost all in its lengthy programme of constitutional reform. One item that was only partially addressed was Lords reform, now portrayed by the SNP as evidence that Labour will fail to deliver change when Keir Starmer becomes Prime Minister. The SNP is making the same mistake Scottish Labour made before 2007 with predictions that are likely to be disproved. This will help Labour at least in the short term with a Holyrood election a couple of years after the next UK election.
“The fact is, Labour are now a pro-Brexit party with a pro-Brexit leader. They are completely at one with the Tories when it comes to ignoring Scotland’s vote to remain in the EU, and ignoring the democratic will of the people of Scotland to determine their own future – and nothing in these proposals changes that. Keith Brown, deputy SNP leader, on that Gordon Brown report
The SNP has dug itself into a fundamentalist hole and will need a dramatic pragmatic turn to hope to take advantage of the changing political context. The best hope for the SNP under its current fundamentalist leadership remains that the Tories win the next general election, opinion remains polarised and might finally shift decisively in favour of independence.
Further reading: James Mitchell, Completing Labour’s ‘unfinished business’ of reform, Holyrood; Joyce McMillan, SNP and Labour attempts to destroy each other leave ‘middle Scotland’ in despair, The Scotsman;
Featured image via Scottish Government flickr CC BY-SA 2.0; Scottish/EU flags © Copyright Julian Paren and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence;