David Jamieson argues that the heat of SNP infighting is hiding fundamental contradictions in the leadership’s politics.
What a relief Johnson’s trip to Scotland (28 January) must have been for Nicola Sturgeon. His ape-like form is just about the only thing that could cast a sufficiently grotesque shadow over the SNP mess.
The crisis in the party is finally assuming its full scale. The now permanent state of civil war in the SNP, which is all out in the open all of the time, draws together many different strands, and revolves around different points of tension.
None of them, at least publicly, involve the central programmatic elements of the liberal-nationalist case for Scottish independence. Joanna Cherry and Shona Robison, Angus McNeil and Angus Robertson, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon all agree on the central questions – EU membership, Sterlingisation (at least as can be gleaned from the failure of the awkward squad to argue against it), NATO membership, and an economic programme tailored to the major brokers in the global system.
It is only natural therefore that some, on all sides, will seek to depoliticise the clash – claim its meaning is essentially moral and about the personal conduct of various sides. This also serves a wider active base of factional partisans – in the media, third sector, academia and so on, who exist within the now quite firm political hegemony of official Scottish nationalism, and for whom politics can really only take place on the same basis as a falling-out down the local.
Yet the SNP crisis remains acutely political.
Hanging heavy over the malaise are two massive political problems. The official SNP prospectus on currency, EU membership, trade, economic regulation and everything else, is utter bilge – no possible referendum could be fought on this dead platform.
At the same time, the drip-drip of promises to achieve progress towards the goal of Scottish independence (or simply to achieve national independence outright within months) has become a torrent. The independence movement has long moved in two different time frames; the active base of the movement broadly views it as a social movement with an imminent goal, and the SNP leadership regards it as a generational process with an indeterminate end point.
The leadership gathers much of its electoral strength from the pro-independence base, and so in a bid for appeasement, a fresh vote on independence has been announced for every year since 2016. This has only inflated the mood of desperation for an imminent vote, and promoted friction between the movement and its nominal leadership.
The feverish antagonism between these elements has a wider reach than is observable on social media (where pitched battles between SNP politicians have become a constant embarrassment). Many SNP figures will be saying very different things in public and private about Sturgeon’s leadership.
Deep in the white-hot heart of the meltdown is a most fundamental contradiction. The SNP leadership doesn’t like democracy or popular sovereignty, has little use for (or understanding of) the nation-state as such, and is deeply invested in a hallucination of globalisation and its magical properties that belongs to a bygone era.
Some radical conservative philosophers became fascinated by Russian society after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They surmised that since it had been locked-out of the world market in the era of globalisation, it had preserved as a zone of traditional thought. This living fossil had thus been protected from the corrosion of economic and social liberalism.
One could understand modern Scotland in inverse terms: the devolution settlement froze official ideology at a Blairite/Clintonite ‘Third Way’ level. The Scottish political settlement was relatively incubated from the economic crisis from 2007-8, the manifold failures of the Eurozone, the refugee crisis, and so on.
Officially neither Sturgeon, nor any high profile SNP politician, has even recognised the condition of global politics. They are like tragic bumpkins worshipping the light from a star that burned out long ago. Whatever carnage emerges from the SNP in coming weeks and months, this wider ideological derangement is in its foundations.
There is an evident contradiction between mobilising a popular movement for national self-determination in a way that is amenable to the structures of the global order. This is the real basis for the independence strategy impasse that neither ‘Plan A’ nor ‘Plan B’ comes close to resolving. The leading ideas of the independence movement have failed root and branch. It is in the attempt to avoid this conclusion that so many will persist with the de-politicised public spat. For those of us who still believe in a meaningful and dynamic independence movement, with relevance 2021 rather than 1997, a new reckoning is required.