When all is said and done, we can expect the SNP’s electoral prospects to go into decline, regardless of who the eventual leader is, argues Jonathon Shafi.
This is an abridged version of an article first published at Independence Captured.
Avid readers of Independence Captured will know that the decaying political foundations being exposed by the SNP leadership debate have been developing for some time. The independence project has been underpinned by a damaging and incoherent prospectus, an absence of campaigning and a deeply flawed strategic outlook. Combined with the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon amid a series of policy failures, the political rot which lies beneath is now unavoidable.
Despite this, there remains denial about the gravity of the situation, and a distinct lack of high-quality debate and analysis on the national question. As embittered factions engage in a war of position for control and influence over a chronically undernourished and divided movement, there is an unspoken truth: independence is not around the corner. This creates the conditions for a churn of leaders in the coming years, accompanied by multi-dimensional intraparty conflicts, in the search for meaning and a viable path forward.
A transformation of thinking is required in five crucial ways:
- There must be a clear recognition of the consequences of the defeat of 2014 and by extension an acceptance that the political cycle which followed the referendum is definitively over, requiring a wholly different set of organisational forms and ideas. That new cycle also includes shifting terrain at Westminster, where a Labour government may open new challenges and opportunities.
- The intractable political and strategic problems associated with the Sturgeon era must be acknowledged. These should be clearly identified and addressed critically. Failure to do so inhibits the required political maturation of the independence project.
- Scottish independence, if meaningful, opens up a series of economic, political and diplomatic disruptions. While attempts can be made to soften these conflicts (often damaging in their own right), the maintenance of the British state remains the favoured position of the European Commission, NATO and the White House. Without a serious appraisal of these dynamics and a willingness to confront them, independence is a false issue, amounting to no more than a cultural symbol of opposition to Westminster excess.
- Reliance on Brexit as an issue to mobilise support for independence is a fool’s errand. While rejoining the EU has taken centre stage in relation to arguments for independence, becoming a member is impossible without an independent central bank. This lies in direct contradiction with a policy of indefinite Sterlinigisation. Both the SNP and the Scottish Greens enthusiastically supported a “People’s Vote,” leaving any future vote for independence open to a confirmatory referendum. The period ahead will require a new entry point for debates around the constitution, while the complexities posed by Brexit must be grappled with in the context of Scotland leaving the Union.
- Attention must be paid to the many failings in domestic policy in the here and now, declining living standards and the corporate capture of Scottish politics. At the same time a broad-ranging debate on the prospectus for independence, including the formal retirement of the Growth Commission and Sterlingisation, is required.
Binding these elements together should be an understanding of the timescales involved. As long as myths about the proximity, or indeed the inevitability, of independence are perpetuated, the conversation will remain distorted and disorderly. In recognising the prospects for Scottish statehood are distant at this time, the character of the discussion can evolve to a higher political level in which the five items mentioned above, and much else besides, can be properly assessed and dissected. In this way, new openings yet to arrive might be prepared for.
While political insiders have long been aware of the unlikelihood of a referendum, as we detailed in the first edition of Independence Captured, outsiders have been told a different story: there is a plan; the time is coming; we are within touching distance. Such claims persist among senior politicians even now. An equilibrium must be reached around the discussion so that independence is no longer a pliable tool for political elites, but replenished as a matter for serious debate beyond aimless sloganeering and recapitulating the last referendum. This is important not just for independence supporters, but for Scottish democracy as a whole.
It is in the nature of all social movements that repeated false dawns only tend towards demoralisation, disorientation and passivity. Those are now key features of the present conjuncture, and can only be overcome through a period of thoughtful reconsolidation.
Escaping the 2014 vortex
As someone who campaigned energetically for independence during the referendum, there is no great joy in having to deliver harsh truths. But there is also no dignity in denying them. The situation may have been different. Perhaps a trailblazing independence case could have been made by Scotland’s most popular political leader of the devolution era. But it wasn’t. Perhaps a national campaign infrastructure which could take the cause to the country could have been arranged. But it wasn’t. Perhaps a more adept strategy, on the back of rising support for independence, could have been employed. But, again, it wasn’t.
Now, even 40% of 2014 Yes voters are not in favour of a referendum in the next year. Without the groundwork in place, despite the enormous political capital granted to the outgoing SNP leadership, why should they? Especially if independence has not been effectively posed as a solution to rising energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis. Despite the political context since Brexit, and an arrogant Tory government, support for independence has not increased, and is arguably going into retreat. Scottish self-determination has been denied by four Tory leaders and the Supreme Court without a popular response and has left a complacent SNP without a route map. Nicola Sturgeon has resigned amid a slew of unmitigated policy disasters, while Alistair Jack plots fresh incursions. The party of independence is intellectually and strategically rudderless, with key historic cadres stepping down. The official, half-baked, prospectus sits somewhere on a shelf, having been repudiated even by supporters of independence.
When all is said and done, we can expect the SNP’s electoral prospects to go into decline, regardless of who the eventual leader is. Confidence in the possibility of achieving independence is also likely to fall. The confluence of these and other factors will generate immediate instability around the office of the new First Minister, which none of the potential leaders will have an easy time of absorbing. Especially if the winning candidate cannot command the loyalty of existing elected representatives and key parts of the party apparatus. On the other hand, relying on the support of a paralysed and politically weakened status quo carries its own political risks.
Given this backdrop, the atmosphere around the SNP leadership election has a sense of unreality to it. Despite having years to plan for a post-Nicola Sturgeon SNP, her abrupt departure has thrown the party into nothing short of a crisis. The image of a united and disciplined electoral machine is nothing more than a memory. The changing political environment and removal of the “indyref2” scaffolding make it all the more difficult to rediscover this kind of operation, while the factionalism in the bloodstream of the party is increasingly difficult to cure.
Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes also reflect a more profound faultline in the ideological breakdown of neoliberalism: on the one hand, social liberalism combined with an economic agenda set by the corporate establishment, and on the other, a social conservatism spliced with the economics of George Osborne. Neither possesses an alternative approach to the precepts of the Growth Commission and the Sterlingisation fiasco. Ash Regan, pitching herself as the insurgent candidate, has found sympathy in some quarters of the depleted “Yes” movement, though she is behind by some distance at 11% in the only poll of SNP members thus far.
While the focus has been placed on the individual merits and demerits of the leadership contenders, none can overcome the problems now organic to the SNP. Whether that be the feuding between rival camps internally, waning public goodwill in the face of myriad policy failures or the inability to make progress on independence. Only a strong, broadly revered and united leadership armed with ideas and a credible strategy, supported by a highly motivated membership and a respected and well-oiled party infrastructure could reverse these trends.
Such features are evidently not on display in today’s SNP. The ideas under discussion, even the more robust ones, feel dated and backwards looking. We hear of “independence workshops” with leading party members and “regional assemblies” to discuss strategy. But without scrapping the official prospectus as it stands, these are mere holding pens without purpose. A “rebuttal service” has also been proposed, but this is not a new idea. There is also talk of launching a new Yes Scotland-style campaign. You might ask why such an initiative has not already been taken, given the erstwhile leadership ramped up talk of a referendum in October 2023.
Then there are proposals for plebiscite elections followed by independence negotiations, in an ironic continuity with Sturgeon’s “defacto” referendum plan (in reality, part of the choreography of her ideal resignation scenario). Calls for a “national convention” to bring the “Yes Movement” together are understandably welcomed by some activists, especially as the SNP leadership has been so divorced from the grassroots of the movement for such an extended period. But this initiative is not being presented as a serious and forward-looking campaign to marshal real forces or reach new social layers. Getting a section of the “band back together” in the form of the fragmented remains of the 2014 campaign and the fallout from it, ignores a more fundamental problem, as it illustrates the stagnation of a movement left marooned by its official leadership. The once large demonstrations – which I wrote about with some excitement – have dwindled in size. Where there have been attempts to launch mass membership independence organisations, these have stalled.
Looking to the future
This is not to cast those who have been involved in any of these initiatives in a negative light. It is not a reflection of their talents or abilities. I have seen first-hand the people power at the heart of the modern independence movement, and have been inspired by it. But no matter how impressive the organisers are, and how profound the impact of 2014, it is impossible to live off those fumes forever. Now, they have been extinguished. Recognising that, and fully appreciating the new context, is the most essential starting point if the future is to be shaped, rather than the past re-enacted.
Such a moment can also be a time of opportunity if the intellectual straightjacket bound up with the post-2014 period can be removed, opening as yet uncharted vistas of thought and action in relation to the future of Scottish politics as it moves into a new chapter. The loosening of the SNP’s totalising grip may come to be viewed as a historic necessity in the development of the national movement. In the meantime, those on the left who disagree about independence can work together on a range of class issues and progressive policy proposals to provide a countermeasure to neoliberal Scotland in the devolved context.
Had we done so collectively in years gone by, the situation may have been different today.