The struggling SNP, and Scottish politics as a whole, remain tied to the fate of the figure who has defined both for years. The post-2014 hegemon is dead, but many still haven’t worked this out says Jonathon Shafi.
This is an amended version of an article first published on the Independence Captured newsletter.
It would be possible to be publish a new edition of Independence Captured every day at the rate events are unfolding in and around the SNP. Each new detail that emerges has its own importance as part of an overall story, the crescendo of which we can only speculate about within the legal parameters of a live police investigation. The SNP, Scotland’s party of government for over 15 years, is in the midst of the most profound crisis its history. You could not imagine a more dramatic time in Scottish politics. Yet there is something of an unsatisfactory quality to it all, as if the events are so rapid they are being absorbed into a kind of indecipherable political stew.
The main characters don’t feel alien to us, which may add to the claustrophobic atmosphere, unlike the distant and nameless EU officials caught up in financial scandals. Some have even developed “parasocial” bonds, especially with Nicola Sturgeon, with whom they feel a shared struggle. But this is no soap opera, and while no one could argue the situation is boring, nor is it a form of “entertainment.” The questions raised are grave and public discussion around them has only begun to touch on the meaning and impact of developments. While some media supporters of the SNP appear to be blasé about the situation, there are important interventions which stress the need to fully acknowledge the lack of transparency and accountability in the SNP high command.
We get bits and pieces of information and can observe internal discipline falling apart as the blame game escalates. We could lay out a commentary on the various details: burner phones; public spats; auditors; saving the £1.2 million in short money allocated to the SNP; who knew what and when; and what about the designer pots, pans and luxury pens. But this could only provide an outline, or some loose coordinates, of what might be happening without the ability to be conclusive. For that, we must wait. And even then, prominent politicians have ways and means of spinning the story in their direction.
Nicola Sturgeon is already on the field in that regard. At least that must be a fair assumption given her press call in the Scottish Parliament. This, of course, incorporated the necessary lines about the “live police investigation,” raising the question as to why she was speaking to the media at all. Presumably to say things which she felt important. The former First Minister threw a kite into the air – and some grist to the mill of her loyal supporters – by letting the media know that if only she could speak openly, they would understand she was free of any and all potential wrongdoing. “One of the frustrating aspects of that is that I’m not able to get my version of what is going on just now,” she laments before going on to deny the matter was connected to her resignation.
Honest John Swinney, stoically at her side, rubber stamped her comments using up any last reserves of credibility left among the party elders who remain loyal to the outgoing leader and sent a message to faithful members: don’t lose trust in the person you have invested your hopes in for the last decade. It’s almost as if her resignation has yet to be fully digested as a material reality. She hasn’t really gone. Has she? She can make a come back. Can’t she? She will remain on the frontline of politics. Won’t she?
The previous SNP leader fuses two elements together: the calculated and ruthless manoeuvres of a machine politician, with the ability to appear as “one of us.” Her experience, she says, has been “traumatic.” Even in her “worst nightmares” she could never have imagined the events of the last month. Evoking personal sympathy during times of political adversity has always been an essential part of her tool kit. This attempt to humanise the narrative is ideal fodder for The National and provides a platform for supporters to cling to.
Her surprise appearance in parliament felt like an attempt to throw a wet blanket, however temporary, over the fires raging around the party. She played down the problems around auditors too. Their stepping away “was not something that was untoward,” and “the national treasurer was involved in a process to procure new auditors.”
Well, months later, the SNP still does not have auditors. Humza Yousaf claims he was unaware the party didn’t have any in place until he became leader. “It’s certainly problematic,” he says, while having to field questions about the future of SNP staff if the electoral commission deadline is not met. So is it all part of a normal process, or is it, in fact, not? There are different hymn sheets being read at the same time. And it shows.
Sometimes even the same individual can regale us with clumsy and ill-fitting answers to elementary questions which then have to be reissued. Colin Beattie, the erstwhile SNP treasurer who was arrested last week before being released without charge pending further investigation, tweaked an earlier version of events around the infamous motorhome. Initially suggesting he was unaware of the purchase, he later, apparently was. Just not at the specific moment of transaction. If the SNP ran a paint by numbers operation to get through the day over recent years, trading media spin for delivering on policy initiatives and a viable independence strategy, the party is now working on an hourly basis. It is only a matter of time before more mistakes and contradictory statements trudge the SNP deeper into the morass.
As this once impenetrable party limps from one interlocking mini-crisis to the next, adding new chapters to an overarching tale of intellectual and organisational collapse, individuals are seeking out the ways and means to distance themselves of any wrong-doing. They are all aware that their political careers at stake, and possibly in the most bombastic fashion. Some will have accepted the slow demise of the party, or at least have understood the severity of the breakdown, and are already opting to save themselves and elevate their personal interests above and beyond those of the party and movement. Blame is passed around in what we can expect to become an intensified war of position between those previously held at bay by success and relative internal stability.
Now, the floodgates have opened. Once factionalism of this kind, contextualised and exacerbated by the pressure of a series of potentially catastrophic outcomes, it is impossible to drain from the bloodstream. Especially when there is no centre to rally around.
Meanwhile, Humza Yousaf takes each day as it comes as a leader in name only. That is not a particular slight on him. If anything, my honest view notwithstanding my profound disagreements with the new First Minister, is that he has been derided in a sometimes crass way. Referring to him as Humza “useless” feels cheap. But there is no escaping the political facts. He cannot impose discipline and he cannot lead with any effectiveness a party in such an advanced state of disarray. These are the cards dealt to him by the previous leadership. Yet it is impossible for him to make the required break with the past.
He, and what’s left of the party apparatus, simply know of no other way. Original thinking, independent action and outbursts of initiative are absent. There is a staleness which lingers like cigarette smoke after a long hangover bred from a culture of deference, denial and secrecy. Yousaf lacks an experienced team, and his party is riven with splits, remembering the slim margin of the leadership victory. Despite this interregnum in which the old has perished and the new cannot be born, the SNP as we have known it is finished. The post-2014 party is now definitively separate and distinct from the post-2023 one. The future has none of the certainties the SNP could previously rely on.
Experienced members are also failing to come to SNP leader’s aid. Stuart Hosie insists that events are not cutting through to the public. Only the “political bubble” are engaged with the present issues which afflict the SNP he argues. But even if this were the case it would be damning of Scottish democratic and public life. For independence supporters this would also would negate the idea that the country is politically mobilised and prepared for self-government. In truth, his remark belies a perspective that is all too familiar among politicians today: the public don’t care to know of our inner workings, and we should keep it that way. But it is precisely under these conditions that notions of public service can quickly morph into the project for prioritising personal advancement.
One inhabitant of the political bubble, Angus Robertson, was in receipt of a £33,000 top up to his MPs salary as he took on the role of SNP Westminster group leader after the momentous 2015 general election. This was a secret arrangement. Now he travels around Europe, achieving what we cannot be absolutely sure, and was off enjoying tartan week in New York with an unravelling SNP something of a sideshow. At least the minister is putting in the hard yards after writing his rather obscure book while in office, which also attracted some controversy.
His output appears to be generated from a parallel universe, where the party of which he is a leading member, is ticking along just the thing. Nowhere to be seen and nothing to say. A leadership election skipped, and a refusal to go anywhere near the perceived danger zone. There is a line between playing the shrewd politician on the one hand, and cowardice and dereliction of duty on the other. He has crossed it in the eyes of many.
Perhaps the reality is too stark to fully appreciate in the heat of the moment. History works that way. But it is worth noting that the SNP has past the point of no return as far as its ability to forge the kind internal cohesion it has been known for in the recent past. In addition, it is not running a government working at full operational capacity. Instead the party has become the arena in which a series of strategic, and possibly life altering, dilemmas are playing out. There cannot be a clear sighted and tenacious approach to domestic policy, or fathom the thought independence strategy, because the whole organisation exists under the weight of an emphatic, upending and politically distorting crisis.
There is no infrastructure in place to execute any of the vague plans which might exist on a piece of paper somewhere. Just as there is no sustained media operation pulling the strands together either, and there won’t be for the foreseeable future.
The pace of decline is dizzying. This newsletter once argued that Nicola Sturgeon had led the SNP into a cul-de-sac having left weak foundations and numerous strategic dead ends for her replacement to deal with. That was before the police investigation and all that it precipitates. The problems now overlap, and the tools to disentangle and solve them are unavailable and out of reach. It is the major story. But it is far from the only one. In a recently published report on poverty in Scotland, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found the following:
In the time period 1994–1997, 310,000 people in Scotland lived in very deep poverty, that is they had an income less than 40% of the UK median. That was bad enough, but in 2017–2020 (the most recent figures we use here), that figure was 460,000. In just over 20 years, we have added the equivalent of the population of Dundee to the group of people who live on an incredibly low income.
It should be this issue which is dominating the airwaves and the focussing the minds of self-styled “progressive” politicians. No amount of word salad will address these matters in ways that are meaningful to those living through the daily experience of grinding poverty. It is much too late for that.
At Independence Captured we have been carefully charting the failed policy directives and the corporate interests being serviced by the Scottish Government and the SNP. We might expect some crocodile tears in the coming weeks and months, as tends to happen when politicians start to realise their time may be up. But it is the hundreds of thousands of people living in deep poverty who are the real victims. Yes victims of an unjust economic order and Tory austerity, but also of a failed government in Scotland which hoarded immense political capital but never spent it.
Some will say: “without full powers, what do you expect?” In that case, we should expect serious advances on independence given the dominant position the SNP held for so long and not the crumbling and chaotic mess we have at present, further disarmed with a prospectus that would leave Scotland without monetary powers. Others will claim some great conspiracy of the British state is at work. It may be a zombie party by the end, but the SNP could well remain incredibly resilient in the polls owing to constitutional dynamics. Yet that would only serve to highlight the lack of political choice, an entrenched paralysis in the system and an environment which allows an inept, image obsessed and disconnected political class to thrive.
As the situation develops there will be a need for a perspective that foregrounds class questions, assesses the future prospects for independence soberly and offers clarity about the roots of the discontent and the malaise which is fast defining the SNP. This newsletter will continue to make a contribution along these lines. You might not agree with all that is written, but if you think such a viewpoint has any value, please do consider subscribing for weekly editions to be sent straight to your inbox.