The internal calamity in the SNP worsens by the day. But it is the consequence of a conformist attitude that permeates Scottish public life, argues Jonathon Shafi.
This is an abridged version of an article first published at Independence Captured.
As per the legal requirements, I won’t make any comment on the live police investigation and will only briefly recap some factual items reported in the media. The former SNP Chief Executive, Peter Murrell, spent April 5th 2023 in police custody between the hours of 7:45 am and 6:57 pm. During the day an evidence tent was erected outside the Former First Minister’s house. The SNP headquarters were raided, with the removal of several bags of materials. It has been reported that police are probing “high-value transactions including vehicle purchases made by the party.” Douglas Chapman, the SNP MP who stepped down as party treasurer, has also spoken to the police.
Now, the First Minister has been forced to abandon public appearances. Ms Sturgeon herself has released a statement in which she says she had no “prior knowledge of Police Scotland’s action or intentions.”
These events, notwithstanding the 2014 referendum, represent the most significant in the history of devolution. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the police investigation, the fact of its existence and the scale on which it is being carried out is new territory for Scottish politics. That Scotland’s most politically influential couple over the last decade should end up with police ticker tape around their house is astonishing in and of itself. It is astounding that just months ago SNP members and independence supporters were being told to gear up for a referendum in October this year. The investigation may go on for some time, as fiscal cases (I am informed by friends with a legal mind) only result in a formal charge if accompanied by significant evidence and reasonable prospects of successful prosecution.
The political context
The consequences of this episode are not limited solely to the potential outcomes for the SNP, though recent polling already made difficult reading for the party. With the new leadership resting on weak foundations even before this week’s extraordinary scenes, internal disagreements about the relationship with the Scottish Greens may intensify as oppositional elements to the First Minister sense potential openings. Beyond party politics, the present circumstances could precipitate important issues in relation to public trust in Scottish institutions. Such calamity, underwritten by a cynical approach to the national question and a long list of failed domestic policy initiatives, leaves behind a troublesome legacy for the previous leadership.
Some argue that the problems confronting the Scottish national movement may be reducible to the deficiencies, or the perceived “betrayals,” of specific leading individuals and to the political errors they have made. Of course, there must be responsibility and accountability. But even if the general staff of the independence cause were to change, the strategic challenges go beyond personnel. Independence supporters might do well to explore these as David Jamieson does convincingly.
Separate from the police investigation, there are some unhealthy and stultifying tendencies which developed after 2014 which are worth unmasking. These involve issues of party democracy and the nature of SNP governance. They extend to a compliant and deferential pro-independence commentariat and the way in which social currency has been dispensed on the basis of loyalty and proximity to the SNP leadership. Even when the political reality was so evidently disconnected from the rhetoric, myths were perpetuated in order to maintain the social and political infrastructure which came to sustain the modern Scottish status quo.
Taken together, this accelerated a regressive culture around the SNP hierarchy, which consistently ran roughshod over the party membership and sought to centralise power wherever it could. These traits are, of course, not limited to the SNP. But those who have projected onto that party special dispensations inhibit the kind of critical engagement required. In truth, the slavish attitude towards the SNP leadership only stunted the political development of the independence movement and had a detrimental impact on Scottish politics in general, beyond the constitutional divide.
Disciplining the movement
Being part of the movement of 2014 was a riveting, and life-changing, experience for those of us involved in the Yes campaign. The referendum opened up a channel for hundreds of thousands of people to become politically active. Public meetings designed to open space for discussion about Scotland’s future were only partly about the constitution and exceeded the boundaries of nationalism. These forums went far beyond technocratic explanations for how a new Scottish state might be established, reaching into real debates about what society should look like. It was a profoundly democratic period in which many who had been marginalised by formal politics in the past were able to come to the fore, conscious that their vote could change the course of history, rather than the colour of tie pinned on the next Prime Minister.
In the week running up to September 18th, Buchanan Street in Glasgow turned into an open-air hive of debate. I vividly remember the organically assembled circles of people discussing the referendum, how they were intending to vote and their speculations on what might happen. Matters of state, rather than being reserved for elites, became a question for all to grapple with. This democratic uprising went beyond party affiliation, or indeed any one political leader. We could claim with some credibility to be part of a “people’s movement” for independence. One that didn’t ask permission from a largely irrelevant Yes Scotland headquarters, but which self-organised in towns and communities across the country its vision for a better future. And it was a real political battle, pitching a grassroots movement in opposition to the power of the British state, and indeed the wishes of President Barack Obama.
It would leave behind the echo of a positive legacy. But the harsh reality is that having failed to win a majority for Yes, this pioneering and independently-minded movement of movements was forced into retreat. In a bid to keep the flame alive, and to exploit opportunities in the future, the majority of the movement and the pro-independence electorate fell behind the SNP in regimented form. In one sense the discipline involved had its value and it did make a concrete political impact. Rather than a quiet receding of the idea of independence, it became the central faultline in Scottish politics.
At the same time, the votes, money and activism of the post-2014 surge towards the SNP were met with calls for deference to the leadership. Large portions of the movement traded thoughtful reflections about our mistakes and shortcomings in the referendum campaign, for an obsequious approach to the new SNP. The party returned in kind. All focus was placed on Nicola Sturgeon, from merchandise to social media output and billboards. Her talents, popularity and political skill meant she could personify the movement and the party. They had become one, and criticism of either would come to be seen as disruptive and disloyal. Once independence had been achieved there would be time to debate. But not before.
This dynamic was not incidental to the SNP leadership’s strategy, aimed at outmanoeuvring the residual but substantial layers who expected some authentic attempt at genuine social change. As I wrote last year:
“Control had to be exerted, aided by the context of the 2014 defeat which bred a high degree of organic passivity towards the SNP leadership. The movement had to be exploited for votes, funds, and activism – but it should never have any political clout over the direction of the party.
“The conference transformed into an entirely stage-managed event. As one SNP special advisor told the Financial Times during the 2015 October conference, “we don’t really do policy,” noting that the biggest announcement in John Swinney’s speech was a “copy” of George Osborne’s conference pledge on business rates.
“But more than that, it became a beacon for the corporate sector, while the grassroots organisations of the independence movement were carved out. In 2016, a row opened about the rising cost of stall spaces and fringes. Charities and independence groups were priced out. Think tanks and campaigns were quoted more than £5000 for a small stall, and £2000 for meeting space. No exceptions were made for key independence organisations or progressive causes.”
Resolutions from official wings of the party would be excluded from conference programmes. Key votes on issues like the National Energy Company or Freeports would be ignored. The structure of the party would be altered to further hardwire power into the apparatus and away from rank-and-file members. The National Executive Committee abolished the once influential National Council, to be replaced with sporadic and amorphous “regional assemblies.” The powers of Constituency Associations were curtailed and then transferred to Regional Committees – which don’t contain direct representation from the Constituency Associations themselves. The party leader was granted sole discretion over what could and could not be in the manifesto, regardless of conference votes.
Key policy areas were farmed out to the corporate sector and outsourced to private consultancy firms. Hundreds of meetings between Scottish ministers and multinationals, wealthy individuals and other influential organisations were left off the lobbying register. The “Economic Recovery Group” set up during the pandemic, was led by the former CEO of Tesco bank, Benny Higgins, who is now Chairman of the estate of Scotland’s largest feudal landowner, the Duke of Buccleuch. The council to advise on a ten-year plan for Scotland to “unleash entrepreneurial potential and grow Scotland’s competitive business base,” included Sir Nick Macpherson, a former Treasury permanent secretary who advised George Osborne to reject a currency union during the 2014 referendum campaign. Known as “Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation” this body has so far produced a couple of events which the media were excluded from.
The crux, however, is this. The centralising instincts within the party combined with the fact that the SNP’s internal regime was composed of an untouchable party leader married to the Chief Executive, and surrounded by a small team of SPADs, meant this was an administration which rarely came under any serious internal scrutiny. The detachment from any democratic accountability builds its own logic. One quite separate from the ambitions, values and objectives of members, supporters and voters.
A culture of complacency
Rather than writing about these kinds of issues, much of the pro-independence commentariat preferred to take the line of least resistance. Investigative pieces were few and far between. Robust discussions about policy were subordinated to copy-and-paste columns about how bad Brexit was, chiming with the SNP’s non-strategy around the issue.
A focus would be put on the style rather than the substance of the SNP leadership, often involving the precepts of an exclusively liberal variant of feminism. Superficial “analysis” of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership was far too limited to overly magnanimous interpretations of the latest performative anti-Tory barb. Some of us pointed out the incoherence of the Growth Commission and the folly of Sterlingisation, but these grave issues were also stubbornly ignored or downplayed by many.
Had there been a richer critique informing the discussion, perhaps some of the big strategic disasters may have been averted. Instead, we were treated to a diet of cheerleading at the latest independence wheeze or rationalisations about policy failure. Don’t you know how much worse the Tories are? A common refrain, but in the end a recipe for mediocrity which paralysed Scottish politics.
Large parts of the “left” whose project had become so bound up with the electoral success of the SNP provided cover rather than opposition. Some celebrated the ScotWind sell-off and many became toothless when it came to mounting sustained and meaningful challenges to the SNP. Again to the lowest common denominator: don’t you know that Nicola Sturgeon is far better than Jacob Rees-Mogg? Yet, silence, when the former First Minister shook hands with Rishi Sunak over Freeports, the quintessential project of the Tory Brexiteer.
Proclaim loudly what is happening
It didn’t pay to make too much of a fuss in the peak Sturgeon years. To do so would mean being on the receiving end of varying degrees of social media abuse or slander. But it did pay if you could nestle comfortably alongside the SNP leadership. Were you a cultural figure that could use your platform to transmit a positive message? Were you an aspiring politician who could talk about how inspirational Scotland’s First Minister is? Were you part of the network of patronage that oscillated around the Scottish government searching out new opportunities for personal advancement? If you were, social capital could be gained by repeating ever more incredible lines about the sageness of the SNP’s independence strategy or over-embellishing the achievements of the Scottish Government.
Given the levels of naked opportunism that have been on display in recent years, it is no surprise that those least likely to rock the boat are also those who directly benefited from subservience. The Scottish political scene may always have been a bit of a village. But the dominance of the SNP, and the leadership within it, compressed it further so that social weight was rarely measured through good works or ideas and certainly not through offering clear-sighted provocations. Instead, this would be gained through one’s ability to conform in the most marketable way to a governing class increasingly estranged from its base.
It might have been different. But critical voices were too few and far between. The National, the only pro-independence newspaper, became the subject of ridicule over the years for its repeated false dawns declaring “it’s on” for indyref2 on loop. Perhaps there is room to be generous here. After all, papers need selling, and maybe telling people what they wanted to hear was one way of achieving this. But such an approach could only ever last for as long as the claims were even halfway credible. When all is said and done, the environment which incubated complacency allowed independence to be reduced to a tool for commanding electoral support, and for distorting the much-needed debate about domestic policy.
There is no choice now but to engage with this reality. Independence Captured has attempted to make a contribution towards the development of a critical appraisal of the SNP, a sober analysis of the challenges facing independence supporters and an examination of the corporate capture of domestic policy. Subscribers can be assured that this newsletter will continue to provide views and research uninhibited by the misplaced loyalty that is coming back to bite the independence movement with a vengeance.