JS Jones

JS Jones

Scotland the Withered? Politics After SNP Hegemony

Reading Time: 5 minutes

With Sturgeon gone and Yousaf a lame duck, JS Jones argues that Scottish politics is now adrift, and only likely to be set on a new path by challenges from below, or by external developments.

Past the abrupt demise of its innermost leadership circle, Scotland now faces a protracted period of unimportance, the winds of its fate blowing in from elsewhere, as before. In the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s abrupt departure and the collapse of the attendant nomenklatura, we see the smallness of contemporary Scotland itself laid bare.

Those braying from the right about Sturgeon’s demise must be embarrassed that a figure portrayed as a Machiavellian nemesis seems instead to have been tired after years of internal problems which passed largely under the radar, despite their attempts to throw everything at the First Minister. What remains of the SNP-abiding left sees the collapse of the party-government machine and realises there’s not much to say. A decade of unassailable power dissipates like a mirage, followed not by deluge but nightfall.[1] 

FM Radio

Even before the announcement, the next FM’s identity was largely inconsequential. After the carnage of the next weeks and months, Humza Yousaf’s new administration has disappeared. Traditionally there would be articles glorifying the workaday technocracy of government: ‘10 things in the FM’s inbox,’ or about the ‘First hundred days’. Yousaf’s first task was to build a cabinet from an exhausted party, made up of warring factions.

In his first few days he opted to build a cabinet of notably uniform loyalties. Doing so carried the risk of leaving internal dissenters unoccupied and with no incentive to restrain their criticism. This has not passed, but the days of Sturgeon maintaining extraordinary message discipline, with an equally remarkable level of cabinet stability, are over. The penalty for Sturgeon loyalists has already been much more significant, as the reputation of the former leadership collapsed amid operation Branchform. That investigation continues – but what everyone now accepts as the failures of party management casts a shadow over the new administration.

The new FM has been forced to accept that party leader, not First Minister, is the part of their job description requiring the most immediate focus. The SNP’s membership base has shrunk markedly, with senior members facing police investigation into allegations of financial malpractice. Parties exist to fight and win elections, for the first time in a quarter of a century the SNP faces obvious questions about its capacity to do so. Recent polling has the SNP losing half their seats at the next General Election.

Bafflingly, the SNP continue to rely on the apparently endless support of the Greens, whatever the risks to that party. Both Green ministers’ portfolios are retained in the new administration, but are especially exposed, with Lorna Slater overseeing the mess of the (permanently?) delayed Deposit Return Scheme. Patrick Harvie remains the lead for ‘tenants’ rights’ a post with more vibes than velocity and a years-delayed pledge for rent controls. The Greens could well absorb the blame for more failures.


An election may come more quickly to Scotland than people imagine. Despite the conventional wisdom that Rishi Sunak will wait until the last possible moment (late 2024) to call a UK General Election, there are signs it may come sooner. Pay deals to end strikes are being couched in 2-year terms, and the Conservatives have announced their few campaign promises will bear fruit in 2023. The pieces are being put in place to exploit any issue for the Labour party, whose poll lead remains volatile.

No self-respecting writer in a self-respecting country begins an analysis of domestic elections by referencing those elsewhere. But we live in Scotland, where the reality is that Scottish politics is a subset of UK politics, however bellicose its narrowing civil society might have been in recent years. Even with the prospect of years more in power without any obvious policy objectives, Yousaf is highly unlikely to call a banzai election to insure against a potential resurgence of Labour or the further collapse of his own party base.

Beyond this plethora of internal issues, which are considerable enough to threaten any large organisation, external factors now align differently for the new FM. The opposition’s future slogans are written not by their PRs but the SNP’s own leadership candidates, some of whom openly implied the party’s corruption was so far gone as to threaten the legitimacy of the election for the country’s next leader. The emergence of internal party strife as a public concern through the SNP leadership election may well encourage the Scottish Conservatives, who have a particular incentive to claim that the SNP’s disarray reflects in some sense on devolution itself, a mantle already taken up by Lord Frost.

Gey few and they’re a’ deid

Some would have us believe that the Labour party is best-placed to rise from the SNP’s ashes, but a return to the hegemonic dominance of pre-2007 seems unlikely. That requires us to believe that there is a bloc of voters ready to move from the SNP to Scottish Labour, which is farfetched: hindsight is unmistakable, the SNP’s electoral success never required an appeal to working class voters or civil society blocs.

Of the many motivators for the tens of thousands who have left the SNP in recent years, few seem obviously able to be capitalised on by a Scottish Labour party which is as proudly devoid of ideology as its counterparts in the SNP. Moreover, a Scottish Labour resurgence would also be obvious to Westminster’s Conservatives, whose timing of the next election will necessarily balance the prospects of Lib Dem breakthrough in England and Labour’s potential resurgence across the UK. It might yet be that Labour’s lack of a coherent socialist message stymies their gains in their former heartlands.

Scottish Labour espouses a similar blandissimo to that of their colleagues in Westminster, which long ago discounted the possibility of gains in Scotland from its electoral analyses. The UK party’s demonstrable move to the right under Keir Starmer seems carefully calibrated to shore up heartlands in England and to a lesser extent Wales, among people whose traditional political classes were atomised generations ago. Following suit, the UK Labour Party appears to have discounted Scotland for some time now, with the party machinery and electoral landscape apparently insurmountable.  This is the detritus of Thatcher’s transformation of UK politics, after the annihilation of a distinct civic political sphere, populated by trade unions and the like. In its place Blair, Cameron and, yes, Sturgeon have held court without ever being challenged ideologically.

Sturgeon’s exit leaves a void similar to that seen in Germany in the wake of Angela Merkel. A leader of unquestioned political competence but with no apparent ideological or transformational legacy, ripe for unpicking not by political opponents but external circumstances. Scholz’s Germany has had to contend with a fundamental shift in its relationship with Russia, unencumbered by ideological baggage but without an obvious way of corralling a political consensus. Only the absence is similar – Germany, a functioning independent country of obvious geopolitical significance will evolve its politics as it must.

Scotland’s politics will remain gripped by narrow self-interest, in the shadow of actual politics elsewhere, without obvious conditions for internal change with its working class and other civil participation having been comprehensively dismantled a generation ago. The SNP’s time in office, and in particular the stagnancy of the post-2014 period, has failed to distinguish Scotland politically on any level. Any political realignment will proceed on terms set elsewhere, likely through external review of Scotland’s devolutionary arrangements by a corporatist Labour party, or under the inquisition of an anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by the political right.

As the dust settles on an unprecedented period of political activity in Scotland, there’s the danger of losing sight of the most significant gap here. Analyses of parties and governments tend to neglect the fundamental absence of class-interested, community-driven politics. The thriving position of trade unions this past winter, and the protracted hardships for people across the country, are markedly removed from discussion at Holyrood but create the conditions for distinct forms of political organising and, possibly, a reconsideration of how we should value the prospect of independence.

Enjoy reading this article?
Join our mailing list
Subscribe now