There is no path forward for the independence movement that evades direct criticism of the Sturgeon years, argues Jonathon Shafi.
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The SNP’s “independence convention” could hardly be described as a resounding success. If the objective was to clarify the party’s line of march into the coming general election, it is fair to say that instead it paved the way for yet more confusion. Humza Yousaf’s speech precipitated multiple interpretations. So many that party grandee, Michael Russell, issued a rebuff to criticisms on the front page of The National: “Indy plan not confusing or complicated.” You don’t need to be an expert in political communications to know this is far from ideal.
Despite this, perhaps the bedevilled SNP headquarters in a rapid decline in expectations, can assess the convention with a degree relief. After losing Nicola Sturgeon to an untimely resignation, a bruising and terse leadership campaign and the ongoing criminal investigation into party finances, there was a need to bring the base of the party together. If the event failed to impress the wider population with a sound strategy for independence, at least they could provide faithful activists with a much needed day out. Safe in the knowledge they would have no access to any kind of decision making power. No motions, no votes, no dissection of the political circumstances. Instead, an arena for reinforcing a series of delusions about the state of the party and the independence cause offered some comfort to those searching for hope and direction in the morass of scandal and strategic disorientation.
Before the latest storm around the party the SNP were to hold a “special conference” in the aftermath the Supreme Court verdict. This was to be furnished with resolutions from the National Executive Committee and promises of “the fullest possible debate” to chart a way forward. Nicola Sturgeon preferred a “de facto” referendum, however ill-defined and unclear. But in truth, this was always simply another ruse. As far as progressing the national movement, it was badly conceived. That should come as no surprise. Under her leadership, the idea of independence only ever impinged on strategy and tactics as far as it was useful for the SNP electorally, or to her personally.
No matter how deep the apparent crisis of the British state, the lack of campaign infrastructure, prospectus and initiative seizing meant that potential advances were stymied. Opportunities to prosecute a determined – never mind audacious – independence campaign were subordinate to the management of devolved government. Adding to the palpable sense of atrophy, that too was poor, though the national question could be relied upon as welcome cover. The SNP hierarchy as a whole became acclimatised to reeling out their pitch for a referendum as required at conferences or during election campaigns. But the folly and the outcome of the Supreme Court misadventure has necessarily knocked the SNP out of its post-2014 groove.
The hangover of the Sturgeon era has left Humza Yousaf with far less space to work independence energies to the SNP’s advantage. Instead, new challenges are emerging. While it is true to say the constitution has dominated recent Scottish elections, what has been taken for granted is the notion that those who support independence in theory, will always vote for the SNP in practice. A growing body of evidence suggests this not to be the case. As polling expert Professor John Curtice recently explained: “The truth is that we are looking at a situation where a political institution is in trouble, even though the cause for which it’s in favour isn’t in trouble. Whereas in the middle of January, 76 per cent of those people who voted for Yes in 2014 were saying they’d vote for the SNP, that figure is now down to slightly below two thirds.”
With a stuttering domestic record, the success of the SNP increasingly relied on the support of those who favour independence. Nicola Sturgeon, with a focus on public relations, did strike up a real relationship with large numbers of people resulting in strong popularity figures over the piece. The new leader faces an uphill battle in this regard. Having narrowly won the leadership contest, it is reported that just 45% of 2019 SNP voters view him in favourable terms.
In a sense Humza Yousaf’s objective is simple: to intertwine independence support with votes for the SNP as tightly as possible. But this electoral recipe can only hold if it is baked with that vital and potent political ingredient: belief. While confusion about the message from the convention may be clarified over time, the issue here is far trickier. No matter what came from the Dundee gathering, it could not have easily overcome the inertia now built up around the national question. Even among hardcore supporters, there is little confidence that independence can be delivered anytime soon. This accentuates a contradiction which is easily observed and laced throughout the interviews of leading SNP figures. On the one hand they argue that support for independence must become the “settled will” of the Scottish people. Then, it is said, something will have to give. On the other, they must ramp up the independence engine for an election, with rhetoric suggesting the dream is within “touching distance.”
Then there is the undeniable institutionalisation of the SNP into the Westminster system. It is widely suspected that many SNP MPs are all too comfortable on the green benches, and it is not immediately clear what is being achieved in London. Stunts drawing attention to the national movement are few and far between. SNP MPs don’t appear to be of rebellious spirit. There is an emptiness to the anti-Westminster sloganeering which will ratchet up as election day gets closer. Despite protestations to the opposite, the SNP fit rather snugly into the UK political scene.
For softer “Yes” respondents to opinion surveys, the evident failures in domestic policy and the lack of seriousness around independence, combined with the high profile excavation of SNP finances, represent a series of interlocking dilemmas the leadership are ill-equipped to overcome. There has been no attempt to draw up an honest balance sheet, the bare minimum required to rebuild trust and momentum. Instead, Humza Yousaf dutifully seeks to protect the already shattered legacy of his forerunner.
And so an air of unreality swirled round the Caird Hall. Tommy Sheppard, seen as a key voice for internal reform, made a strident speech. He said those “enjoying” the party’s recent “misfortunes” were in for a shock. This event was a turning point, and a line in the sand. “We are coming for you like never before” he boomed. Paul Kavanagh, an uncritical friend of the SNP was invited to speak as a representative of the “wider Yes campaign.” He aimed to salve the audience by insisting the polls understate the real level of support for independence, citing that particularly tawdry argument that many of the older No voters of 2014 had since passed on.
But there is no tub thumping through this crisis. Neither should the independence cause be reduced to a kind of therapy, aiding people through the stages of post-2014 grief. In place of that there is a need for politics and an the acceptance of the following: there is no path forward which evades direct criticism of the Sturgeon years. The networks of patronage built during that era hope that Yousaf’s leadership offers a straightforward transition, where careers, privileges and social currency will be safely incubated. If the grassroots are to be an influential factor in events they must be a thorn in the side and seek to disrupt the culture of deference which has damaged the party’s ability to reproduce genuinely talented cadre of independent mind. They should demand far more in the way of high level discussion and debate as well as real accounting for the malaise of recent times.
Yousaf does not enjoy the hegemonic power once wielded by Sturgeon. By choosing to operate in her shadow, he is unable to cut the umbilical chord with the previous leadership. This makes it impossible to forge a distinctive path which recognises and seeks to ameliorate the disastrous legacy bequeathed to him and the wider movement. Previously, a highly centralised and coherent party apparatus would transmit the line to members, the media and the public. Now, there is a communications breakdown from top to bottom. Even on matters as elementary as the party’s election offer.
But let’s circle back to the idea that this convention may still be viewed as something of a “success” by the party centre. No one really knows the way forward, but members have “had a say.” The Scottish press are talking about the credibility of the party’s independence planning, and the prospects for a referendum, in a welcome break from coverage of high profile arrests.
Perhaps given all of this we can theorise that Humza Yousaf’s advisors are borrowing from that famous Harry Truman phrase: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”