SNP, Labour and Internal Democracy 159

Not even Turkmenistan, where the Glorious Leader renamed the days of the week after his family and bequeathed the Presidency to his dentist (who remains President) do they have a national anthem as ludicrously obsequious as the British. Furthermore, even North Korea’s anthem makes no mention of the ruling dynasty. I haven’t sung the British hymn to arse-licking since I was old enough to understand what it meant (about 13). As a British diplomat and Ambassador I used to do exactly what Corbyn did – stand silently. And I have done that while in the Queen’s company.

I was musing on the choices Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn made in the same circumstance, though it is more difficult when you are actually with the Queen, as Sturgeon was. Nobody wants to insult an old lady. And it led me to muse on a problem each has with party democracy, where again the approaches are different.

The SNP recently does not seem over-concerned with party democracy. Or to put it another way, it does not seem to have much party democracy. I have attended two party conferences, one in Perth and one in Glasgow, where there was absolutely no debate on policy issues. Leadership addresses dominated the agenda and almost every speaker called was a member of a parliament or an approved candidate. It does not seem the forthcoming Aberdeen conference will be much better. There will be no debate on the really interesting issues – NATO, the monarchy, currency post-independence, the single police force, privatisation of CALMAC. Remember, 90% of the party membership were not members when there was last a debate on any of these.

Rather the motions selected by the party gatekeepers range from the self-congratulatory to the anodyne, with only a small proportion selected which originated with constituency grassroots. The management is heavy-handed. Most notably, the party members will not be permitted to discuss the key question dominating Scottish politics – the second referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon has briefed the media that the SNP manifesto will set out the circumstances in which a second referendum may be held. In coordinated briefing, Blair Jenkins and others have been floating 2021. What is being made plain is that the leadership will decide, not the membership. That seems to me disrespectful to the 100,000 members of the Yes campaign who joined up and may be presumed to have an opinion.

I consider myself a party loyalist. Actually I am especially loyal because I keep supporting the SNP no matter how plain the SNP makes it that it does not want me. I believe the SNP is the necessary vehicle for independence. But there is a difference between a party loyalist and a leadership loyalist. Leadership loyalists reply that you cannot argue with success, and the SNP achieved massive victory at the Westminster elections, and is set to achieve massive victory at the Holyrood elections.

To which my response is, that I do not deny that autocracy can be a most effective means of gaining and maintaining power. But that does not make autocracy desirable. Some very bad people have been extremely good at gaining and holding power. It is not a proper measure of success.

It has become accepted within the SNP that the criterion for a second referendum is that there must be a “material change” in circumstances. But why is that the criterion? Apparently because Nicola Sturgeon said so. We didn’t vote on that. Now the argument becomes about defining that material change. I gather we still don’t know what it will be exactly, but we kind of know it will come about in six years time.

Apart from “material change” the other hackneyed phrase defining what passes for “debate” on the issue – and there is almost no debate on the issue in which ordinary SNP members are permitted to participate – is “when the Scottish people decide”. When I called a couple of months ago for a referendum in 2018, the internet was filled with leadership loyalists parroting no, it would be “when the Scottish people decide”. The problem with that concept is that it is unclear how the Scottish people are to express their decision. What is the mechanism for that? Is it psychic? What people really meant was “When Nicola decides the Scottish people have decided.”

I still want a second referendum in 2018. I believe we can win it. I am very confident the SNP will sweep the coming Holyrood elections. I am not so confident about the Holyrood election after that; it would be a brave prediction that the SNP trajectory will be ever upward. Stuff happens in politics.

Therefore we must go for a second referendum on the back of these forthcoming Holyrood elections; we might not have another chance after 2020. Besides which the unpopularity of the Etonian government in London continues to work in our favour. I don’t give a stuff about “material change”, but if you want to point to one, the SNP sweeping two elections is a “material change”. 2018 should be it.

There are people who I respect as genuine supporters of Scottish independence who would prefer to delay beyond 2020 or until they are “sure of winning”. Listen. You are never sure of winning. Politics can overturn orthodoxies. Jeremy Corbyn was a 200 to 1 shot. We will never have a better chance than now. Let’s go for it.

People can argue that I am wrong about the timing. But why can’t we do that? Argue? Debate? At conference? And have a democratic vote on the timing? Why is the SNP not a democracy?

Rather more worryingly, the degree of democratic space permitted within the SNP appears to vary according to which side you are on. Readers will recall that I have been twice refused vetting as an SNP parliamentary candidate, on the grounds that I refuse to accept I will tow the party line at all times. I was told very directly it is completely unacceptable for an MP or prospective MP to argue against the party line.

Yet here is an example of an MP – Angus Robertson – arguing directly against the democratically agreed party policy. In 2012 Angus Robertson gave many media interviews advocating membership of NATO, at a time when party policy was firmly against membership of NATO. I raised this precise example at my latest vetting refusal and was told that this was different; the party leadership was entitled to argue against party policy because they had a leadership role, and Angus Robertson had succeeded in winning a vote subsequently to overturn the policy at conference.

It seems to me self-evidently pernicious to develop a doctrine that the party leadership may ignore agreed policy, but nobody else may. Another interpretation may be, of course, that you can attack party policy from the right, but not from the left.

Back in January I argued that the SNP appeared to be a democratic centralist party, where policy was centrally decided but then everybody was forced rigidly to stick to it. I said strict democratic centralism was generally not accepted as part of mainstream political tradition in this country, but was generally considered as Stalinism.

But actually it seems it is worse than that. Policy is not democratically decided. Rather a leader is democratically elected, but then that leader makes up the policy, and everybody has to follow it. That is an even worse political system than democratic centralism, and is known as the Leadership Principle. I could have put that in German.

That is the SNP, of which I remain a loyal but long-suffering member.

In Labour, Jeremy Corbyn faces related problems of party governance and internal democracy, but of a rather different kind. Corbyn has the backing of a large majority of his members, but he has a right wing parliamentary party – in some instances quite astonishingly right wing – which is entirely out of step with both Corbyn and the membership.

We therefore had shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith saying today that Labour supported the benefits cap, and going on to say that Labour supported overall benefits cuts, and could not oppose benefits cuts when the public supported them. Smith appears not to have noticed that the debate in the leadership election had happened, or that he was putting forward precisely the argument that got Liz Kendall a humiliating 4.9% of the votes of party members.

After three days of the parliamentary party doing everything conceivable to undermine him, what I believe is Corbyn’s strategy is to institute reforms to party democracy whereby the members decide policy. He can then obtain clear party policies which he supports and demand the PLP support them. That includes on Trident, where the SNP continue to twist the knife as Corbyn is hamstrung by a parliamentary party absolutely owned by the corporatist agenda.

In the longer term, I just do not see how it can work. The only conceivable strategy for Corbyn to succeed is mass deselection of the right wing shills who constitute 70% of his MPs. But that process is incompatible with a working party at Westminster. I genuinely wish Jeremy, whom I know and respect, well. But I very much fear the Blairites have put the Labour Party as an institution well beyond saving.

159 thoughts on “SNP, Labour and Internal Democracy

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  • RobG


    Bad phrasing om my part (I’ve had a hard day at the office). What I was alluding to is that huge numbers signed-up to the Labour Party in order to vote for Corbyn (and huge numbers are still signing-up now that he’s been elected leader). I don’t think a regional break down of these numbers exists, but it must be safe to say that a percentage are people in Scotland.

    For folks who might not have seen it, here’s Corbyn’s first major tv interview, given today to Channel 4 News…

  • harry law

    The SNP being a class alliance existing only to achieve Scottish independence, can or should only put forward general policy options and be careful not to alienate either wing of the party. Once independence is achieved there should be no need for the SNP to exist. Then ordinary class politics could develop in an independent Scotland. But then a Unionist party may appear consisting of another class alliance, and take Scotland back into Union with GB again.

  • fred

    ““God Save the Queen/King” is by origin an anti-Jacobite anthem.”

    Yes but it was also used as a pro-Jacobite song, they altered it with a verse about Charles Stewart.

    That was all long before it became accepted as Britain’s National Anthem.

  • cynicalHighlander


    Another debate on Nato at this time is superfluous to requirements until the majority of the public realise that they are the problem not the solution to world stability and at the moment most of the public see them as our protection insurance. Not everyone is as clued up about how NATO is the instigator of unrest as the armaments industry is a great money making machine which capitalist governments love to spread their influence around the world stage.

    Yes we need out of NATO but until we have our independence, or public opinion changes, we have no choice in winning a referendum vote.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    British media prejudices in favor of the fascists were manifest, and only stopped when France fell for fear that Britain was next, though finding headlines for it are hard to di at this late stage unless one goes to a newspaper library, like the one at Colindale when I was researching my biography of Brougham.

    For example of Britain’s newspapers favoring Franco’s nationalists, read Anthony Beevor’s splendid history where HMS Queen Elizabeth was preventing republican attempts – where the communists were a tiny minority – from shelling the port of Algeciras which was vital in supplying the nationalists with troops from Africa. (p. 151)

    Can just imagine all the hoopla in the British media about such successes.

  • compass1312

    The crux of Craig’s post, is the exact reason why Australia has had 5 PM’s in 5 years.

    A party’s leader cannot not listen to their members. Captain’s picks are not the way to go.

  • Tim

    Not to mention “My country tie of thee”. The great advantage of the tune is that it is easy for public singing, unlike “the star spangled banner” which has to be sung as a solo because untrained vocalists can’t make the range. Incidentally the star spangled banner does not mention the USA directly

  • Mary

    I admire your honesty Craig and the fact that you speak out, saying what you mean without shilly-shallying.

    I hope that Jeremy forms a breakaway party – a completely new party founded on socialism. He would have a massive following. He is in a cleft stick at the moment with these remnant neo liberals on one side and a PR machine biased against him on the other.

  • Republicofscotland

    One of the more eventful tellings of the God Save the Queen and the inclusion of the music, comes from the French nuns who penned a ditty to alleviate Louis VIX’s suffering after he’d just undergone an operation to remove his piles.

    The nuns thought this would bring their king, some solace in a time of suffering….just don’t sit down.

  • Jon

    Mary – I should love for a breakaway party to exist separate to the Labour party, but the tribal/hereditary nature of British voting would make it a risky enterprise. People were proud to vote Labour regardless of their policies during the Blair years, and there was not a lot of public awareness of how far from a worker’s party that the policy platform had moved.

    CynicalHighlander, agree – I wish the public were more opposed to our own militarism, but it’s not much of a vote winner at present.

  • craig Post author


    I just deleted a comment from our old friend Tony Opmoc because I couldn’t make out what he was talking about, but whatever it was, it wasn’t this post. Given there is such a large amount of ground covered in this post, and it has encouraged new commenters to voice themselves, can we as an exception enforce on topic on this one.

  • lysias

    It is natural for first-past-the-post electoral systems to have two major parties. So, if an independent Scotland retains first past the post, there ought soon to be two major parties in Scotland, whether the SNP splits in two, or Scottish Labour succeeds in revivifying itself, or some other way is found to reach two parties.

  • MJ

    “Some very bad people have been extremely good at gaining and holding power”

    Correct me if I’m wrong Craig but it sounds as though you’re saying that Nicola Sturgeon is now a very bad person.

    “my latest vetting refusal”

    Like it!

    “I keep supporting the SNP no matter how plain the SNP makes it that it does not want me”

    Oh Craig, just go and join the Labour Party. You know you want to. You’ll never have a better chance than now. Go for it.

  • Tim

    A guiding principle of political analysis is never to forget the contempt in which the elected hold the unelected. It’s why the Congress hated Kissinger.

    The SNP leadership will point out that they demonstrably know how to win elections and you don’t. When it comes to elections people don’t have the option of a checklist vote – they have to choose someone with a policy package they can trust to deliver best for them in prevailing circumstances. The art of politics is creating that package. If it works they vote for you, if it doesn’t they don’t. That is the test of whether it is democratic, not whether each line got an internal majority inside the party.

    And Tsipras shows the danger of winning an election on a package that you cannot then deliver

  • Clydebuilt

    Craig I can easily accept that the SNP currently is’nt functioning as a perfect democracy. Given the environment they find themselves in I think you are expecting to much. For the SNP a perfect internal party democracy is a luxury that will have to wait till after Indendence is won.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Personally, I dislike national anthems – any national anthems. I think they are silly and absurd, the lyrics especially. The German one is okay when it is a hymn because the tune is not bad, but when it is a national anthem, the words and the performative spectacle render it daft. The UK one is utterly embarassing and demeaning. I cannot remember ever singing it. I could not bring myself to sing it. I want to abolish the Monarchy. But the rest (of the national anthems of the world) aren’t much better.

    I do have enormous respect for those who fought and died and were wounded in the terrible World Wars.

    But I think the Cenotaph ritual is an execise in rank hypocrisy. The same people are killing people, and sending soldiers to die in imperial wars in far-off lands.

  • craig Post author


    You are completely wrong. I am simply saying that power is not a good in itself. I do not in the least think that Nicola Sturgeon is a bad person.

  • Mary

    Owen Smith MP. Elected 2010. Replaced Kim Howells.

    Yet another MP with a BBC past.

    ‘He worked for the BBC as a radio producer for 10 years, working on a variety of programmes in both Wales and London, including Today for BBC Radio Four and Dragon’s Eye for BBC Wales.’

    ‘Smith had been named as a potential contender in the 2015 Labour leadership election to replace Ed Miliband.[7] Ultimately, nothing came of this.’ Quite so. No laughing in the back please.

    He is NOT a member of LFoI. Well that makes a change.

  • craig Post author


    I find the argument that we could not achieve independence were the SNP more internally democratic, entirely unconvincing.

  • Mary

    The current media concern is:

    Will he kneel, bow, curtsey, kiss her hand, kiss her on both cheeks, crawl on all fours in the style of a pilgrim to Santiago da Compostela, enter the room backwards, do a cartwheel,…………???

    Will Jeremy Corbyn kneel to the Queen at Privy Council ceremony?

    It’s Kuenssberg again needless to say.

    We will never know the answer.

  • Mary

    “We’re better off without each other” – an open letter to Blairite MPs
    Jeremy Gilbert 16 September 2015

    The Labour party isn’t getting back in its box, and Blairite MPs won’t get the careers they want from it anymore.

    Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See for more information, or follow @jemgilbert

    Earlier he also wrote:

    What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’
    28 July 2015
    To understand what a Corbyn win would mean we need to understand what happened in the 80s. Labour must start building beyond the party – it must be part of broader social currents.

  • Mary

    Top Labour donor calls for MPs to quit party
    Assem Allam has dismissed the Labour party as a ‘dead horse’

    One of Labour’s biggest donors has vowed to bankroll MPs who want to defect from the party as he branded Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the “beginning of the end”.

    Assem Allam, the multimillionaire owner of Hull City football club, said he would fund moderate figures prepared to launch a centrist party or defect to the Liberal Democrats.

    The Egyptian-born tycoon, who has donated £720,000 to Labour since 2010, had already dismissed the party as a ‘dead horse’ and he would no longer contribute cash.

    It goes on to say that John Mills, Jowell’s brother in law, has also pledged to stop funding the central party…….rest behind paywall.

  • Mark Golding

    But I very much fear the Blairites have put the Labour Party as an institution well beyond saving.’

    The Blairites rail against what they call Mr Corbyn’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ politics but on reflection is the ‘caucus’ not really a race to dry out but a meeting to iron out differences in order to present a unified front?

    Perhaps the proposer Blair himself is really the Dodo, now extinct. Even if the caucus was a race the prize presented by the Dodo belonged to the winner anyway demonstrating the sneaky, false and underhanded nature of one Blairite Dodo long departed in sagacious minds.

  • BrianFujisan

    Good Post Craig.

    There are areas where i think the SNP are moving Slow. But Do indeed think they are our Only route to Independence ( anytime within Years)
    i was always so angered that the SNP did not Get/ take your advice Re Eu Election monitors Benig Brought in.

    I also agree with Jim Sillars – we have to harness, Utilize all that new support.. Soon. Cos if Liebour start getting their act together, ??.. Pluss the way they ( Elite ) are tearing the world apart..we ALL might have more to worry about Shortly

    Well done Craig for sticking in there through the SNP rejections.

    P.s. The weather looks Good for Saturday.


    RoS 16 Sep, 2015 – 3:54 pm

    ” I wonder if Craig will be speaking? ”

    Saturday’s Hope Over Fear rally in Glasgow to mark a year since Scotland’s historic independence referendum boasts some impressive speakers.

    A wealth of musical talent is lined up to entertain the crowds, along with speakers from a variety of political parties and organisations.

    Why don’t you come on down and join in the celebrations.

    Craig Is indeed one of the Speakers.

  • N_

    I understand why talking about a second referendum plays well among the SNP’s new members, and probably also among many of their long-standing members, but why might it make any NO voters switch to them?

    Doesn’t it make them look like bad losers?

    What kind of NO voter thinks it doesn’t?

  • N_

    Laying the SNP to make a clean sweep of the FPTP seats looks like a good bet – more so once the liquidity builds and the spread narrows – even if to be cashed out later. 73 out of 73? I doubt it.

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