The SNP Must Sell a Radical Vision, not just Managerial Competence 304


I have a confession to make. I kept my opinion of the SNP’s election campaign from you in order not to hurt the SNP during the campaign. I did however express it deep in James Kelly’s comments pages 12 days ago.

Yes, the SNP won the election in Scotland. 35 out of 59 seats is a clear majority. The Tories only have 13 Scottish seats. That is just 21% so there is no sense in which the Tories “won” Scotland. Do not believe the media lies.

But it remains the case that Theresa May is only able to cling on to No.10 because of the gains the Tories made from the SNP in Scotland. That is shameful and must be squarely faced.

There is a vital truth here. Support for Independence itself remains at almost exactly the same level as it was in 2015 when the SNP swept to 56 seats. Many opinion polls measured support for Independence during the campaign and their range was 42% to 54% for Independence.

So the SNP fall in MPs was not because of a drop in support for Independence. It was rather because the SNP failed the cause of Independence. Specifically they failed even to seek to present a radical and transformative view of what an Independent Scotland might look like.

In 2015 the SNP vote almost exactly equated to the level of support for Independence. Now the SNP vote underperforms Independence support by 10%.

This is not unfortunate. It is an entirely foreseeable consequence of a deliberate and wrong decision by the SNP leadership. They never once, at any time, made the case for Independence during the election campaign. Rather they fell straight into the trap laid by the unionists, of defending their government record in Holyrood.

Scotland’s lack of Independence leads to a constant drain on our resources in a massively London-centric economy. Our money is sucked down there and much of our best talent leaves to work in UK-HQ corporations and ministries based there. That is a different argument to the equally vital one that we are tied in to a neo-liberal austerity programme that prevents us from growing our economy, and to a number of completely inappropriate policies including on immigration.

Bound hand and foot by these constraints, the SNP has struggled at Holyrood – with very great skill – to manage matters as best they can to mitigate the Tory damage in Scotland, within the limited resources they are allowed. But this is utterly different to the situation if Scotland were an independent country and Holyrood a real parliament, and not what it actually is – a glorified regional council.

In this situation, where everything is stacked to ensure its failure, the SNP strategists boneheadedly accepted to fight on the enemy’s chosen ground. What the SNP offered in this election in no way stirred the blood, not even of their own supporters. The SNP did not mention the struggle for national freedom or the kind of country we will build if Independent. It rather attempts to win the support of the Scottish people by offering competent managerialism. “Don’t be scared, we are not nasty nationalists, we are harmless technocrats” is the line.

I hope the hard lesson of this election has been learned. You cannot manage Scotland with competence within the madhouse which is the Tory UK. You are on a hiding to nothing explaining that you can.

Yes it is indeed true that the media unfairly and deliberately, in every interview with Nicola Sturgeon, honed in on devolved matters irrelevant to a Westminster election. That was wrong of the media. But Sturgeon happily wandered around in their labyrinthine trap for long periods, providing lengthy and rational ripostes on educational attainment for 7 year olds. Above all, she emphasised it was not her who wanted to talk about a second referendum, it was that Ruth Davidson.

Sturgeon hotly denied she wanted to talk about Independence at all, saying only the Unionists kept bringing it up. It was a clever debating society point, but by refusing to make the case for Independence – and by appearing to concede it was a difficult area for her – Sturgeon was damaging the Independence cause and ultimately the SNP.

What Nicola Sturgeon should have done is the precise opposite of what she did do.

She should have taken every precious moment of TV time to outline the positive case for Independence, to declare her determination to achieve Independence, and to achieve it within the next Westminster parliament. She should have slammed Trident and slammed the British kowtowing to Saudi Arabia and to Donald Trump, and stated that Scotland should be an independent country with its own foreign and defence policy. She should have slammed austerity and Tory cuts and said that Scotland needs to be an independent country with its own economic policy that will look after its struggling, its disabled and its aged. She should have slammed Brexit and stated it is going to destroy the Scottish economy, and that Scotland needs to be an independent country within the EU.

Sturgeon did refer to all of these policy areas. But her entire dialogue was framed around how they should be tackled within a devolution settlement. Independence was almost entirely avoided as something that might scare the horses.

Much of The SNP campaign echoed the Tories in spin doctored meaninglessness. The pictures of activists holding up placards saying “Stronger for Scotland”, and repetition of the constant mantra about strengthening Nicola Sturgeon’s hand in talks, was just a mirror image of Theresa May. I find it worrying in principle and it was as electorally counterproductive as I knew it would be.

Nicola Sturgeon adopted a deliberate policy of being all things to all men. She ran a campaign designed to say the SNP can attract the votes of unionists and the votes of Brexiteers. She attempted a “mother of the whole country” routine. Putting out the message that anybody can vote SNP because it doesn’t believe in anything much, it is just competent. This was incredibly stupid. It did not work and it did not deserve to.

Anyone can see that there is a worldwide mood of insurgency against the neo-liberal establishment. The fantastic Yes street campaign was absolutely a part of that. Corbyn has grabbed that mood and ran an inspired insurgency campaign. A great many Independence supporters – including some of my family – voted Labour yesterday to support the Corbyn insurgency, after being active members of the Yes insurgency. They still support Independence.

But in an age of insurgency politics, for the SNP to choose to run its entire election campaign on the basis of being a safe managerial political establishment for Scotland, was such a crass decision that it beggars belief. Many radicals went to Labour, while many of those who do like a comfortable political establishment decided they would rather have the real Tory version.

I greatly fear that the SNP will now compound the error by backing away from the second referendum and pushing Independence even further to the back-burner. The SNP needs to do the opposite. It needs to rediscover the Spirit of Independence and reconnect to the Scottish people. And it needs to sack the great raft of highly paid, besuited, professional spin doctors and political advisers I see going in and out of SNP HQ every day (I live next door). They look indistinguishable from their New Labour and Tory cousins and are a class of people the Independence movement really does not need.

One little anecdote. I have a large balcony overlooking Dynamic Earth, in a very prominent position and busy area. I wandered in to SNP HQ to see if they could give me a really big banner or poster to put up. The place was absolutely crammed with besuited spin doctors talking earnestly to each other and very much looking down their noses at me, resenting my intrusion into their space. They had hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of spin doctors, but no poster bigger than a tiny A3. That says it all for me.

I voted for Tommy Sheppard. I did so with pride and I am delighted he is back in. After a period of semi-detachment from the SNP, I am going to be more active inside it to argue for a much more radical and definite attachment to Independence upfront and at all times. And to make sure that the SNP is a quick route to Independence, and not just a quick route to a political class career path. In practice, building any other vehicle than the SNP to carry forward the Yes movement would be almost impossible.

As an institution in itself, the SNP is a very successful institution. There is no denying it. But as a vehicle for actual Independence, it is stationary with the handbrake on, and as a vehicle for radicalism its battery is flat and it has become positively inert. But let’s not abandon it, let’s try a push start.

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304 thoughts on “The SNP Must Sell a Radical Vision, not just Managerial Competence

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  • Dennis

    Excellent analysis from an all too rare heroic ex- high ranking Diplomat; most of whom when push comes to shove are pusillanimous a-holes …

  • Aonghais

    Excellent article, I felt I was reading what had been in my head all through the campaign. There was no spark among the heather, trying to be all things to all people, continually on the defensive. I also kept quiet, well almost, another than announcing that I could not vote SNP because their candidate, the sitting MP, was a soulless man in a suit who toed the party line and did not represent or support the serious concerns of his electorate. He lost his seat to the Libdems. I had voted SNP and supported independence all my life, I’m now 65 and if the SNP get back on the independence track and restore the fire in the belly then I will vote SNP again.

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