Reflections on democracy, diktat and despotism in the SNP

Kenny MacAskill argues all is not well in the house of the SNP if it is to lay the foundations for independence

Trenchant debate’s normal in politics. Parties and movements are broad churches with passionate beliefs and critical issues adding to the mix. The SNP’s iron discipline over recent years was in many ways an aberration, coming about through factors from the election of its first ever administration, to the delivery of a referendum. But time moved on and the terrain shifted. In years gone by when Labour dominated Scotland, much of Scottish politics took place within it or the wider Labour movement. Debates there were often robust but were fundamental for the success of the cause.

Now the SNP has supplanted Labour and the constitution has become the major political issue. It’s, therefore, perfectly understandable that it’s within the SNP, along with the wider ‘Yes’ movement that much debate takes place. Hopes within Unionist circles that it’s indicative of disintegration are wishful thinking. More surprising though have been calls from within the SNP almost demanding the closing down of debate or seeking to constrain actions across the wider nationalist movement. That’s more indicative of a fear of debate or a concern about losing control. The SNP cannot be the political equivalent of some strict Presbyterian sect, simply chorusing the chants of the precentor. The scale of the party now, let alone the nationalist movement, makes that a non-starter – never mind the fact that it’s entirely inappropriate in a membership-based body, as well as a democracy. Moreover, there are issues to discuss, and not just policy required, to win the next referendum. Recent actions or inactions can neither be ignored nor brushed aside, otherwise the movement will be weakened, and individuals lost to the cause. Openness is required and debate accordingly is both necessary and healthy.

The Scottish Parliament’s Salmond inquiry will unfold, and will have ramifications for SNP HQ, as well as senior officials within the Scottish Government. That’s as it should be. Probity is demanded as well as administrative competence expected in senior office, whether in government or party. It’ll be for the Holyrood committee to report but it’s hard to see how there won’t be casualties. The suggestion, or solace, perhaps sought by some, that this was a British civil service conspiracy was always fanciful. The fingerprints of senior party officials are all over this, and truth will out.

There’ll be turbulence but clearing the air is essential, as the party prepares for the next move forward. More worrying for many party members has been the political inertia from SNP HQ along with machinations more akin to political chicanery. It’s been that latter aspect which has fuelled most recent anger, especially the hatchet job on Joanna Cherry.

For the SNP has long prided itself on being a membership-based party where delegates decided and where bloc votes were disdained. Yet it appears that some groups have been accorded membership rights without any direct election by members. Some of these groups appear to have more interest in promoting their own narrow agenda than in pursuing the cause of independence.

Compounding that has been the flagrant Tammany Hall-style politics that were correctly derided by the SNP when it applied in other parties. Seeing individuals take decisions promoting their own self-interest whilst deliberately harming others has brought the NEC into contempt and put HQ in the spotlight.

Realisation of the outrage caused saw a roll back with James Dornan being re-instated, but the underlying anger remains and must be addressed. Many of those involved in those machinations are now seeking to parachute themselves into Holyrood seats. Shamefully, at the time that they were blocking others, they were preparing their media launches. They might find that they’ll be met with the contempt they deserve by local members.

For underpinning all the discontent has been a growing despair at the failure of SNP HQ to prepare for Indyref2. Even flagrant sins would be pardoned by some if progress was being made toward the Holy Grail. But instead, it’s been moribundity that’s prevailed. Whilst these individuals were preparing their news releases peppering every sentence with the word ‘independence’, they were presiding over a leadership doing little if anything to progress it.

As the SNP vote has increased and support for independence likewise, the case for it hasn’t been getting built in equal proportions. Rather than stitching up selection ballots, members were rightly expecting preparations were begun to achieve and win Indyref2. Polls are favourable and the British state is in turmoil under an incompetent administration. But no one underestimates the scale of the challenge that remains or the onslaught that will be launched in the future. That’s why there’s underlying anger and frustration.

Instead, we been presented with a self-satisfied parroting of opinion poll results rather than laying the groundwork for the real test to come. The Growth Commission was belated in its delivery and is now outdated in its content. And neither the issues that were pivotal in Indyref1 in 2014 such as currency and pensions nor the new ones post-Brexit of relations with the EU and borders have been addressed. That many see as not just negligent but criminal.

December 2019’s election changed the political situation, but SNP strategy hasn’t adjusted accordingly. Even the minor genuflexion to a constitutional convention has stalled. Coronavirus makes things difficult, but Ireland has still managed to negotiate a coalition government. Those are the reasons that there’s anger amongst members and change is being demanded by many. Debate there must be but most importantly policies must be prepared and strategy evolved for the coming challenges.

Kenny MacAskill has been the SNP MP for the East Lothian since 2019. Previously, he was a SNP MSP from 1999 to 2016. He was Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Government from 2007 until 2014.