Kenny MacAskill reviews how the SNP will act after its leadership received a recent bloody lip.
Where now for the SNP after its annual national conference in November? A virtual event is always likely to have the atmosphere of a football match without fans – interesting to watch but lacking the passion and intensity, never mind conviviality of the real thing. The SNP conference proved to be no different and, as with a football match, it was more the result that mattered – though in this case not the final score but the outcome of the internal elections.
The inevitability of the atmosphere was ensured by a leadership that sought to make resolutions as anodyne as possible and ensure that debates, whilst still having some fine speeches, lacked the fire and cut and thrust of a radical motion to a packed auditorium. Indeed, such was the insipid nature of the composited motions and the ensuing grievance felt by many that an alternative fixture hosted allowing for popular resolutions that had been neutered to be heard proved to be hugely popular. Indeed, it was better attended than some parts of the official fixture.
That the outcome of the elections mattered to the leadership though was shown by actions before it happened and the reaction of some after it occurred. Prior to the voting, leadership attack dogs were unleashed heaping both invective on supposed factionalism and castigating individuals perceived as a threat. Yet criticising internal groupings within the party was both nonsensical and hypocritical.
All political parties are broad churches and few if any agree with every policy, let alone word. Of course, groups which seek to infiltrate and undermine are in another category but nobody was suggesting that of those involved in the SNP. Likewise, democratic centralism has fallen with the Communist Party and political parties are there to debate and deliver change and not act as leadership fan clubs. The hypocrisy was also evident in the heavy promotion by the leadership machine that took place for chosen favourites or anointed ones. It happens in all parties and under all regimes, but it was obvious if not flagrant in this case, especially as conference neared and their fears grew.
Moreover, internal debate is healthy and can sometimes even be cathartic. Rather than running from discussion on major issues that divide, having a passionate debate and reaching an agreed conclusion can unite a party. That has been seen in the SNP on past controversial issues ranging from the Constitutional Convention to NATO. The neutering of important and topical issues at this most recent conference simply spurred the clamour for change.
That change was by no means a tidal wave but it was still a sea change from what had gone before. Many senior players and leadership favourites were ousted, to be replaced by individuals that had been denounced, either specifically as to who they were or more generally for being on a list that endorsed them. The petulant reaction of some and the almost hysterical social media shrieking of others that followed the result also confirmed the leaderships antipathy to the outcome.
The election victors were an amalgam of groupings and, indeed, individuals. Though lists of nominees to vote for were coordinated, there were still wide variances amongst them. The alliance included those seeking to protect women’s rights, the Common Weal group from the left and old party stalwarts. What united them was an opposition to a ‘woke’ faction perceived as having latched on to the SNP as well as a desire for a firmer push for independence.
The alliance represented a desire of many to reclaim their party and put it back on a more radical road on independence and other social and economic issues. There was genuine anger within the party on policies that were moving the party to a position of concentrating on gender and identity issues, rather than country or even class. The debate had been simmering amongst parliamentary representatives and especially on social media for some time but this was the first opportunity for rank-and-file members to express their views, and it was to be prove pretty overwhelming.
Of course, as in all political parties in government, power remains with the Leader and direction is still largely set from Ministerial office. However, it’s clear that notwithstanding that iron rule of politics, some change will still come, and more importantly internal party debate will accentuate and accelerate on the fundamental issue of independence and how it’s to be achieved. But as well as policy changes, there could well be further personnel ones.
For to all intents and purposes, it was also a vote against the management of the party. Trust in the party’s administrative machine has been eroding and much ire has been fixed upon the Chief Executive. As the party leader’s and, indeed First Minister’s spouse, many felt his position untenable when she acceded to those offices. Since then, respect for and faith in party HQ has been diminishing for a variety of reasons from election handling to membership disputes. As he now finds himself in the eye of the storm at the Salmond Inquiry, he may well find that for political staff, as with government ministers, when you yourself become the story then your days are numbered. Whether by his departure or simply the greater scrutiny afforded by new office holders, changes at SNP HQ seem inevitable. With an election looming that can only be a good thing as a trust is essential and needs rebuilt.
The first policy casualty looks set to be Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill that has proven so divisive within the party. Given the heavy defeat of the ‘Woke Brigade’, allied with increasing tensions, an early burial of that policy seems likely. With a parliamentary defeat almost certain, continuing the self-inflicted harm is frankly ludicrous. It has already seen many women abandon their membership and continuing with it will only worsen that. Hopefully, the make-up of the new NEC can ensure its culled along with its leading proponents.
The Hate Crime and Public Order Bill has caused similar, if slightly less concern, though abandoning that is more problematic given its position in the legislative machinery. However, the likelihood is of further concessions to try to ameliorate concerns. The danger though is of leaving the Bill so anodyne that it’s acceptable to opponents but ends up leaving both them and proponents equally dissatisfied with the final outcome.
However, the most significant debate in the SNP, as indeed arguably in the country, remains on the constitution and a second independence referendum. The leadership closed down debate on ‘Plan B’ as it’s called at conference but the interest in it was shown by the attendance at the parallel gathering. With the political makeup of the new NEC avoiding debate is untenable. Moreover, as the consequences of Brexit are felt, Boris Johnson remains intransigent on agreeing to a Section 30 (S30) Order and an election nears, then a strategy will need detailed.
Already, the leadership has required to offer an Assembly for debate. That will be wholly inadequate and will likely just increase the clamour for an alternative to a ‘Boris veto’, as it is termed. With the court case on the ability to hold a referendum without such an order proceeding, it’s another factor to be woven in.
At the moment, the leadership position is that there’ll be a referendum in 2021. It’s a mantra chant that simply echoes what was shouted in 2020. Yet there was never any likelihood of a poll in Autumn 2020 even before coronavirus befell the globe. So long as the SNP policy requires the concession of a S30 Order by Johnson, then it’s difficult to see how that’s practically possible.
Even if, as seems to be the hope of leadership loyalists, Johnson blinks after the May elections, then the practicalities of convening a new Scottish Government, agreeing terms with an existing British Government and, thereafter, getting the approval of the Electoral Commission for a campaign period – let alone poll – all mean that 2021 will be impossible.
There is no evidence that Johnson will fold in a political poker game which would leave the SNP high and dry having granted him that absolute veto. This will be a rather strange position for a party that bases itself on the rights of the Scottish people to find itself in. But even if Johnson does concede one then, other problems arise so long as it’s the agreement of Westminster not just the will of the Scottish people that’s required.
Perhaps, the Tories would feel that a snap poll would be best for them. Possible. But if it follows an electoral defeat why would they? More likely they’d seek to delay until what they would consider to be the optimum time for them – perhaps, 2023 or 2024. By which time a Scottish Government devoid of fiscal levers will be reaping the whirlwind of poverty and unemployment caused by a cocktail of austerity, Brexit and coronavirus. Meanwhile, a UK government having resolved the enemy abroad in the EU can turn its attentions inwards and northwards to Scotland. Britain will also more likely have stabilised from the convulsions of Brexit and maybe even made have a new PM.
Moreover, besides timing, there’s no guarantee that conditions won’t be added that would undermine the independence campaign. It could be as crass as 1979 (with the 40% rule amendment) or could be more subtle. Either way, assumptions by the SNP leadership that it’ll simply be a rerun of 2014 seem naïve in the extreme and ignore the history of the British state.
With Britain never having been in a weaker position since wartime and the situation for Scotland worsening by the day, with the threats from Tory constitutional, economic and social policies, pressure will only increase upon the SNP leadership. A way out may be offered by the court case on whether a S30 Order is required though it would still require a change of heart, as well as the indication of an intention to proceed before May’s Poll.
Recalling Robin Williams in The Dead Poets’ Society, the SNP’s various ‘Mr Keatings’ have the courage the Scottish Government’s Lord Advocate clearly lacks. In the event of the court case being unsuccessful, then the clamour to make the election a plebiscite would only increase. That would probably be a step to far for the current leadership though many rank and file seek it.
Of course, politics is driven not just by policies but by events. There are issues, if not icebergs, heading the SNP’s way. They won’t be without consequence and may well increase internal party pressure for more radical action. Notwithstanding that with the major issue remaining the constitution and the opposition remaining hapless, then it’s hard to anything other than continued SNP dominance. The tectonic plates have shifted between Scotland and England, as once geology brought them together, politics is now pushing them apart. The constitutional issue now transcends everything including perhaps political parties.
The party leadership would do well to remember the 2003 election. There the SNP did badly and was the story. The situation seems reversed now with Labour facing even further roll-back, as the SNP experienced back then. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that although Labour remained dominant in constituency seats, their list vote broke to a variety of parties including Socialists, Greens and even a Pensioners’ Party. With some women’s votes having already haemorrhaged from the SNP to a Women’s list party, vacillation on independence could see a similar scenario play out on that issue. Who knows, but after the conference vote, what can be said is that ‘old’ SNP is back and a new stage in the constitutional battle is coming.
Kenny MacAskill is the (SNP) MP for East Lothian