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April 18, 2023

Six ideas for a new direction

You don’t need to have an active interest in Scottish politics to realise that something fairly seismic has been happening in recent weeks. Regardless of political stripe, these unfolding events have left the main protagonists slack-jawed and uncertain as to how to proceed. The political commentators have been having a field day, but in the main most of their content falls into the category of either attacking or defending long established positions. One contribution that has resonated with many and which tries to step back a little from all the heat, comes from Gerry Hassan in the Scottish Review.


Gerry Hassan, The Scottish Review

The SNP crisis continues. Every day at the moment sees drift, division, disunity and backbiting, with folk trying to say helpful things and putting their foot in it.

Welcome to the world of things going wrong, where the laws of political gravity and entropy reign, as bits of masonry continue to fall from the once impressive house of the SNP and its last custodians Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell. And it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better; so strap yourself in for what will be a bumpy ride.

This is all going to have huge consequences for Scottish politics, the SNP and independence. People across the political spectrum will need to rethink basic assumptions. But we have been at a similar place before when the long dominance of Scottish Labour imploded. While not exactly the same, it does offer some pointers of what to do and critically what not to do.

Humza Yousaf has been left presiding over the debris with little mandate or direction – and can at best hope to survive. His narrow 52:48 victory, the implosions in the SNP just off stage, and the fact that the media smell decay and drift (as indeed do many SNP members) are all adding to the sense of crisis.

Leading SNP figures are not helping as they try to adjust to the new realities. Even trying to steady the sinking ship gives a sense of the disorientation and panic in some of the upper echelons.

Michael Russell, acting SNP chief executive said: ‘In my 50-year association with the party, this is the biggest and most challenging crisis we’ve ever faced,’ and what is obvious, but will still be a shock to some: ‘I don’t think independence can be secured right now’. Ian Blackford, former Westminster leader, declared: ‘I would appeal to everyone in the party to come together,’ the implication being that everyone is not. Countless other quotes and interventions of senior SNP people are adding to the chaos, confusion and division.

The power and collapse of the SNP’s story of Scotland

Beyond this a deep malaise is evident. The SNP’s success was based on a powerful, convincing story of Scotland, the parliament and devolution. This had a major impact on the SNP victories of 2007 and 2011, particularly in comparison to the dearth of any Labour story about what the parliament and devolution they had campaigned for so long was meant to be for and achieve.

No longer can this be said of the SNP. They have exhausted the well from which they have drawn out their story of Scotland. They no longer have a convincing story of Scotland, the purpose of the parliament and the change it is meant to bring, or indeed, of Scotland’s future. Underpinning this is the wear and tear of 16 years of office and patchy record of the nationalists. Add to that the reality that independence is, as Russell pointed out, on the backburner for now. 

Something else is going on. ‘Labour Scotland’ from 1945-75 presented itself as the bright, optimistic articulation of modernity: advancing government and public intervention as an expression of the good society transforming life chances across the country in education, health, housing and the wider public realm. This version of Scotland eventually ran out of steam, unable to deal with rising individual aspirations, aided by Scottish Labour becoming driven by its own self-preservation, clientism and patronage.

The SNP’s ‘up’ years, from 2007 to 2014-15, were filled with a sense of purpose, possibility and its story of Scotland informed by a new found belief in modernity and a bright, shiny future where government and state would be progressive and enlightened. This was always something of a mirage, not understanding the lessons of the implosion of Labour Scotland, crisis of modernity and social democracy across the globe, or the widespread popular revolt against the state – thinking instead that Scotland and the SNP were somehow exempt from all of these.

This gathering crisis is informed by a shift in how people see authority, which was once all-powerful and pervasive in Scotland, and then seen as enlightened, benign and progressive at the high point of Labour Scotland from 1945-75. No longer can that be said of authority in Scotland or anywhere: part of a pattern whereby society has become more disputatious, argumentative and questioning, where all authority including that of professionals and experts has to continually win people’s trust. This is equally true of the SNP’s version of the state and its obvious limitations.

That tension between the SNP’s reinvention of modernity and a more self-organised, diverse Scotland was evident in the independence offer of 2014. And it has become a chasm in the years since to the point today where the nationalist vision of modernity and its story of Scotland have become increasingly unconvincing.

Just over 10 years ago at the first ever talk on my book The Strange Death of Labour Scotland at the SOLAS Festival, the first question after my presentation came from Andy Wightman, land reform campaigner and future Green MSP. Andy asked with an element of soft provocation how long it would take for ‘the strange death of nationalist Scotland to come true and to what extent was it inevitable and shared common characteristics with the demise of Labour?’ It was a good observation a decade ago and a good one now: the descent of SNP Scotland was always written into its contradictions and limitations. 

Sections of the SNP are shellshocked by these developments, seeking solace in tales of unionist perfidy and ganging up against our brave nationalist heroes and heroines. There is the diversionary anger at Douglas Ross, Scottish Tory leader, for suggesting that people could tactically vote Labour to defeat the SNP, with lots of energy being expended on how outrageous this is and nothing more than a unionist attempt to reinvent ‘Better Together’.

One veteran SNP member at a recent Leith meeting I was speaking at asked me, after my critique of the state of the party and independence: ‘Do you like the SNP?’ She was clearly looking for reassurance in a world turned upside down, compared to a few months ago. Afterwards, I thought how understandable it was and could visualise similar comments being made in a cold Maryhill Burgh Halls Labour Party meeting 20 years previous: symbolic of a party losing its way and place.

What should the SNP and independence do? For a start, they need to understand that the political weather is changing and the years of dominance have come at a price. People can debate the obvious differences between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership styles but there is a cumulative cost of 16 years in office, presidential politics and gathering power to the political centre, while diminishing other power centres such as local government and the voluntary sector.

Add to this the blunt fact that the SNP under Salmond and Sturgeon morphed into a court party – characterised by access, patronage and privilege – and the SNP became a system party representing an insider class version of politics. The similarities with what Scottish Labour turned into are stark, as indeed is the uncomfortable reality that both parties hid behind vague abstracts in the distant future – ‘socialism’ and ‘independence’ – to offer a veneer over their conservative politics.

Politics will get tougher for the SNP. Opponents will become galvinised and the elections of 2024 and 2026 more difficult. The political generation of Yousaf and Kate Forbes who have only known the good times will struggle to adapt to such a different political environment, as will many of the grass roots members. 

Mapping out a different direction for Scotland and independence 

Here are six suggestions for a change of direction, different SNP and version of independence. First, think about policy. Scottish politics, despite 24 years of the parliament and hundreds of laws, is policy light. Many parliamentary acts are tidying up exercises undertaken by a civil service mindset. Thinking about policy which addresses big stuff – child poverty, early years, revitalising local government – would be a good start.

Second, policy is not everything. Delivery and practice matters, something politicians and many academics ignore. Delivery and practice is how real, sustainable change happens and is often messy. The Sistema Big Noise Orchestras; the work of the Violence Reduction Unit; the spaces where local champions bring people together and make a difference, often despite, not because of the system.

Third, focus on the ‘missing Scotland’ – those marginalised, forgotten and let down by the official narrative that our country is getting fairer and more equal. One major scar on the complacent story of Scotland is our disgraceful drug death total – the highest anywhere in Europe per head – aided by cuts to frontline services.

Fourth, Scotland’s policy community is poorly supported and ill-equipped to contribute as constructively as it could. There are too few places of expertise which aid deep thinking and bring together people beyond those whose self-interest and status is interwoven with official narratives of devolved Scotland. Independence needs a pro-independence research body and think tank but so too does Scotland’s centre-left constituency; indeed, we need a plethora of such initiatives.

Fifth, stop buying into and giving sustenance to ‘the official story’ of Scotland: that we are a community more moral, enlightened and progressive than elsewhere. The SNP version of this has said until recent events that Scotland is the one country in which social democracy has stood up and remains unbowed. This was always delusional and Scottish exceptionalism, considering the scale of our inequalities on any measurement. But it also overlaps with the official story of Scotland – of devolution and the insider class slowly making incremental progress without shifting power or threatening their privileged position. Any politics of real change – egalitarian, rooted in social justice, and any version of independence connected to everyday life – would relentlessly question this.

Sixth, a politics of depth, reflection and pluralism, which aids an ecology of ideas, has to link to and be informed by a new story of Scotland – or, more accurately, a set of stories. This new story/stories has to be less about the parliament, devolution and even independence as an abstract. It should be firmly focused on the kind of society we want to live in and create, the kind of people we want to be collectively, how we connect to and support one another, and the networks and relationships we build to nurture better lives.

This is about a kind of Scotland focused on self-government and self-determination made real and tangible: in the everyday exchanges and relationships we have, in our lives and communities, and shifting power from that supposedly benign all-knowing political centre all across Scotland.

That kind of vision – breaking with the limits of devolution, official stories, insider class politics and the patronage of the court party – would be a dramatic shift compared to the past 16 years and 24 years of the Scottish parliament. It would require a different SNP and different idea of political and social change as well as independence.

But then every crisis carries within it the birth pains of the new and opportunity. No-one should ever think long-term political change is easy, but now is a moment to take stock and map out a different direction and future.