Why are the SNP’s politics so cautious and can they really change?

Five years after the indyref and three years after the Brexit vote Scottish politics feels full of pent up pressures, but stuck in a holding pattern.

Gerry Hassan
17 October 2019, 10.37am
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister and SNP leader, addressing the SNP conference, 15/10/19
Han Yan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The SNP, who met this week at their annual conference in Aberdeen, are by far the leading party in Scotland. Yet their dominance can be overstated, it being aided by the fragmentation of multi-party politics, divided opposition and the negatives of Labour and Tories. The most recent Panelbase poll put the SNP on Westminster voting intentions on 39%, up 2.1% on 2017, with the Tories on 21% (-7.6%), Labour 20% (-7.1%) and Lib Dems 13% (+6.2%); on a national swing this would give the SNP 48 seats (+13), Tories 5 (-8), Lib Dems 5 (+1) and Labour one (-6).

Steve Richards’ recent book ‘The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May’ cites Tony Benn’s idea of politicians who change the political weather as ‘teachers’. Sad to say none of the current politicians in this land would qualify as such leaders. Who were the last teachers in our politics? Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown to an extent; Tommy Sheridan on the margins; maybe Jim Sillars and Margo MacDonald would qualify too. It is obvious from this list that sometimes such a role comes with baggage, hubris and the propensity to self-destruct. But for a nation that prides itself on its idealism we have been short of politicians who have successfully transformed attitudes.

Mandates aren’t legal entities – they are perishable and need renewal

On the surface Sturgeon’s announcement on Sunday that she will request a Section 30 order before the end of the year felt significant. Section 30 is the part of the Scotland Act 1998 which allows a ‘constitutional issue’ (such as holding another independence referendum) to be temporarily devolved. But the reality is now very different. Sturgeon has spent the last two and a half years advancing an indyref in a series of false starts, mixed signals and playing for time, which has looked often like the negation of being a leader.

Since March 2017 - when Sturgeon made an attempt to call an indyref and was blocked by Theresa May - she has been going through the motions, trying to keep the foot-soldiers on board and hoping this stops all but the usual troublemakers from asking inconvenient questions like ‘Where is Plan B’ if Westminster, as is likely, says no?

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There is little chance of an indyref in 2020 and before the 2021 elections. This has been the implicit Sturgeon approach since the 2017 rebuff, but she hasn’t openly fessed up to it, leaving the troops in the dark. Even if a Corbyn minority Labour Government took power after the next UK election, the prospects of an independence vote in the next 12 to18 months are slender. Corbyn has said he will not ‘block’ an indyref, but is not minded to a vote in the ‘formative years’ of a government.

Then there is the reality that little preparatory work has been done by Sturgeon and the SNP. There is a framework bill going through the Scottish Parliament and a White Paper is being written, but there is no wider strategy, no reframing of the key arguments, and no big questions confronted about independence. In two critical areas the lack of work is telling - five years from 2014 there has been no post-mortem on that defeat, or any SNP conference debate about independence.

The politics of mandate-ism matter because they are never as clear as partisans claim. The SNP leadership had a mandate from May 2016 when they were elected as a minority government, having (in association with the Greens) a pro-independence parliamentary majority. Mandates aren’t legal entities. They are perishable, and need to be constantly made, remade and renewed. The SNP have wasted away their mandate with the ‘teacher’ element of political leadership completely missing from their politics.

Scotland is not a social democracy

This leads us to the state of the SNP and the recent critique by Robin McAlpine, head of CommonWeal. In his broad analysis, McAlpine makes a number of sanguine points about the limits of SNP leadership, politics and policy, but makes the root of the problem too focused on Nicola Sturgeon, when there is a much wider deficit in the SNP and our politics.

This is not a social democratic government. ‘Social democracy’ in the UK and West became in recent times a phrase meaning ‘not right-wing’. Hence, Hillary Clinton, Emmanuel Macron, even German Christian Democrats, have been called ‘social democrats’, a usage which is completely debasing the term. Social democracy means redistribution from those with power and wealth: something the SNP has shown no real interest in.

This is a government of Scotland’s insider classes and new establishment, listening as McAlpine says to corporate lobbyists, privatisers and outsourcers; in the former from the likes of Charlotte Street Partners, to in the latter the likes of Serco and Abellio who run public services with no real interest for the public good – from the Highlands and islands ferries to the ScotRail franchise.

Supporting human relationships is central to the positive power of government and public agency. This is about imbuing them with positive, progressive, collaborative values such as solidarity, interconnectedness, interdependence, trust, nurturing people from cradle to grave, looking after those who are most disadvantaged, and addressing power dynamics and inequalities.

We know the negatives and positives in the charge sheet. The negatives include a government which repeatedly goes for symbolism and announcements over substance. An illuminating example is the introduction of baby boxes, pioneered in Finland. A friend who specialises in early years and knows Finland well brought the idea of the baby boxes back to Scotland and was involved in their design here. He kept saying to advisers and ministers that the Finnish example showed that the boxes and their contents were secondary to the relationships and support built around the boxes and parents. In short, the boxes were a catalyst for a different kind of state and for building new connections and trust. Our government saw them more as an announcement that could be ticked off, and something that could be easily communicated as an idea.

The positives often happen further afield from direct control of central government. Take the pioneering, celebrated work of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. They became a success because they had autonomy, took risks, and embodied the central concept of empowering people to take responsibility for their own lives.

Other examples include a range of inspiring community projects - Galgael in Govan, Govanhill Baths and Kinning Park Complex on Glasgow’s Southside, and the Big Noise Orchestra that operates in four of our cities (the second of which I am a Board member). But this uplifting work and these contributions to ‘the common good’ and well-being seem too seldom to be taken up and reflected in government thinking. Rather, in many cases, even the most innovative examples have to operate in a climate of competitive funding and labyrinths of bureaucratic decision making that appear to be made to disempower people and remind them who really controls and runs things. Twenty years into devolved Scotland we are not making progress in this area, for all the ‘community empowerment’ rhetoric, with too many officials seeming to relish the role of gatekeepers and mini-empire builders.

Where now for the SNP?

Sturgeon’s keynote speech to SNP conference involved the pretence that she is planning for an indyref in the latter stages of 2020: when the likelihood is that she is using this as a cover for knowing she will be refused by Westminster and run on a democratic mandate in the 2021 elections on the mantle of who is best placed to decide the future of Scotland: its people or politicians in London. Who knows, it could even have a populist edge.

It is a stance not entirely honest, inviting doubt and cynicism, and adding to the widening gap between the official story of Nationalist Scotland and the harsher realities. The official version recites as a mantra that a ‘fairer, better Scotland’ is being made through a thousand plus initiatives, working parties and micro-funds, but beyond the ministerial class no one believes such hollow talk.

This soothing rhetoric is insulting the intelligence of voters who can see underfunded services and demoralised staff. It is not surprising that public satisfaction with public services has reached an all-time low according to the Scottish Household Survey: 51.9% now have satisfaction with education, health and public transport, compared to a peak of 66% in 2011. It is a small but gigantic ask of our politicians and those who see themselves as leaders: tell voters the truth, even inconvenient truths.

Many mainstream politicians in Scotland and the UK don’t really trust voters. They have learnt from the New Labour era the arts of media manipulation, repeating the same simple messages and command and control ‘grid’ politics. This is what drove Blair and Brown, the Cameroon Conservatives, and which created the cynicism and disconnect which fuelled Brexit. The same is true of the modern SNP leadership.

Yet, Scottish voters are often way ahead of the worst instincts of the political classes. Voters know public spending and taxation involves tough choices; they know that good public services have to be paid for and that privatisation and outsourcing is about cost-cutting and profiteering. They know that any viable independence will involve difficult choices in the early years, and entail financial constraints and trade-offs. As one independence activist and blogger ‘Wilderness of Peace’ put it on the opening day of SNP conference and said of the party’s dominance:

They are here by the consent of a politically informed, active, and very very opinionated Scottish electorate … You really think the same Scottish electorate who completely revolutionised Scottish politics within the space of a few years can't do it again? Aye, we can.

Scotland’s role in the 21st century global conversation

The SNP’s predicament isn’t just about them or the current leadership. It is part of a longer story. This is centred on the limitations of devolution which was designed by Labour with the express aim of minimising change and of shoring up the domestic status quo with the establishment of a Parliament.

This minimal version of devolution under Labour has been inherited by the SNP who have taken it as their vision – alongside a supposedly risk-averse continuity version of independence. But this is unsustainable. It poses independence as a shelter from the powerful tail winds blowing through Brexit and the economic and geo-political storms circling the globe, when such guarantees can no longer hold. At home it faces increasing pressure from the decline of deference, the increased challenging of authority, demographic pressures as Scotland ages, and the scale and endurance of our inequality.

Politically this is exasperated by the absence of a coherent political threat to the SNP from the left: aided by the long-term decline of Scottish Labour. Maybe this could come in the future from the Greens or a new force, but for now that absence has cost politics dear and allowed the SNP’s light touch centre-leftism to float off into an ill-defined centrism.

Those who want fundamental change to this country not just constitutionally, but economically, socially and in the daily life chances and experiences of people, know that something has to change. A nationalist project isn’t enough. Neither is defensive social democracy focused on the middle classes.

Rather we are going to have to come up with a persuasive over-arching philosophy of power, agency and change: one which deals with the limits of economic growth, the environmental crisis, the self-interest and destructive nature of corporate capitalism, and the potential and constraints on government to be a force for good.

This in effect is the terrain for a new enlightened and progressive credo for humanity in the 21st century. In this search Scotland is, not surprisingly, part of a crowded conversation taking place all across the developed world. Wouldn’t it be heartening if we in Scotland could contribute creatively and positively to that global search for a solution?

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