Can the SNP ever be kind again?

by | 28 Feb 2023

The SNP, a model of internal tolerance, unity and discipline six or seven years ago, is now an angry, bitter, factionalised mess that seems permanently at war with itself. If it ever wants to rediscover its inner kindness it must change. Urgently.

I think I am due a unionist an apology. During the independence referendum I was chatting with a senior unionist I like and respect. We were bemoaning the stupid, intemperate things the online fringes of both our campaigns were posting on social media. He said ‘of course the difference is that on your side it’s being coordinated from SNP HQ’.

I told him I thought that was a bit of a conspiracy theory and was unsure people needed help to be idiots online. I fairly soon came to believe that I was wrong. It became easier to see after the campaign when the shitstorms from the indy community stopped pointing towards the other side and started to target people inside the independence movement.

And this wasn’t random; the massive social media pile-ons were, without fail, always on people that SNP HQ wanted suppressed. I saw it with Rise. I saw it with the Scottish Independence Convention. I saw it with Natalie McGarry and Michelle Thompson. I saw it over and over – people who were seen as some kind of challenge or some kind of embarrassment would get ‘spontaneous’ punishment beatings.

(Read Holyrood Magazine’s Mandy Rhodes on her experience of ‘having a target put on her back’.)

And not just spontaneous – for some reason everyone involved agreed their language in advance. Then again, I know someone who was sent a series of attack lines directly from Peter Murrell with the suggestion of various places to use those attack lines. And I know someone who was invited to the meeting where people were coached on how to attack Alex Salmond after his trial.

In some ways this isn’t entirely remarkable – the media departments of political parties have been ‘suggesting’ letters that can be sent to newspapers in the name of ‘readers’ all the time. But I’ve never known a party to be quite as consistently vicious – and that’s including the Tories (who really can be vicious about each other) and those involved in the ‘get Corbyn’ campaign (though they give SNP HQ a run for its money on nastiness stakes).

It has been a matter of some bemusement to me that this hasn’t been commented on more. It has been raised in relation to the Gender Recognition process where the extremely angry attacks on ‘transphobes’ were quite apparent. But these attacks spread out in every direction. I was certainly on the receiving end many times (and that was even before I was being critical).

It is also a matter of some bemusement how often commentators would commend Nicola Sturgeon for how high-minded she was in not stooping to invective in her politics. Yes sure she didn’t – she had her husband out the back beating her hand-picked targets with baseball bats.

The massive divisions in the independence movement didn’t just happen, they were manufactured

The massive divisions in the independence movement didn’t just happen, they were manufactured. People were deliberately isolated and attacked. It was part of the process of control. Do that for a few years and you create a critical mass of people who have been mistreated. That is territory ripe for bitterness and division.

I mention all this now only because I thought we might be getting beyond that horrible phase in Scottish politics. Naturally I was being naïve, because the thug squad seem to be back out in strength during the current leadership election.

It is generally accepted that that campaign has got quite unpleasant quite quickly. It is here once again that I want to draw the distinctions. I know for a fact that Ash Regan’s campaign not only didn’t authorise personal attacks on her opponents, her campaign made real efforts to stop people (particularly Alba members) from attacking on her behalf.

I also know for sure that Kate Forbes’s team had not intended to go down the personal attack route on the other candidates. Both of those candidates are standing (in different ways) on a ‘post-division’ platform. They are trying to dial down the anger, not least because if either wins they will be presiding over what is left.

So this has been largely unidirectional aggression, and it is from the same group of loyalist hit-men-and-women as we have become used to over the last few years. It has polluted this contest in exactly the same way as it has polluted the independence movement.

I’ve made clear that I think that Kate’s personal religious position makes it difficult to sustain her candidature. But (and this is genuinely true) while I’ve never met her I can say hand on heart that every single person I’ve ever spoken to who knows her speaks highly of her as a person.

That is irrespective of ideology (I know lefties and neoliberal economics types who are equally generous towards) – I can’t only conclude that she must be a warm, kind and generous individual. So I’ll tell you what, when I see the ganging-up against her and the personalisation of it, all it does is make me more sympathetic to her camp.

I now hope she really does stick it out to the end and I hope that she does get a chance to outline her vision beyond her religious beliefs. I still think she has a very important role to play in Scotland and the Murrell goon squad seem to me not just content to disadvantage her in the campaign, they seem to want to destroy her as a person.

This is an all-out assault. The decision to set this as a two week contest and then demand that candidates do eight hustings all over the country is outrageous. Kate has a newborn baby. This appears designed to do her maximum personal damage. (And of course it favours the candidate who has all the party machinery behind them.)

Here’s the thing which is disconcerting about all of this – Humza Yousef is someone I can also say that even in private, everyone I’ve spoken to thinks he’s a good man. Not necessarily good at his job, but a genuinely kind and well-meaning man.

So I hoped that, as the candidate, he might put a stop to the reflexive nastiness of the SNP machine. But he clearly hasn’t. I doubt he’s authorising this, but he’s turning a blind eye while Peter Murrell does.

The impunity with which some people have behaved and the clear complicity of those who should be preventing doesn’t offer a lot of hope that a kinder SNP is round the corner

So I have a question – is it now beyond the ability of the SNP to be kind? This kind of thing simply wasn’t happening say seven or eight years ago. OK, there were tense moments in SNP history around the 79 Group or the debate which led to the SNP pulling out of the Constitutional Convention. Every party has personal animosities to deal with.

But with the SNP this is starting to look endemic. It seems like nothing can happen without division being driven for sectarian purposes. To such an extent has it become endemic that people are starting to forget that the SNP was famed for it unity up until about five year ago.

Is this now just a fundamentally nasty party? I know people whose experience of bullying in the SNP has driven them not just out of the party but out of the independence movement. The intensity of some of that bullying has been at times painful to see.

I can find no other way to perceive this problem now – Murrell is a threat to civil politics in Scotland and something should have been done about it by now. I hoped that the end of the Sturgeon regime would hasten that. But if by ‘continuity candidate’ Humza means that he wants to continue the punishment beatings and keep everything bitterly divided the better to keep control over it, then he too will become the problem.

The SNP isn’t just a political party. It doesn’t win only by winning elections. It has a bigger mission. That mission must get out beyond the world of backstabbing and pettiness which politics creates. Bringing an entire nation with you requires a degree of kindness and gentleness.

But is kindness now simply alien to the SNP? The impunity with which some people have behaved and the clear complicity of those who should be preventing doesn’t offer a lot of hope that a kinder SNP is round the corner.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This