internal democracy gives SNP leadership a new problem

by | 18 Mar 2024

At the SNP National Council this weekend there were quiet signs of a party leadership facing fundamental difficulties. This isn't as obvious, but it's as big a risk as the gaffes.

It hadn’t been my intention to write about the SNP’s weekend National Council as it seemed to lack significance. But actually a couple of things happened which are of some interest. So let’s have a very brief look.

Since I am quick to point out when democracy is going backwards in the SNP, I think it is important just to note that the weekend actually reversed that trend. From talking to people who were there or followed the day closely it seems this was much more like the discursive National Councils of the SNP’s democratic heyday.

Much of the rest of the SNP remains so procedurally corrupted that it isn’t quite clear yet what difference party democracy can really make (the ‘majority place people NEC’ can now overrule conference), but some teeth were shown – and the media seems to have missed it.

But first, a couple of other things. People decrying the numbers at the event aren’t really calling it correct – this isn’t a conference, this is the National Council. This is about the numbers you’d expect at one. Why they insist on holding these events in venues three times the size they need to be is a bit of a mystery.

However, the lack of a sense of energy or urgency seems to be more on point here. This certainly didn’t feel like a pre-election strategy meeting for a party which is approaching the election with confidence. And much of the day was taken up by non-strategy policy motions anyway.

The two things of much greater significance are things you have to dig around to see. First, we now know fairly clearly what the election strategy is. I should emphasise that a strategy is not a slogan. We kind of knew that ‘Tory’ would feature big in SNP messaging. But how big, and with what else?

Now we know. BIG, and with little else. What this tells me is that it is a very defensive campaign. First, this seems to be a clear attempt to claim ‘incumbent anti-Tory option’ in every seat where the SNP is 1-2 with the Tories. To say that ‘leveraging ourselves up a bit off the back of the dying Tories’ is not a confident position for the party to take is understatement.

The problem is about whether it knows how to extend that strategy. It might about work in seats where it is clearly SNP one, Tory two and Labour is miles behind, but it is much harder to read how this would work in an SNP one, Labour two seat or a three-way marginal. Keep voting SNP to make sure that a rump Tory vote doesn’t accidentally overtake both of us in these seats? It’s not persuasive.

Let me put this another way; this is a legitimate strategy (which is a departure from a lot of SNP actions of late), but it is desperately weak. In fact other than just dusting down ‘Stronger for Scotland’ for the umpteenth time, it is about as weak as any legitimate strategy could be. It seems simply to say ‘look, we know we’re losing seats so let’s try and work out how to save a few of them’.

‘Wheest for Indy’ doesn’t work if there’s no chance of independence, and the SNP isn’t currently attitudinally equipped to pay attention to what its membership actually thinks about policy

It will be very hard to operationalise, and it has other, pretty dangerous consequences. It isn’t even a year since we were told this was a de facto referendum. It is almost quaint to remember what a fuss was made over last year’s ‘Dundee Convention’. There is little pretence that what was said then is what is happening now.

No, that won’t matter with a lot of the public which wasn’t buying it anyway and so will probably barely notice. Where this does damage is internally. The SNP says many things externally but it is all underpinned by the one thing it says internally – that it has a plan to progress to independence.

That is really important as an activist motivator, but more than that, it has been a consistent and crucial internal discipliner. ‘Wheest for Indy’ doesn’t work if there’s no chance of independence, and the SNP isn’t currently attitudinally equipped to pay attention to what its membership actually thinks about policy.

Which takes us to the other thing, policy differences. One of these I’ll largely leave for now since there will be more on it soon, but the nuclear position has left members unhappy and the way the SNP leadership seems to be responding internally is just to, well, say opposing things and see how long it can get away with it.

Let me put this clearly; there is bugger all support in the party for Angus Robertsons anti-TPNW stance (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) and sustaining a position which keeps the party happy but doesn’t throw Robertson under a bus is going to prove tricky.

The bigger issue at the weekend has gone unnoticed. There was a motion from two of the Aberdeen MSPs on climate change which, if you squinted at it, looked sort of harmless and non-controversial. The problem is that, on climate change, there are some serious people in membership of the SNP, people who know the script.

They can recognise what these two oil-interested MSPs are really writing here – it’s in the sentence “Council regrets that this failure of UK Government on climate change policy, ensures that Scotland loses out to companies that would otherwise invest in the UK, and they go elsewhere, where the policy regime is better”.

Those are words that could have been written for them by BP or Shell. This is asking for tax breaks for Big Oil companies and funding for Carbon Capture and Storage. If you knew anything about climate change you’d know that these are the only businesses that ‘might go somewhere else where the policy regime is better’.

Dig under the surface and what you really find is a party running in all directions at once

In any case, these two cosplaying as environmentalists is a real giveaway anyway. If there was to be a serious, credible climate change motion it would not have been drafted by either of these politicians.

I’m sure they thought they’d get away with it, that activists would nod at the warm words, approve and inadvertently support a policy stance opposed by almost all environmentalists. Except they didn’t; National Council voted to ‘remit back’. That is a procedural motion that says, quietly, ‘take this away and have a hard think about it before you darken our door with it again’.

This is quite a big setback. It is a marker; I don’t know this for sure but a party in the financial difficulties the SNP is in which changes a policy stance so quickly and fundamentally in favour of an oil industry which throws money at politics suggests you may be about to see substantial donations from oil figures into the SNP. Possibly not, but if so they’ve sold themselves cheap.

Again, all of this is quite subtle. It’s not the shambolic day-to-day nonsense in the SNP which no-one can miss. But sometimes its the more subtle stuff that is trickier in the long term. The SNP has ridden two horses on climate change, hoovering up votes for making the right noises while making none of the hard decisions that the noises implied.

The second part of this is now no longer viable. The SNP not only has no credible net zero strategy, it is moving the other direction for electoral purposes. In doing so it is not taking its members along with it, and that will give it a headache. Then mix in the point about not having a credible ‘Wheest for Indy’ position and this could quickly become unmanageable.

On the face of it the weekend event went fine. Shine a light on its surface and actually it presents a picture of a party that could, just about, be reforming its democracy in a positive direction. Slowly. But dig under the surface and what you really find is a party running in all directions at once and creating glaring internal contradictions in the process.

A climate change stance people don’t support, an election campaign that lacks seriousness, an inability to prevent seemingly random lurches left and right, forward and back, a repeated failure to send out a message of composure and competence, and a leader not able to cover all of this up with a bit of oratory flourish?

Once again, it is a concerning pattern to which it is hard to see an end.

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