Is the SNP approaching an era of dissent?

by | 2 Nov 2022

There have been uncharacteristic outbursts of dissent from the SNP's Holyrood contingent. Are these isolated events or a sign of something more? And what might it mean for Scotland?

It is fascinating to see some dissent break out in the SNP, made more impactful because of the almost total lack of any voice in the SNP ever having challenged or diverged from the leader’s own opinion in the past. Is this the start of a new phase or is this just a one-off? And is it helpful? The answers to these questions may shape the next couple of years of Scottish politics.

The public perception of this probably really kicked of with (my former colleague from Common Weal) Ash Regan resigning from government over the Gender Reform Act followed by eight other MSPs who broke the whip. But it really kicked off a couple of days earlier when both Michelle Thompson and Kenny Gibson made highly critical comments on the Care Bill in committee.

Each of these instances are perfectly explicable in their own right. It has long been known that there are many people on the SNP benches who do not buy into their leader’s fairly far-end views on the centrality of trans issues in Scottish politics. Indeed there is much more scepticism to go around than only those who actually rebelled.

And of course this is a highly emotive issue, so at least some rebellion over the GRA was always likely. On its own this doesn’t really demonstrate any breaking of SNP unity.

The same is true with the Care Bill comments. It is hard to overstate how bad this legislation is. There is barely a single body in Scotland not directly funded by the Scottish Government that supports this legislation. You can pick whether it is because it is pointlessly wasteful, horrendously right wing or dreadfully written, but for this legislation not to get a hard time in committee would be bizarre.

So this might only be a case of ‘there is this dreadfully bad piece of legislation that even the SNP backbenches couldn’t nod through’ and ‘separately, people hold really strong views about the GRA’. It might imply there is nothing fundamental to see here, just a couple of outlier minor rebellions.

The problem for the First Minister is what to do even if that is the case. Sturgeon is known to display fury if people disagree with her. Contradicting her even in private is a bad career move. We can see how unused she is to dealing with dissent in her response to Ash Regan’s resignation, a response which was terse, bitter and had an underlying tone of nastiness.

But does she have the option of punishing rebels? She could suspend them, but that would effectively eliminate her guaranteed majority and create a substantial group of presumably unhappy people no longer bound by loyalty. That is seriously risky.

Then again, not suspending them is also risky; it sends out a message that dissent is now fair game and may encourage others to consider dipping their toe into the water. Sturgeon’s management style will not deal with that easily.

If you’ve decided that your career is going to be frozen, is some Spad shouting at you really all that intimidating?

The standard midway solution would be to give the rebels a severe rebuke and end their chance of career progression for so long as she is First Minister. The problem is that this must surely have been ‘priced in’ to the decisions the rebels made. If you’ve decided that your career is going to be frozen, is some Spad shouting at you really all that intimidating?

There is a bigger question here though – is this just a few isolated incidents or is it a glimpse into the near future? Sturgeon is dealing with a domestic agenda which is frankly falling apart and a party management problem which isn’t going to be helped when it becomes clear there’s no referendum happening next year.

She would not have been considering the possibility that, on top of this, she might have increasing problems managing her parliamentary group. The fact that Ash Regan briefed journalists the next day in a way that opened a new front in the tensions certainly hints that this wasn’t one of those Westminster traditions of ‘I resign for show, you understand that so we stay friends and you give me a job back in a little while’.

Does this mark a new period of restlessness on the SNP back benches? I have no idea. On the one hand a common motivator for increasingly dissent is the fear of lost jobs when a party is declining in the polls (see Truss). On that front the SNP payroll appear to have no concerns, which would suggest that self-interest will restore discipline.

But on the other hand, everyone knows Sturgeon’s tenure is heading towards an end and that inevitably kicks off (sooner or later) the jostling for position in a new era which always comes with a leader on the way out.

Many MSPs may also be looking to their own base in their own constituencies, an awful lot of whom prioritise rapid progress to independence. If confidence on the path the party is on wanes among them, the first point of pressure will be on elected officials well down the tree from the leader.

So mibby aye, mibby no. The problem as I see it is two-fold. First of all, part of the function of dissent in a properly functioning parliament (for my money, we don’t have one in Scotland) is not to destabilise but to correct. Legislation passed without dissent in a parliament of majorities is often bad legislation. Dissent has a crucial democratic function in improving policy-making.

The lack of that dissent is an important part of why so much Scottish Government policy goes so badly wrong. Yes, sometimes rebels specifically want to overthrow a leader but often they just want leaders to listen to the concerns they are not listening to.

That’s the first problem; can Sturgeon learn to listen? It seems late in a career to change an autocratic approach to governing and party management. If this is dissent-as-cry-to-be-heard, I’m not sure it can work. That could result in a vicious circle.

The lack of that dissent is an important part of why so much Scottish Government policy goes so badly wrong

My bigger problem is that, while dissent against the Care Bill is essential, the dissent I think the SNP needs is not going to be easy to manufacture. The SNP simply does not get to debate or discuss strategies for independence or post-independence policies such as on the currency. It happened once at conference and the dissenters won. The response was to ignore them and prevent it happening again.

And I’m led to understand that there was no discussion among any elected group about the contents of the SNP’s post-independence fiscal, monetary or currency plans prior to their publication.

That the Scottish Government’s proposals are so bad screams out that they were conceived without the scrutiny of debate or discussion. It the domestic agenda of the Scottish Government is in chaos (most of it is) because of decisions being handed down without proper consideration, discussion or scrutiny, designing a new country or trying to win a referendum that way really is asking for trouble.

The Catch 22 in all of this is the following slightly convoluted algebra: the SNP is in power despite a poor domestic record because it is also the only route to independence, which it is making no progress towards because its strategy for independence won’t work, but this can’t be interrogated or tested, largely because the party remains in power and therefore is the only route to independence.

I’ve now become convinced that dissent is the only way out of this loop. I also think that dissent (or the rising risk of it) is what will determine the timing of Sturgeon’s departure. The problem is that I can’t see how the loop can be broken or the dissent managed without it doing collateral damage.

So I have no idea whether we’re at the start of a period of increasing SNP parliamentary dissent, or whether the rank and file of the party will become increasingly rebellious, or whether dissenters have got it off their chest and will fall back in line.

And if there is dissent I don’t know any more what the trigger is – getting to October next year without a referendum, or an electoral setback of some sort, or going into a UK General Election on a ‘one more mandate’ push, or the sense that we’re drifting into Pasok territory of perpetual rule without delivery. Or possibly nothing. Possibly independence fades away as an issue.

But I watch with interest, because I can’t help feel that one way or another, this is a new phase in Scottish politics and it might be a bit more unpredictable than the last phase was.

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