If the SNP is in any way important to you, today is grim. Sadly the immediate future will also be grim, and so will a chunk of this article. See if you can stick it out though because in the medium term everything can be fixed and I’ll get onto some suggestions of how. But first, the denial which has been haunting the party must be challenged.
I’ve been trying to explain for a while that the sequence of events which will unfold over the coming year or so is pretty much pre-ordained. Nothing anyone does can alter the broad shape of the immediate future. The leadership contest offered a moment when a different future could have been chosen, but that was rejected. What will happen next is simply fate.
The SNP were always going to take a severe beating in Rutherglen. There was no reason to vote for the SNP in Rutherglen. It offered no real reason to need them, no track record to enthuse people, no sense of direction and – crucially – no sense that anyone in the party understands that it has let people down.
That domino has fallen. The next will be conference which will be sparsely attended and downbeat. It will probably see the party leader’s keynote motion overturned (for reasons which escape me the party’s leader has chosen a resolution which looks designed to lose and it seems like the team never bothered to sound out senior people about whether it had their support).
The big unknown is the timing of whatever comes next in Branchform, but it’s coming. After that the SNP leadership will limp back into government, and that is frying pan and fire stuff. It will first have to deal with a very unhappy arts sector putting up a fight. There are practicing arts sector people whose income is so precarious they have nothing much left to lose from a fight. And the public policy disasters to come ahead of that are so numerous it is hard to predict the order things will kick off.
Then? We’re getting into a timeframe where it’s hard to know what’s going to fall out of the sky (something always does), but we know the run-up to the General Election is well underway. There is nothing that could have been done to stop an SNP setback. It is inevitable. The nature of the election at a UK level is simply a different dynamic than previous elections.
So the game is about minimising losses, and the plan is ‘de facto referendum’ as a motivator for voters. But I don’t think any of the voters are likely to actually buy the idea that this is a ‘referendum’ which might lead to negotiations by this time next year. If people feel it is not a credible offer, it could backfire.
That, I’d imagine, will be the end of Humza Yousaf. If the party thinks it can keep on ploughing on in the same direction it is probably wrong. Or actually, that’s not true, it probably can. But if it does it gets into the one situation which is more risky than losing, which is winning very narrowly when you have no energy left and a lack of talent.
That is worse than losing because you have no mechanism for regaining energy, for reforming. You are simply dragged straight back into the grind which has been wearing you down. And it will simply wear you down more and more.
The SNP needs to be a party worth voting for in it own right, not because it’s holding the hope of independence as a hostage
All of this is preordained, give or take. The rump loyalists blaming Margaret Ferrier today was preordained. We’re just stepping through a future which has already happened. Which means everything is grim, right?
Well no. Labour underperformed in Rutherglen and there is virtually no enthusiasm for them either. I had been told that the SNP could have been facing an even lower proportion of the Rutherglen vote and had the Labour vote held up better they would have. The constitutional divide (and the sheer unattractiveness of Keir Starmer) means the SNP doesn’t face a practical option for full replacement.
And the independence vote is actually strengthening. It’s almost as if (he types having been going on about this for a decade) that decoupling big social issues from party politics actually helps the issue concerned. The SNP needs to be a party worth voting for in it own right, not because it’s holding the hope of independence as a hostage. That will actually enhance the chances of both.
Plus because a lot of this is fairly small margins, there is a reasonably clear path to all of that happening. The crucial step is the moment when the SNP realises that it has to say ‘we get it, we get that we’ve disappointed you – and we’re going to change’.
While I don’t enjoy watching Yousaf’s endgame, equally I’m not desperately sympathetic. He had the opportunity and the will of the party to bring change, and he used every means at the party’s disposal to make sure that didn’t happen. There is no credible way he can relaunch himself as a change agent. That is why he won’t survive to next Christmas.
The scale of change the SNP needs is substantial. There are few people in their core staff team (HQ, SPADs, advisers) who are good. Most were brought in as ballast to fill up space in an administration run by a tiny clique. The tiny clique left and now the party administration and strategy is being run by the ballast.
And because that core staff team are weak and factional, they are doing what weak, factional groups do – they are trying to rig everything for their friends. This is then cutting off any hope of bringing new talent into the party. Third-rate administrators are creating a party of third-rate former researchers. Two election cycles of this and the SNP won’t have much to build a future generation out of.
Think of this like one of those big facade-retention-and-demolition developments you find in Glasgow a lot; the front face of the SNP does not need major surgery, it is behind the scenes that massive reform is needed
Government is a bigger mess but it is recoverable if the party had a capable team. They don’t. It’s not cabinet that’s the main problem (though it could do with more talent), its the support team. The best Minister in the world needs a good adviser, and they don’t have good advice.
So yes, there is major change needed; but here’s the thing – the change they need is in-house. Think of this like one of those big facade-retention-and-demolition developments you find in Glasgow a lot. The front face of the SNP does not need major surgery. It is behind the scenes that massive reform is needed – and that can take place while party and government business continues.
Which means the SNP can get its act together without a dangerously visible process of self-immolation. It can choose to begin this quickly. It needs a way to signal that it is serious about reform and serious about getting a grip on government. And then it needs some genuinely bright, exciting ideas to keep the public focussed on forward momentum while the rapid repair work is done behind the scenes.
The SNP’s future is in the SNP’s hands, but right now the core team (again, I’m mainly thinking of the staff rather than the politicians) remains dug into a trench with little sense it has any idea of how to get out of it.
The membership can choose to turn everything around the second they realise that this isn’t a temporary blip. If the rump in charge are allowed to they will run this party into the ground to protect themselves. Mairi Black used what leverage she had by threatening the party with crisis headlines the day before the vote, not to bring change but to cash in on behalf of an ally.
There’s far too much of that in the modern SNP. There are far too many people looking you straight in the eye and telling you they’re only there for independence while, even as they say it, they’re pursuing other agendas. It is hollowing out the party.
So buckle up and watch as this preordained future plays out and wait for the moment when the denial finally evaporates. At that moment, under a new leader, the SNP has a chance of a proper recovery. If you care about the SNP and you care about independence, you might want to avert your eyes until we get there.