Opinion

Two portraits of a fall

by | 7 May 2024

There is something particularly callous and cynical about a modern SNP whose staff seem able to pick their own leader. It is hard to see what the SNP has to offer Scotland now.

There are two images from the last week or so that stick in my head, though I saw neither first-hand. One is Humza Yousaf heading off to his bed on Sunday evening, still convinced he had a chance of surviving. The other is a get-together of his assassins.

For me it is the juxtaposition of these images that makes them relevant. Between them they tell a story of a group of people so lost in animosity and ambition and hubris that they can’t see themselves any more. It is a sad tale of how a small group of people took the momentum from a great social movement and converted it into personal gain, and how the cause, shorn of its momentum, got stuck.

I won’t go into all the detail of Yousaf’s fall, but as he and his wife grew more and more warm to the idea of a simple deal with Alba as Greens’ intransigence seemed to make any other option impossible, so Team Sturgeon (the legacy establishment in the SNP) became more determined to stop him.

A series of escalating interventions to try to bring the Greens round failed (right up, I’m told, to Nicola Sturgeon phoning Patrick Harvie personally). It was Alba-or-nothing for Yousaf, a choice his staff wouldn’t let him make. They tried to persuade him out of it, to take a fall rather than give an inch to their mortal enemy.

He wanted to press on, heading off to bed that night still believing he had a clear route to clinging on. What he didn’t know was that the second he left the room, a senior member of his staff phoned the Times and told them to switch their front page because Humza would be resigning the next day and John Swinney would take over.

I’ve seen some pretty brutal moves in politics before, but there is something inhumane and simply wrong about the way the current SNP operates. There is an honourable, humane way to do these things. If you are a leaders’ team and he’s lost your confidence, you look him in the eye and you tell him he’s lost your confidence. In the circumstances the outcome would have been the same.

What I’ve never known is for a senior member of staff to take it upon themselves to act against the instruction and interests of the leader they nominally work for. Frankly what was done should have resulted in immediate dismissal for gross professional misconduct on the part of those involved. I know in the modern SNP there seem to be no remaining red lines, but in a normal political party the hired help don’t decide who is party leader whenever they want.

Yet they did, which takes us to our second image. On Friday late afternoon in the Scottish Parliament’s Garden Lobby you didn’t need an eagle eye to catch the sight of exactly that hired help drinking champagne, laughing and larking. The Spads had won again; they successfully undertook a coup, replaced one leader with another without reference to the membership and thus protected not only their own jobs but their total control – for another three or four years. Time to celebrate ostentatiously.

If the SNP couldn’t bed-block the pro-independence space in our democracy it is difficult to see what real relevance it would have

Who is in charge? Who is doing this? Who ordered the assassination of Yousaf? How much was Swinney in on all this? Was he already lined up at the point at which Yousaf was being knifed in secret? Or do the staffers still basically work for Nicola Sturgeon and it is her instruction that they are enacting?

This is the point; I don’t care any more. It doesn’t matter. I spent the last decade trying to understand the SNP as something that, first, I could engage with and work with and, later, something I might be able to play some role in changing when it wouldn’t change itself. I wasted my time.

How this tiny clique captured the party so completely I can fill you in on; why the membership allowed it so meekly I can give you pointers towards. Yet none of it matters. It is all just trying to knock a wall down by describing it.

I am now damned if I can see what the SNP has that is of any interest to me other than its brand. It is a bad government, a bad party and a terrible partner for independence. If it couldn’t bed-block the pro-independence space in our democracy it is difficult to see what real relevance it would have.

That’s your problem. The people telling us a year ago that Humza was about to transform everything and this was the best bet the SNP could have made had been saying the year before that Sturgeon was then and always the only person to deliver independence, and are the same ones saying today that the worst is behind them. This lot say a lot of things.

They’re wrong. Swinney is no safe pair of hands, empirically speaking. But more to the point, one man cannot make a government. See the team that brought you the ferries, and the census, and ScotWind, and Growth Commission, and the education reforms debacle, and the smoke detector mess, and the damage done to local government, and sawing the bottom off school doors for ventilation, and a health service crisis? That team remains intact and unchanged.

Meanwhile unless my little parts of the world are utterly unrepresentative then a corner has been turned. On Friday and over the weekend, not least at the All Under One Banner march (final score Grassroots 6 – Astroturf 1), I had many conversations. Every single one of them is of a markedly different nature than it would have been three months or even a week ago.

People inside the political chattering classes proclaim that the arrival of Swinney is a smart move, people outside of it seem to have been pushed to new degrees of cynicism. Every conversation I have is the same – scunnered with the lot of them and particularly let down by the SNP since it pretended not to be ‘not like the others’.

The more immediate threat is internal; the independence movement itself has turned a corner

The idea that the SNP might lose 28 seats in the Westminster election feels plausible to me right now. That’s how people round here who voted SNP in recent years seem to feel. But the more immediate threat is internal; the independence movement itself has turned a corner. It really is palpable.

I mean, on the National’s article explaining that Swinney will stick to Yousaf’s ‘indy strategy’, there were 53 comments when I read and about 51 of them were negative. I haven’t met a single person who thinks there is any chance of us moving towards independence now. If people aren’t in despair, they’re very angry.

And they’re calling this right. If you took a hundred political strategists and you showed them the same picture, they’d tell you the same thing. The SNP’s performance has been so bad that the only thing holding them up is the constitutional question. For that simple reason a hundred strategists would tell them the same thing – you must cling tightly to it, do nothing and make it clear that only by voting for you will something perhaps happen next time.

I mean, there just isn’t another pitch available to the SNP. But don’t imagine there will necessarily be a next time, or that even if they can somehow piece together a pro-indy majority that they have the personnel to either get a grip on government or show the skill needed to make progress.

If the SNP had a bright near future then you’d be able to count half a dozen exciting young ministers nearly ready to take the step up to Cabinet. I can’t see them. In fact the SNP is finding it difficult to come up with even a single name that looks like a credible succession strategy. That to reassure members that change was possible the party establishment were briefing on Friday that they’ve decided who the next two leaders are is pretty telling.

I took the weekend to try and avoid Scottish politics where I could. I needed to let some feelings and initial reactions fade a bit before I could be confident enough to see forward clearly. I can now see pretty clearly, and nothing has changed in my view.

Those two pictures stay with me; the kind, well-meaning man used, chewed up and spat out by a little group of functionaries who were stabbing him in the back even as he was clutching at straws, that same group of people celebrating their coup over champers like the leadership of Scotland is there’s to give and take, a group of people who have made so many errors in government I can’t begin to count them.

It is this combination of cynical nastiness, arrogant disdain for the little people and the lack of discernable ability on the part of those concerned that leaves me with little hope that the future has much of a contribution left to receive from the SNP. If the SNP remain relevant to the Scotland directly ahead, I can’t see how.

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