Opinion

We’ll soon find out what the SNP is now

by | 12 Feb 2024

Is the SNP a single-minded vehicle for independence? Is it a fan club? Is it mission-orientated government? Is it the arbitrary outcome of factional fighting? One way or another we'll know fairly soon.

Somewhere inside the miasma of denial floating around the SNP are some firm realities which aren’t going away – the fog may be obscuring them, but the icebergs remain ahead and they will remain there like it or not. How the SNP addresses this reality will tell us a lot. It will tell us what the party is these days.

The way you will be able to tell is about how its leadership chooses to spend its political capital and how its membership responds. It will increasingly become clear whether the SNP leadership is a group of people pursuing a big mission or whether it is a weird fan club that disperses jobs among the loyal. And we’ll find out if the membership concurs with the leadership’s choice.

Because I find it hard to overemphasise either how badly things are going or how much of it is to do with utter ineptness. It really is not going well and if you have any doubts about that just remember that a political party which is signalling a ‘reset’ which it wants you not to call a reset and is doing it less than a year into a new leaders’ tenure is in a bad way.

Yet dear goodness does it need a reset. If I was in charge the Matheson affair alone would have led to a string of P45s being issued. He hid what he did, he lied about it and he was shifty and evasive and we knew all of this last autumn. He also knew that there was more, that there was information that had not yet surfaced. What to do is resign quickly and in a dignified way.

What not to do is to ask for an inquiry which will inevitably surface all the damaging information which wasn’t in the public domain (like the fact that he lied to the Presiding Officer, according to media leaks) and then be forced to resign. It is inconceivable that this is being managed by PR professionals, and yet this is being managed by PR professionals (in theory).

But let’s say that you did take a stupid gamble on being cleared by an inquiry that seemed very, very unlikely to exonerate you and you arrive at the inevitable destination that everyone knew you’d arrive at which was the pre-ordained resignation that was always coming, for the love of god don’t do it within an hour of First Ministers’ questions leaving an ill-prepared FM fielding questions about it on national TV.

Did no one from top to bottom just say ‘Michael, come back after lunch’? Have any of them ever done any basic media management before? How is any of this happening? Did they sit around in October and say ‘right, this is a two-day story with a minor scalp – how can we turn it into a six-month story with a major scalp at the end, while looking shifty and dishonest throughout’?

You are a political administration which started less than a year ago with very little political capital and you’ve burned through much of it already, what would you spend political capital on next?

Or let’s pick another WTF moment from this week. You are a political administration which started less than a year ago with very little political capital and you’ve burned through much of it already, what would you spend political capital on next? Buying flowers for a Former First Minister who had just been exposed by questioning at a public inquiry as having lied to the media?

Why? It’s not just that it looked crass and frankly utterly weird, it’s just not something political parties do. I mean, who else got flowers? I’m guessing Kate Forbes didn’t, or Jason Leitch, or (presumably) Jeane Freeman. Does anyone imagine the Tories were buying flowers for Matt Hancock?

I tried to telegraph ages ago that the Covid Inquiry was not going to be comfortable for the Scottish Government but it seems to have caught them by surprise. It was disgraceful that Sturgeon destroyed what she knew to be disclosable information and that she clearly lied to the media about it. Buying her flowers is utterly ridiculous.

I pick that example to address an issue that is raised a lot – ‘poor Humza, these disasters are not of his making yet he is paying the price’. So far that means financial scandals in the SNP, police investigations into the former leader and her retinue and the revelation of some major Covid failings.

Yet he was in Cabinet throughout the pandemic and Health Secretary for a chunk of it so ‘poor Humza’ doesn’t really stack up. It is also really strange to argue that someone with his seniority in the party can just wash his hands of responsibility for the party’s actions’. He isn’t meant to be a bystander.

The point is that Yousaf does comes across as a bystander, someone things happen to, the kind of person who might go on holiday by mistake (to quote Withnail and I). This isn’t exactly a distortion of reality and it is a major burden for the party.

But it also isn’t a comprehensive defence. No of course Yousaf wasn’t in the Sturgeon/Murrell circle of trust on the various financial shenanigans which are being investigated by the police, but he gave up his ‘not my fault’ defence when he went so, so far out of his way to act as a human shield for Sturgeon. It’s not meant to work that way round – he’s the leader of the country, she’s a scandal-prone political has-been.

So by sanctioning what is becoming a running theme of SNP HQ calling Interflora on speed dial and then briefing the media about it every time Sturgeon has a bad day, he becomes complicit. And the handling of the Matheson affair is 100 per cent him.

And the Council Tax freeze debacle. And the ill-judged love-in with autocratic Turkish leader Erdogan. And the continuing refusal to abide by neither the spirit nor letter of the Freedom of Information legislation. And much more, before I get anywhere near his ludicrous ‘independence strategy’ (which was apparently really important, but only for about 24 hours).

Keeping Yousaf there is what to do if you see the priority as factional control of the SNP

I have been trying to help. I have outlined all of this coming and have been right about it all. I have outlined a load more stuff that’s coming and you can mark my homework later. I’m telling you now that they better be planning a clever way out of their Council Tax freeze, at the very least as a contingency. I can set out more reasons to panic if you want them.

Here’s the point; I can’t see how the Yousaf administration can back out of any of this. It’s not just lack of talent, it’s not just the delicacy of the operation needed, it’s not just that much of it is of their own making and there is no elegant path out, it’s not just the certainty that this is going keep happening, it’s simply the reality that this is an administration miles out of its depth.

So, what is it for now? That is what I mean about this being revealed soon. At the moment the SNP appears to be a group of people working in Nicola Sturgeon’s interests and gaining consent for that by handing out jobs and favours. If there is political capital to expend it is never something important and useful like reversing the party’s disastrous post-indy currency proposals or binning the Promise or the National Care Service. It’s sending Sturgeon flowers.

Like I say, I can’t see how Yousaf can credibly put himself on the right side of any of this now and I can only see a very narrow path for him if he wants to stop making more mistakes. Now the SNP is going to face a serious setback at the UK General Election and a crunch moment will come.

I’d imagine Yousaf will try to cling to power like they all do. His people are currently briefing that he’s growing into his role (which, in case you don’t know how spinners talk, means ‘everything he’s done so far – just ignore that and he’ll get better’). But this isn’t a youth training scheme.

Keeping Yousaf there is what to do if you see the priority as factional control of the SNP. Replacing him (or forcing massive change on him) is a priority if you want to make progress on independence or any other issue. That is what we will learn – what are those outside the cut and thrust of factional fighting thinking?

Will MSPs (through self-interest or because of commitment to the cause) tap him on the shoulder and tell him it’s time? And if they don’t, will the party suck up another stage-managed conference at which nothing credible is said about the way forward?

The SNP risks being genuinely embarrassing. Already there are profiles of ‘how did it all go so wrong?’ in national newspapers, the party’s independence strategy didn’t get off the stage before no-one believed it and a small knot of supporters are increasingly unhinged in their conspiracy theories (no, Michael Gove did not personally arrange the police tents on Sturgeon’s lawn and no, she didn’t delete her WhatsApps to help the inquiry streamline its investigation).

I can’t see change coming from the top. It could come from the middle, or it could come from the bottom, or it might not come at all. We will learn an awful lot about the party whichever it is.

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