What is possible and what isn’t

by | 9 May 2024

Now that the SNP has decided not to change, people are offering it advice on how to change. Not only is this unrealistic it prevents a more sober assessment of what might actually be possible now.

Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all. The needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before. So here we are, same place, new day. What can we do about it? Every time you hear a song replayed it means something slightly different, it carries meaning it didn’t carry the last time. As everything stays the same, what is different, and what does it mean?

What I want to do here is set out what I think is now possible in Scotland and what I think isn’t possible. I’m trying to find positives in this situation we find ourselves, but I want to do it realistically. There is already too much Pollyanna stuff out there about how it’ll be different this time round. So here we go…

Policy and government

First, those who think there is any chance of substantial change in government don’t understand what just happened. You may well think something has changed, but it hasn’t. In almost the most literal sense possible, every phone number is the same and it is the same person at the other end.

Let me give you an example; the Care Bill. If the Scottish Government had the slightest intention of listening to the almost universal criticism of this Bill it has had multiple excellent opportunities to do that. Their response was that they (the civil service, the Spads and the Ministers) didn’t care and that everyone else is wrong.

This morning it is all the same people in charge of the same process. Like exactly the same people. ‘You need to be more radical this time’ say some. This is frankly silly. In the history of devolution, no-one ever picked John Swinney as the man to do something radical. He is almost the only change. Kate Forbes might have some fresh ideas and energy, but the economy brief is not a great place to display ideas. She really has been very hemmed in in this new administration.

This happens on constant repeat. Again and again the SNP has underperformed and again and again people have said ‘time to be radical’. This is just going round and round and round the same circle. They’re not going to do it, no-one involved wants to do it, no-one round the table has either the deep ability or the wide range of contacts necessary to do it.

That does not mean those of us fighting bad policy have no new opportunities. The Greens ought never to have supported the National Care Service Bill since it is absolutely anathema to everything they believe. They were bound by a coalition agreement, and now they’re not. There should therefore be a comfortable parliamentary majority for major surgery on this awful legislation.

Meanwhile away from the ‘it might be different this time’ corner is]the boring corner where the other commentators claim that the most important thing Swinney must now do is expunge anything that looks even a touch radical and bore Scotland to death with barely-visible-but-competent government. This, commentators think, is what the public is crying out for.

Is it though? Which public? ‘It was all fine when they were doing nothing but not making mistakes and I wish everything would go back to then and nothing would ever change again’ is a sentence said to me by not a single member of the public in as long as I can remember. The public doesn’t want a competent running down of the healths service or a well-managed collapse in housing affordability.

Yet here’s the thing – is this mythical, commentator-adored ‘competent government’ really a thing at all? I mean, the case study is Jack McConnell who exactly promised to ‘do less, better’. He did; there weren’t a lot of disasters under McConnell, yet the public used the first real opportunity to turf him out.

Which means I don’t even buy the premise. I expect and demand competence in government; I don’t applaud it. Government is still supposed to do something to make me want to elect them.

Yet this is all moot. If it is the same people in the same positions doing the same things, are we really to believe that every single thing that has gone wrong was the personal responsibility of poor Humza? Is that the new SNP line? ‘We got rid ofthat guy so everything is fine now?’ I’m sad to tell you that the person who checked the legality of the Deposit Return Scheme is still in post, checking the environmental logic of banning log burners in rural homes.

In short, expecting different results from the same government is silly and so I don’t believe major change is possible. What is possible is to challenge bad legislation by carefully building coalitions to vote for change. It’s not stirring work and most of you will never see it, but that’s kind of what I do for a living so onwards with that.

Expecting change isn’t something I find possible at this juncture. Forcing changes to make things less bad is something I believe is now definitely possible. Let’s call that progress.

Political realignment

Yet again we have the slightly sad sight of people who secretly know the SNP is really problematic now saying ‘OK, but now there must be proper reform of party democracy’. It’s sad because you know this isn’t going to happen. You are putting your faith for change in the hands of the people who have spent the last year trying to derail the SNP governance review you all thought was the best opportunity and which you’ve since forgotten about.

The SNP has now structured itself in a way in which bluntly only a leader can change the party. The membership can’t cast any other vote that will lead to reform (they tried, it was ignored) which is why they were so keen to make sure the membership didn’t get to vote for the leader either.

But this is not all doom and gloom for people disillusioned with the government but really queasy about Starmer’s awful Labour Party. Before change comes, the space for change is opened up by changed circumstances. The opportunity for change has been closed, but that has only opened up the space change will need to find a new path.

Quite what that space will generate is still something of an open question for me. I don’t entirely know what will emerge, though I do have some specific ideas. Here’s the point; a lot of people were waiting for an opportunity for change. And I mean a lot of people in the SNP. Closing that opportunity down hasn’t altered their desire for that change. I think it has strengthened it.

The SNP can’t stop this any longer. It may have prevented itself being an avenue for change but that has only unified the desire for change as an objective to be pursued outside the party. That is already happening.

No, that isn’t enough to lift your gloom if you’re feeling anything like me, but I’m trying to tell you that it should. If there is one sentiment that is shared by everyone I know who is not paid to hold the alternative view, then it is that ‘this isn’t good enough’. That sentiment will cause major disruption in some form, and if it is handled carefully it could lead to major change. I appreciate that is vague at the moment, but ‘the next thing’ is always vague at first.

Where I have some hope that major and significant change might be possible is in the Greens. It seems that more and more people are now highly aware that Patrick Harvie has been leading the party further and further up a rather niche cul-de-sac. No-one now seems to link the Greens to environmental issues except those who hate climate change action.

Scotland desperately needs a party somewhere near the mainstream that is serious about environmental policies and there appears to be enough unrest internally in the Greens from enough senior and credible people that I suspect Harvie’s time is coming to an end. That creates a whole world of new opportunities – if the Greens will grasp it.

Changing the SNP doesn’t seem possible now, at least in any acceptable timeframe, but changing the Greens may be. And this reality means that an awful lot of things outside the party which weren’t possible may be possible now.


Here we reach the biggest unknown. The SNP has sought to maintain independence as a monopoly issue, something held tight so that the only apparent route to progress is to vote SNP. It doesn’t seem to me that that monopoly is very convincing any more, and I doubt it will be any more convincing by the time we reach the Holyrood Election.

We have seen a trend that has mainly been analysed (including by me) as a decoupling of support for independence and support for the SNP. Actually, for what it’s worth, I suspect that these two issues were always decoupled; people supported independence and separately they supported the SNP either to deliver it or to be a decent government as well.

If that’s right (the evidence suggests so) then we’ve just had ten years when the main SNP strategy was to keep the party and the cause locked together to give the impression that Scotland was a country of SNP voters who were lending their votes to independence not the other way round.

So if I’m right and nothing has changed other than that a lot of independence supporters have stopped choosing the SNP as their vehicle for government or for achieving independence (or some combination of the two), the momentum has shifted on the debate.

This is my basic point; it isn’t important that the public has decoupled independence and the SNP in their minds, it is important that the independence movement does. I’ve said this for the longest time because I know how these things work and I know that political parties have no option but to drop big missions from view for strategic purposes, over and over. It is inevitable.

And for the longest time I was the recipient of regular social media punishment beatings for my troubles. I kept going and one of the reasons I kept going was that I was confident that in time enough people would realise this is true and that a tipping point would be reached where this might actually start to be understood by the movement as its best path forward.

That was impossible a year ago. Today it is possible.

Just to conclude, it isn’t that you all need to resign yourself to the total failure of these causes – an exciting, purposeful government, a better politics and real progress on independence. It’s that there was a fast route there and a slow route, and the SNP just closed the fast route.

OK, slow route it is. All I’m trying to do is to show you that we’re out of shortcuts and crossing your fingers won’t help. But at the same time I want to reassure you that, once you have ruled out the impossible, what is possible becomes clearer.

For a left-minded independence supporter, there remains enough that is possible through which a path forward can be found. None of us have the option of giving up now. And you know what, it is infuriating at the time, but sometimes the slow route takes you to where you need to go faster than the shortcut.

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