And then there was one…

by | 14 Aug 2023

The SNP leadership is misjudging the political capital it has to play with - and it seems to have lost touch with what it looks like to anyone on the outside. Down this road lies failure.

There are strange, unwritten rules when it comes to small-p politics, and when you apply those rules to Big-P Politics, they delineate the the boundaries of what constitutes a feasible political strategy. Or they should – but sadly no-one seems to have told the current SNP regime about these rules.

It pains me to return to looking at the SNP as a party. It’s one of those things over which I am powerless but which has a distinct impact on my life and the things that I value and are important to me. And it is a picture which I find difficult to look at, because things are a real mess.

So when I see the mess and I find myself thinking ‘hold on, far from fixing things, they’re making the same mistakes that made the mess in the first place’, I find myself in a kind of despair. I can’t really do anything about it, it is doing damage and looking at it just depresses me.

I really don’t want to dwell on this too long – articles analysing or documenting the ongoing implosion in the SNP are hardly difficult to come by now. The main difference for me is that I actually want them to get their act together where as a lot of the analysis is simply gloating in the failures.

But let me demonstrate how the small-p political rules seem to be unknown to SNP ‘strategists’. Let’s take the ‘summer of independence’. This rule breaks one of the most basic soft, unspoken rules there is, probably best understood as ‘crying wolf’.

You’re a new leader. You’re on your third ‘readjustment’ in the independence strategy you’ve set out in four months (during leadership election it was sloooooow and steady, then it was ‘knock doors like they’re going out of fashion’ and then it was ‘giant new comprehensive shove’). You are doing this because your party has burned through its credibility with ‘any minute now’ delaying.

So what do you do? What you don’t do is hand your opponents (not ‘the hated Tories’, the real opponents, people like me…) the chance to say ‘told you so, again’. What you don’t do is take the poor, beleaguered activists who are clinging on to your promise that things are going to change, encourage them to go out and tell others things are going to change – and then do the same thing again and make them look daft.

And you certainly don’t give the public the sense that you just say things that come into your head without really pre-thinking them through. Which is all to say that the one thing you don’t do (again) is announce a ‘summer of independence campaign’ if you don’t have one prepared.

You can always tell when someone is or isn’t being followed by others, even if you couldn’t explain why you can tell

Another of the rules is a bit like standing on thin ice. If the ice starts to crack and your enemies can be shoved towards a bit of ice that’s breaking away from the rest, you can gain from the fracture and literally watch them sail off into the horizon or just sink.

But when the crack starts to multiply and rather than a small bit of the ice drifting away out of your eyeline (let’s call this bit of drifting ice ‘Alba’ for the purposes of this piece) the ice starts to fragment, there is no game to be played any more. You need either to stop moving and wait for a cold snap, or to get off the ice.

Sturgeon saw a split opening up in the party after the election setback in 2017 and actively pursued a growing division which saw her critics isolated and cut off from power. But the fractures opening up under Yousef are everywhere, and he doesn’t seem to realise it yet.

Or perhaps he does and doesn’t know what else to do. But two people I know who left the SNP in utter despair (and indeed anger) were at a dinner where they were the only two people who weren’t fairly senior elected SNP politicians, and it was the two people who had abandoned the party who were least critical of the current state of the SNP. Plus you wouldn’t guess the names of the people involved as none has ever rebelled in public. The collapse in confidence is worse than you think, I promise you.

And yet still Yousef seems to think he can stamp his authority as if the stamping isn’t going to cause the fractures to widen further. There is a complex algebra on the ‘split enough to exploit, fragmented too much to risk making it worse’ crossover point, but the SNP is miles on the other side.

Which is why a third rule is important – when you’re believed to be in control, you can do all kinds of things which you absolutely cannot do when people don’t believe you’re in control. The difference between the two (in and out of control) is both subtle and monumental – you know when someone is ‘alpha’ and when someone isn’t, you know it for sure, but you often can’t explain why.

In your workplace it’s little things – if the boss asks a question, who does everyone else in the room’s eyes turn to? That’s who’s really running things. You hear someone speak up in a meeting and everyone’s eyes dip downwards into their notepads. That person isn’t. You can always tell when someone is or isn’t being followed by others, even if you couldn’t explain why you can tell.

Yousef is not in control. He tries hard to give the impression he is, but I haven’t met anyone (even people sympathetic towards him) who think he’s got the undivided attention of the room. Some suggest he might ‘grow into it’, but not that he’s currently got it.

if saying the SNP leadership is clueless is an expulsion event, it is going to be a very small party very soon

Do you think Fergus Ewing would still have the SNP whip if he had voted against one of Sturgeon’s ministerial team in a vote of No Confidence? No, concluded Yousef, and sent his people out to brief the media that Ewing was going to be expelled. Then his mum died and everyone realised that, symbolically, he had nothing like the political capital to appear to insult the son of a giant of the movement. Which means he bottled it.

So when people tell me ‘look, they had no option but to expel Angus McNeil’, I shrug you a shrug that I hope you are very much taking to mean ‘bollocks’. Voting No Confidence in a Government Minister is a more egregious contravention of party discipline than calling your leader ‘clueless’.

Put simply, Yousef almost certainly talked to advisers and they concluded ‘having bottled it over Fergus, if we let Angus off with this it’ll be a deluge’. They’re wrong – it’ll be a deluge eventually anyway because the performance of this regime is poor at every level. All this has done is make the party look fragile, intolerant, lacking in even-handedness and pointlessly authoritarian.

If Jeremy Corbyn had expelled people for calling him ‘clueless’, (or worse), half of his parliament would have been gone. Likewise Truss, and May, and Johnson at the end, and Sunak soon. I mean, have you seen what some of Starmer’s MPs say about him?

And seriously, if saying the SNP leadership is clueless is an expulsion event, it is going to be a very small party very soon. I am already talking to embarrassed activists who told me after the Dundee event ‘I’m a bit sceptical but he’s promising a new start’. Well, you don’t have a new start, you’ve got fake campaigns, a fragmenting party and the message that there is no space in the ‘broad church’ SNP for a figure such as Angus McNeil.

I have no idea what the people running the SNP think is happening, but I presume it’s not ‘look weak, brittle, directionless and failing to deliver – again’.

I think it is probably already too late for Yousef. I think he had a chance to not be the problem and I think he misjudged the problem. But if it is not to be too late, he needs to find some substance to his rhetoric and he’s got to stop fragmenting what is left any further with heavy-handed expulsions and more wild-eyed promises that don’t come true.

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