Humility saves jobs

by | 24 May 2023

Can the SNP give up its habit of bravado-ing its way through everything and never admitting to weakness? If it doesn't the chances are it is at the top of a downwards spiral.

There is clearly alarm at the latest opinion poll. It says the SNP is going to face major losses in the General Election. It seems to have been the poll that made some people realise this is a consistent pattern now. But is this enough to get the party to face reality?

Because I want to make one clear argument in this piece; costing a lot of politicians their jobs is the tip of the spiral which takes you deep into real crisis. Strategically I’m ambivalent about SNP MPs and their contribution – it’s not necessarily them, it’s hard to do anything useful at Westminster.

But I’m concerned about the longer term strategic implications of a General Election implosion and so minimising that implosion is something in which I have a real interest. At this point there is only one thing which I think can prevent a rapid descent down the spiral, and that is humility. The SNP needs (right now) to learn from the experience of Scottish Labour in 2007.

While others are shocked or surprised by YouGov’s latest findings, I can’t understand why – other than a lack of realism. I’ve been looking at some responses to today’s news and they seem to involve a substantial sprinkling of accusation and exceptionalism. Accusation as in ‘this is only happening because of the malicious actions of…’. Exceptionalism as in ‘everything is going fine except…’.

Both are variations of ‘the one thing’ theory. Both work on the old Holywood idea that everything was in total equilibrium until that single ‘inciting incident’, that ‘one thing’ that throws the equilibrium off-balance. You know, aliens land or the hero’s girlfriend dies or some lazy crap like that.

There are two very good reasons why people cling to this formulation. The first is that it justifies everything you thought before – if there was equilibrium a couple of months ago, you were totally correct to be certain that all was right with the world. The second is it creates easy blame – the ‘just one thing’ can be attributed to one bad actor or by the well-meaning but mistaken actions of one good actor.

Here’s the problem; there is a basic thought experiment that is used by psychologists in a situation like this, which is to ask if you would have a reason to believe a thing even if you knew it wasn’t true (like how its comforting to pretend that the thing you just broke only broke because someone else left it in the wrong place, even though you know it was where it usually is).

So when I hear people saying ‘it’s the media exaggerating the ferry problem’ or ‘it’s the police mounting an MI5-engineered smear plot’ or ‘it was the Supreme Court blocking the referendum’ my immediate reaction is ‘I can see how lovely it would be for you if this was true’. Likewise the accusations – I see a bunch of people claiming this is the fault of fair-weather indy supporters who ‘owe’ the party which they are now betraying.

Fixing things isn’t a ‘tomorrow task’, but the longer the party remains in denial the more impossible becomes the fix

In 2007 this ‘one thing’ was, for Scottish Labour, an illegitimate election outcome. Yes the SNP was the biggest party (by a whisker), they told themselves, but us and our coalition partners the Lib Dems got more votes so we’re the legitimate government. The fact that the Lib Dems didn’t see it that way is unfortunate.

And for four years that’s what Scottish Labour believed – that at the next election this would all be righted again, as long as the party didn’t consume itself with soul-searching over a result which was always illegitimate anyway. And then they got largely wiped out.

This is getting to last-chance saloon territory for the SNP. The General Election is almost certainly not going to happen this year but it could be any time after that. Fixing things isn’t a ‘tomorrow task’. But the longer the party remains in denial the more impossible becomes the fix. Sure the party will feel it must exude its usual (increasingly unpersuasive) bravado in public.

But it cannot afford to do that in private (not that doing it in public is a great idea). It needs a very, very big dose of humility. There actually is ‘one thing’ which is the cause of all of this, but it was from years ago when the party decided to stop scrutinising its own leader and start just taking their word for everything. But now it’s a multi-headed problem.

The SNP has been very bad in government. Even people I know who say ‘but the mainstream unionist media exaggerates all of this’ will now follow up with a quiet ‘although it genuinely is all pretty bad’. Let’s do some electoral problem-stacking.

First subtract some island seats because the ferries are a national embarrassment and people have had enough. Now look at anywhere with a tight majority where the quality of healthcare is a factor for voters (lots) and subtract them. Next take ten people who work in education, care, health or local government and subtract two of them who support indy but are beyond sick to death (I know loads).

Keep going. The staff of a small brewery screwed by Lorna Slater’s kamikaze attitude to legislating, the woman whose mother died of Covid in a care home, the lawyer who is boycotting the juryless rape trials pilot. Subtract, subtract, subtract. They don’t need to vote for someone else. They just need to not vote SNP.

Then move on to independence supporters. What did they get out of the last ten years? A shift in the polls? Progress to independence? Proper answers to the questions people are asking about currency and borders? A united movement? Nope, they got ‘summers of independence’. I know the SNP thinks they’re daft, but they’re not daft. They can see failure. I know strong indy supporters who want the SNP do bomb at this election as a protest.

Even party members are sick of the way the party is run. For every loyalist noisily shouting online about how this police investigation is an MI5 plot there are probably five quietly going ‘well, given the shoddy way they ran the party, I’m not surprised there are irregularities’.

My hope is that the approaching unemployment of senior figures in the party may focus minds enough to balance the hubris

And then there is a difficult subject to broach (for the SNP). In the immediate post-Sturgeon swagger there was an awful lot of talk about how it didn’t matter that Humza Yousaf was very unpopular with the public because the SNP transcends all things, plus indy, plus ‘he’ll come on to a game’.

The fact is that he only became leader because of wild gerrymandering of the election process and because candidate expenditure hasn’t been audited and because they wilfully and deliberately tried to cover up the crisis unfolding until they got him elected. They expect everyone to behave like he is new, isn’t responsible for the government he was in for years. They expect people to overlook the irregularities in his election and see him as 100 per cent legit.

But above all they refuse to admit that there might just have been a touch of hubris in electing a deeply unpopular leader who has genuinely found life in government ‘greatly challenging’, offering the electorate a kind of not-that-subtle ‘fuck you, what are you going to do about it? He’s our boy and you’re going to have to learn to live with it.’

Except the thing about hubris is that the public doesn’t have to live with this. It can vote for someone else or stay home. Failing to see this is arrogant. Failing to take it seriously is actually insulting to voters. Being surprised about it just rubs salt in the wound.

The SNP urgently needs to find some humility. It needs to accept that perhaps it has been a really bad government, perhaps it has led its supporters up the garden path on the issues of independence, perhaps it was a step too far to knowingly elect a deeply unpopular leader with a poor track record simply because it was internally advantageous for the party’s payroll.

None of this is easy to fix. If this was a video game sim, this was the opening backstory and I was tasked to pick up my controller and play a strategy game to put things together again I’d quite enjoy the challenge. Asked to do that in the real world with my reputation at stake I would think very long and hard about it. (Presumably this is why they have just appointed an inexperienced kid as their chief media adviser.)

I can see things you could do. If you’ve failed people then often the first step is to make sure they sense you recognise and appropriately value their feelings about your failure (rather than telling them that what they feel is wrong because you’re fucking brilliant). A little public self-reflection prior to fixing things can work wonders. I know how they could start to turn around their policy disasters.

But at the moment its not possible to do any of this, because a fundamentally inexperienced team of people who are not at the top of their field are still hunting around for that ‘one thing’ they can blame. Any one thing which isn’t their own performance.

This is a locked room, but there is a key for escaping and it’s called humility. If the SNP starts there and moves quickly it might stem this tide of disillusionment. It isn’t going to save all its seats, but it could save some. My hope is that the approaching unemployment of senior figures in the party may focus minds enough to balance the hubris.

Because the only thing that is preventing the factors above from resulting in a total rout is independence and Labour’s unwillingness to take a neutral stance on a referendum. And, with independence not convincingly on the table just now, this poll slide is in no sense at its theoretical bottom. There is so much time for things to go so much worse.

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