Is the SNP in an existential crisis? Alison Rowatt thinks Yes, Stephen Flynn definitely doesn’t. Who is right? The answer to that (and how to survive it) comes down to what you mean by existential crisis.
It can have two meanings. One means a crisis which might lead to an entity no longer existing – a crisis of its existence. Another means existential in the philosophical sense, a question about the purpose of someone’s continued existence. Both of these are legitimately known as existential crisis.
It is unlikely (but not impossible) that the SNP will cease to exist any time soon. It would need a collapse in confidence and a credible replacement and at least the latter isn’t there just now (Peter Murrell seems to be working tirelessly on the former though). Simply put, independence supporters have nowhere else to go which is likely to deliver for them.
But dear god is the SNP in an existential crisis of the other sort. What it was for has been clear in recent years – it was for a referendum taking place in 18 months time and it was for showcasing a leader with enormous internal support in furtherance of the referendum. Now? These are gone.
If you stop and think for two seconds, these purposes were always ephemeral, constantly on the verge of simply disappearing. There was no ‘new Sturgeon’ in the ranks so no inspirational leader to showcase and no effective team to come to the forefront either. Whenever she was gone, half the purpose of her SNP was always going to evaporate overnight.
And the referendum purpose was, not to put to fine a point on it, an outright lie. It was never, ever 18 months away. Instead increasingly desperate attempts were made to delay that reckoning – and it seems de facto General Election referendum stretched an increasingly sceptical party too far.
It’s other ‘purposes’ were equally ephemeral under Sturgeon, because they were subfunctions of the showcasing function. Climate targets were not about reducing carbon in the atmosphere but about foregrounding the leader. ‘Progressiveness’ has been a strange, moving target which just kept moving, more as a result of party management issues than defining mission.
‘It’s only progressive if Nicola says it is’ and ‘it’s only climate change when Nicola says it is’ were all well and good in a culture war with Salmond or if you want your photo taken with famous people at a climate summit – but what when Nicola is no longer there to tell you what you think?
I wasn’t trying to destroy the SNP by being critical, I was genuinely trying to save it
This was all very, very clear to me a long time ago. I spent time looking closely at what was happening and it was all on the surface with little substance behind it and a lot of creative accounting with the truth. It was only sustained by the will of a single person and there was no sense of what would sustain it after she was gone.
It is this which was most upsetting among the many attacks I faced over the seven years in which I’ve been trying repeatedly to warn everyone that this was going on. I wasn’t trying to destroy the SNP by being critical, I was genuinely trying to save it. Not because I love the SNP but because I believe in independence and a weak, divided, directionless SNP was never going to deliver.
I met up with a number of senior people in the party in 2019 because I sensed things were then moving quickly towards a denouement. I was asking them their views on how to save things if I turned out to be right. Excuse my hubris but I even had a reasonably detailed ‘saving the SNP’ strategy drafted on my desktop.
Sadly some of the figures I talked to were soon after no longer in the party and of course Covid hit, delaying the denouement and meaning questions of emergency reform were less urgent. And even though my predictions were 18 months out because of this, they were accurate, and we’re there now.
So at this stage my desire to see the SNP saved is not only undimmed, it is becoming urgent. Which means, unavoidably, returning to the genuine existential crisis in the party and trying to work out how to resolve the internal conflicts such that a new purpose in life can be discovered – other than talking about things a lot.
This crisis runs along a number of fault lines, ideological, personal and strategic. Some of them require nuance, some require decisions to be made. Whether combatants can tell the difference between these things and whether they can find the nuance when needed but be decisive when needed may be make or break.
There just isn’t space to cover all of the issues here but let me raise a few key ones. First, is the SNP a broad church or not? Sturgeon proclaimed its breadth even as she was closing the walls in further and further. In recent years her staff regularly briefed the media with wet dreams of how their latest intolerant putsch would drive the last of their undesirables out the party until what remained was a paragon of ideological purity.
If the SNP wants to undo this it needs nuance. For my money the divisions over a number of issues in the SNP were largely manufactured. I didn’t believe at any point that a consensual compromise over gender recognition reform would have been impossible – if the subject hadn’t been used first and foremost as a weapon against Sturgeon’s opponents.
It would have taken only a few tweaks and a bit of listening to have got legislation through with the genuine backing of the party. Is that an approach it will take in future? Or is it cultural faction-wars from now on?
That is where decisions come in, because there are people in the SNP who seem to be there solely for the purpose of cultural faction-wars (and salaries and influence they couldn’t get elsewhere). Sturgeon used a small fringe to punish another fairly small fringe and lost touch with the broad membership in the process. At this point someone is going to have to decide between the broad membership and the furious fringe.
Independence strategy is another massive issue. Sturgeon… didn’t have one. She just told fairy tales about a referendum which wasn’t happening. The SNP has three options on the table when it comes to progress to independence – fast and wild, lethargic but controlled or generational (i.e. no strategy at all). Will people bang heads over this forever?
They don’t need to. Now that independence strategy can become about something other than protecting Nicola Sturgeon’s position it will become possible to formulate a coherent strategy which is fast but controlled. It’s not difficult, it just needs people to actually want it (I will write on this soon.)
For my money the divisions over a number of issues in the SNP were largely manufactured
The left-right split in the party shouldn’t be that hard to deal with either, because it’s not a big split. Barring a small number of people the SNP is solidly left of centre. But (again, subject for a future article) it is going to have to decide what it means by ‘left’. At the moment it is a very middle class kind of left, defined much more by coalition partners the Greens than by the SNP.
It is what I will call ‘punitive environmentalism’ which is a big bit of the problem. There is an ideological belief among some environmentalists that we have done so much damage that we now need to suffer for what we’ve done in the process of solving it. This is silly and unhelpful, alienates people and yet still manages to avoid big policy steps, particularly on democracy, the economy and poverty.
As a reminder it is a Green Minister who is simultaneously undermining a Publicly-owned Energy Company on behalf of the government while introducing the incredibly neoliberal ‘PFI for Trees’ scheme. This manages to be both provocative and ineffectual. I think this is easily resolved by setting out to do some serious, big things which are structural rather than virtue-signalling.
The biggest decision to be made is about the payroll. Like the party, the payroll had a very specific function under Sturgeon – to idolise her, to cover up anything that embarrassed her and to punish those who didn’t idolise her. Given that this is a function actual monkeys could perform, the quality of the payroll is not high.
A new leader who wants to lead has a simple decision to make – how much bloodshed is enough to clear out the problem without triggering a full civil war? Watching the way the payroll is behaving just now I’m afraid that if it is anyone other than Humza who wins, the answer is going to be more bloodletting and not less. It absolutely must start with Peter Murrell who is a disgrace.
What I think is non-negotiable for a leader who doesn’t want a rebellion of their grassroots is serious democratic reform. All three candidates have mouthed a commitment to reform of some sort but anything substantial that is done will be done in the first 18 months. I’d suggest a new leader should want to make their mark with a serious reform package at party conference in October.
The worst of what remains is personality clash, and that’s the hardest to deal with. I’m not being unnecessarily unkind when I state that there are an awful lot of elected members in the SNP whose sense of their own ability stretches well, well ahead of any reason to have that sense. It is a party of egos.
There isn’t a single solution to that. It requires the hardest judgement call of all – when a new leader needs to be firm and when they need to be sensitive and accommodating. For what it’s worth I would argue that the instincts may be towards the latter but that that will be much safer for a new incumbent after a little bit of the former.
So is the SNP in an existential crisis? Yup, with bells on. Scottish Labour 2008-scale crisis. Is it at risk of irrelevance? No, not in the immediate term. Could it be if it doesn’t get its act together? Most certainly. Can it get its act together? I think so. Will it? I like my predictions to come true, so I’ll leave that one to you.