The incoherence which points to a political implosion

by | 6 Mar 2024

The current SNP leadership can't get its story straight and senior figures are improvising contradictory stances. This is the sign of a party in very serious trouble.

The SNP leadership is imploding. It is nothing to do with polls and votes. It is nothing to do with desperate party finances. It is nothing to do with multiple legal cases on the horizon. It is nothing to do with government statistics which demonstrate pretty full-spectrum failures. It is absolutely nothing to do with what you’re all saying on social media.

Don’t get me wrong, these things are all clear signs of trouble, but in every case above it is possible to cite external factors beyond the party’s control – disillusionment among voters, cost of living crisis, we deny everything, it’s Westminster cutting our budgets, the public is just noise…. And if all of these excuses were true, it would be possible to reframe and recover from the errors concerned.

But that’s not the conclusive evidence of the implosion. That comes from the complete incoherence of the party’s decision-making and its utter lack of internal discipline. Let me give you a taste of the situation (I was going to include links but there’s too many and I can’t be bothered).

The SNP is 100 per cent committed to being in Westminster but it is considering pulling out. It is a progressive, tax-raising government which wants tax-dodging ‘freeports’ not only on our shoreline but on all of our high streets. It is committed to ending child poverty by offering a giant Council Tax perk to the rich and brutally slashing affordable homes budgets.

It is cutting £6 million from the arts but only so it can double arts funding. It is leading the world on climate change but can’t see enough oil drilled. It is on the side of the consumers in the cost of living crisis but not if the giant oil producers (who caused much of it) are to be taxed. It is going to get rid of nukes by making nukes legal and it is going to join Nato but retain an independent foreign policy stance.

It wants you to eat healthily – but not porridge. It despises all sex crimes and will legislate thoroughly but repeatedly protects insiders accused of sex crimes. It will be the most transparent and accountable government ever but with the worst accountability statistics. It wants to reform land by increasing land prices through enormous subsidies to large land owners.

It will achieve independence by doing the same thing that didn’t achieve independence before, over and over again. It wants strong communities but will not grant them local democracy. It hates the Council Tax but won’t replace it it. It is continuity but everything keeps changing.

And today they announced that Cabinet tucked into a lovely cake which they all enjoyed, but they want you to know that that cake remains intact and is in their possession – you can find it woven through the accounts.

Yousaf is telling one story but Angus Robertson, Keith Brown and Stephen Flynn clearly aren’t confident in that story and so are improvising alternatives

This is the thing; there is an enormous amount about the world that you can’t control, but one thing you absolutely can control is your internal coherence. I mean, even Trump can do that (not that his internal coherence is coherent, it’s just consistently unhinged in the same way each time). If you’re contradicting yourself, and if you created both sides of the argument with which you’re contradicting yourself, that’s 100 per cent on you.

It is important to understand why this is important. The purpose of policy is partly to change society and partly to tell a story about the society you’re trying to create. Both aspects of this are important in a democracy because if the public don’t understand the story policy is trying to tell, the policy risks losing support.

On top of this, humans respond to other humans better when they are consistent. We find people who have giant swings in disposition difficult to deal with because we expect some degree of predictability in our dealings with others. We sense very quickly when someone is being two things at once, and this applies to institutions too. Your company can rebrand all you want but if you’re telling two competing stories it is unlikely to work. Your audience must hear one story.

The rules of that story are actually really straightforward. You can get away with saying an awful lot of stuff (see Brexit…) and it doesn’t need to be true as long as it has two features. The first of these is what US talk show host Stephen Colbert wonderfully called ‘truthiness’. Truthiness is the capacity of something to sound like it could be true. If something instantly sounds like it is definitely not true, you will struggle to tell the story.

The second rule is that the story must have internal coherence. You can get an audience to believe a man can fly, but you can’t then have a plot strand that involves trapping him in a space without a roof. The entire audience is just going ‘fly out man!’.

The current SNP falls down on lots of fronts here. Seriously, VAT-free zones in areas with high numbers of hospitality businesses? What about a pub in an area without a high number of other hospitality businesses? Are its customers to pay 20 per cent more for their drinks? Can a construction business buy an office in the low-tax zone? You’ve not thought this through Stephen Flynn, have you?

And it is internally incoherent anyway, because no-one in the hospitality industry was asking for VAT-free zones, they were asking for business rates relief, and you didn’t give them it in the Scottish Budget. So why is this a better idea (other than that you’re not paying for it)? And that’s now low tax policies you’re pursuing on both BP and Wetherspoons. What’s your story?

It’s not progressive, it’s a standard right-wing approach to the economy. That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, it just means you have to tell it coherently, to make it make sense along with everything else you’ve said. And that’s just one small example (which no-one will remember next week because it’s all but unworkable and won’t happen so is just more contradictory noise).

The situation is basically this; to maintain one faction’s control of the party it all but rigged its leadership election to bring in a continuity candidate who then brought in a continuity cabinet and a set of continuity staffers. This worked brilliantly – everyone kept their pension plans. Sadly, few of them are up to the job and everything they touch seems to fall apart.

Observing this and the predictable public reaction outcomes, others in the party are panicking and trying to steer the party out of this through brilliant ideas they thought up in the bath. Yousaf is telling one story but Angus Robertson, Keith Brown and Stephen Flynn clearly aren’t confident in that story and so are improvising alternatives.

And (deep breath…) that’s a Cabinet Secretary, the Deputy Party Leader and the Leader of the Westminster Group. If you’re going to kite-fly ideas you don’t have confidence in, get a backbencher to do it. And plan the bloody thing, don’t just say it. I don’t get the impression they’re talking to each in advance.

For many people the story the SNP has been telling is not perceivable as ‘true’ on the ground

For a decade now the SNP has used policy really only for one of its two purposes. It has told the story that the SNP wanted to tell, but it has not backed that up with legislation and actions which deliver it.

There’s too much of that to cover here but the various bits of land reform legislation didn’t reform land ownership (actually, the opposite), the Good Food Nation Bill won’t improve our food system, the various twiddlings in the sphere of local democracy increased the amount of local democracy not at all, its ‘world leading climate change stance’ is all but illusory and there has never been a coherent plan.

For many people the story the SNP has been telling is not perceivable as ‘true’ on the ground. As a result the SNP is trying out new ones left, right and centre. Don’t like their principles? Fear not, they have more…

Everyone can smell Yousaf’s weakness. He is a nice man who gets through the day by saying ‘yes’ to everyone. And that approach is failing in exactly the way you’d imagine, which is what has encouraged all the freelancing. Sadly, those doing the freelancing don’t seem to have any more compelling stories than those nominally running things.

This is total chaos and, in the course of less than a year, Yousaf has managed to say so many incoherent and contradictory things that will be quoted back to him that I think he’s basically already finished. I spoke to a party figure who had, until now, been defending him robustly. That person told me this week its over, that he has made too many mistakes and crossed too many lines. I doubt that is a lonely position to be in.

It turns out that running a party and leading a country is a skillset after all, something you need to have the ability to do. No-one teaches that ability and I’ve never seen someone develop it on the job. The SNP should draw only one conclusion; the team running the show are variations of nice, well-meaning, hard-working, mendacious, venal and vindictive. What they aren’t is up to the job.

When you’ve contradicted yourself three times before lunch, the games up. The SNP better start thinking hard about what comes next.

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