The scale of the problem

by | 6 Feb 2023

The SNP leader is now obstinately driving further and further in a direction for which she has no support. Unless people intervene, the resulting destination is a real worry

Take a step back and reflect on the position in which the SNP finds itself. It is alarming. The party is now stuck with a bunch of unravelling disasters which have little support internally but where it seems the intention is to brazen things out nevertheless. The signs of the damage this is doing already are everywhere; the damage that could be done is even worse.

Unless a group of people inside the SNP wake up to this soon and start to plan for some kind of exit, it is hard to see a route to a positive outcome. I’ve been taking quite a few soundings in the last couple of weeks and the current path appears to lead nowhere but disaster.

This crisis (and it is a crisis) is headlined by two matters in particular. The first is obviously the situation the party finds itself in around gender. Setting aside what you think about the debate personally and looking only at its secondary consequences, this one is horrible.

The Scottish Government is stuck with a policy that drags with it two major barriers. The first is that it doesn’t have a lot of support internally or externally. I want to be clear what I’m arguing here; I’m not making a comment on the general levels of support or otherwise for the legislation inside the party, I’m talking about the level of support for turning this into a wedge issue that defines the party.

It is widely known that one of the arguments used by the SNP leadership privately with people in the parliamentary group who had doubts about the GRR was that the best way to make it go away was to vote for it so it would be quickly forgotten. Senior people in the party I’ve spoken to are horrified that this issue might dominate for the foreseeable future.

That is partly for the second reason this is such a horrible issue to deal with – it will inevitably throw up unpleasant stories of the misuse of the legislation. There was never not going to be abuse of the system (that’s what abusers do) and by refusing to add barriers or breaks to be seen to prevent abuse, the SNP left itself in a position in which it ‘owns’ these unpleasant stories.

But the bigger problem is the SNP leadership. From day one this regime has taken a ‘no retreat, no surrender’ attitude to every problem. Every setback has been met with a programme of escalation, the greater the setback the more aggressive the escalation. From internal party democracy to government policy to independence strategy, the one thing this regime does not do is listen to concerns and negotiate.

The desire to make gender reform the defining issue of 2023 for the SNP is in little evidence anywhere I’ve been

Rather it seeks to blast those with concerns with every gun available (which is a lot of guns when you are in total control of both government and your party). But on this occasion that would be a disaster. The First Minister is told ‘no’ and so chooses immediately to announce the most aggressive defence of the policy, including a full legal challenge to Westminster’s blocking manoeuvre .

Yet again, it doesn’t matter your view of what is right or wrong here in terms of policy, in terms of strategy a judicial review followed by an inevitable Supreme Court case makes sure this issue (on which you have little support) dominates the next year. Which means every horrible abuse of the story will be inextricably linked to the SNP. And you’ll probably lose the case anyway.

Should this be seen as a matter of utmost principle where the price paid politically is worth it for righting a terrible wrong? That is something you’ll have your own views on, but I note wryly the number of lectures I’ve had about how policies I support which are much, much less contentious (and more widely supported) than this are too dangerous because they would scare off floating voters who could be won over to independence.

As I point out, the desire to make this the defining issue of 2023 for the SNP is in little evidence anywhere I’ve been. And the news on the other big issue for 2023 is no better for the SNP leadership – I find very few figures in the party who are willing to tell you in private that they think a de facto referendum at a General Election is a good idea. In the wider movement there are even fewer.

The conversations I’ve had about this (and they’re varied) basically revolve around how badly this could go if Sturgeon is absolutely determined to save face and manages to get her ‘special conference’ to force it through. People want a u-turn, and we know this lady’s attitude to turning.

Sturgeon hasn’t ever faced two issues of such danger to her where she is so exposed and so without support. I doubt she has the political capital left simply to ignore her party, and with the cumulative impact of all of this being a sharp drop in support for the SNP and independence in the polls and Sturgeon herself hitting negative territory (where she’s putting off more voters than she’s attracting), this is nasty.

And outside that particular frying pan is not so much a fire as an all-consuming conflagration. It is really hard to overstate how disastrously her ‘flagship’ policy of a National Care Service is going. It’s going way worse than her last two flagship policies of major education reform and a seamless roll-out of universal childcare, and that is some going.

From drug deaths to dualling the A9, from the desperate state of the NHS to the increasingly desperate state of education, ferries to Freeports, renewable energy to climate change, Ukrainian refugees to local government funding, hospitality industry to bottle return schemes, if the Scottish Government could possibly screw it up it has.

This a big problem. When you have a major crisis on one flank, generally you want to draw people’s attention to something else, something positive (which was, for example, the entire Blair strategy post-Iraq war). The Scottish Government has nothing to point to.

Beyond this Sturgeon has party issues galore. There is something really odd about Peter Murrell’s loan to the party (of which naturally Sturgeon has no recollection) and he also faces a pretty stonewall case of misappropriating funds. If rumours are true of mass resignations over the gender debate (and I don’t believe their membership numbers to begin with), that creates enormous financial headaches.

The third-rate team Sturgeon keeps close to her based not on their ability but their pliability is incapable of getting a grip on a carrier bag never mind a government

But fundamentally, Sturgeon has survived mainly because she persuaded enough people in the movement that she was the best (and indeed only) person to lead the independence movement to victory. This was always an illusion, but again I now detect very, very few people who actually think this is true.

Which in turn is hardly surprising. Frankly, after the time she’s had and the opportunities that have fallen into her lap, if she hasn’t made progress by now (and she’s made none whatsoever), what is sustaining our suspension of disbelief? We are way past ‘all of the people some of the time’ and miles into ‘some of the people all of the time’ territory.

I can’t repeat this enough; Sturgeon does not have support and certainly not in the places that matter. The Yes Airdrie announcement that they are effectively calling it a day until something credible happens may be the first to say it out loud, but that has been the reality across the country for a while now.

Participation in SNP branch politics has collapsed (I saw one AGM which has shed over 80 per cent of its participants in a couple of years, and another that couldn’t be held because it wasn’t quorate). Yes groups are either largely defunct or grinding it out for the sake of duty.

Sturgeon knows this. That’s why she’s going on a greatest hits tour, resurrecting her press conferences in the hope that, absent the ability to demonstrate her value based on evidence, she might be able to persuade voters directly that she’s still the solution and not the problem. (And they even managed to screw that up.)

This is probably pointless. Sturgeon is finished and all that remains is to find out how long she intends to continue before acknowledging the fact and leaving. Don’t underestimate how long this could be; Tony Blair stayed on for three years after it was clear he was finished – and did enormous damage to his party in the process.

The only way out of all of this that I can see is to reverse, and to do so quickly. Unless the SNP as a whole wants to treat the gender reform legislation as an issue over which to die in a ditch, some compromise is going to be needed. If the SNP wants to hold the movement together it needs to quietly (as possible) drop the de facto referendum stuff.

And it needs to get a grip on government and accept that the de-democratisation of the party is a serious problem for its long-term health. The problem is that all of these tasks seem impossible while her clique is in control.

One of the first thing a truly democratised SNP would do is fire Peter Murrell and reform the party, The third-rate team Sturgeon keeps close to her based not on their ability but their pliability is incapable of getting a grip on a carrier bag never mind a government.

But most of all, Nicola Sturgeon has shown no capability for humility. She refuses to acknowledge even the mildest of dissent as legitimate and responds through hostility and suppression.

Today she made clear, almost certainly against the will of the vast majority of her party and indeed her parliamentarians, that she intends to sustain a long and probably losing fight over the GRR, dragging this issue out for the foreseeable future. She presumably thinks that any show of weakness right now could spell the end for her.

It could, but so could obstinacy, inaction or almost any other response. When you’ve lost support, nothing is a safe bet other than negotiation, and Sturgeon doesn’t negotiate.

I chuckle when Alyn Smith and Shirley Anne Sommerville propose that those out of step with ‘the party’ should consider resigning. Do either of them have any awareness whatsoever about how poorly they are regarded in their party? About how thin is the thread holding up their careers? About how quickly the era of patronage which sustained them is coming to an end?

And it is coming to an end. The remaining question is whether everyone who doesn’t live in the same house as the First Minister are passive bystanders or not. Will her colleagues and her party be content to let her drive further and further into this perilous terrain into which she is steering them? Or will they see sense and take action?

That simple question may make the difference between having a fighting chance of repairing what is now wall-to-wall damage, or being dragged down by an arrogant, out-of-touch leader who now seems entirely incapable of learning any lessons. Or changing.

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