Here’s the thing about conflict; everyone has a very specific view on when you should think of the conflict as having started. With an ongoing conflict, the point at which you ‘tune in’ to what is happening will entirely colour your interpretation of what is going on. What’s going on in the SNP is that it’s at risk of falling apart and blaming the messenger is no longer a viable response.
First, what do I mean by the importance of how you date the start of conflict? This is straightforward. If you see someone throw a drink over someone else in a pub you assume they are the problem. Then you discover that, just before when you weren’t looking, the ‘victim’ had punched the drink-thrower. Now causality is reversed – until you learn that the puncher was grievously wronged shortly before that…
And that, in a very concise nutshell, is a large proportion of human history. It is Israel/Palestine, it is the Balkan Wars, it is the Irish Troubles, it is Indian-Pakistani diplomacy – and it is the SNP too, inevitably, because the SNP is a human institution.
So when you read lots of outrage about Kate Forbes and Ash Regan criticising Humza Yousaf and the SNP machinery, it opens up a much bigger question about the future of the SNP. I stress this just now because if the scale of the crisis facing the SNP, the cause of independence and Scotland hasn’t hit you yet, it will shortly.
Here’s the officially-sanctioned Humza camp explanation. Humza had been minding his own business and being brilliant and then Kate Forbes went on national telly and ruined it all by calling him useless and the Scottish Government mediocre. The SNP has also been busy being brilliant until Ash Regan went on national TV and screwed that up by saying the party had lost its way.
And what that has done is to leave ammunition for ‘the unionists’ (the SNP now operates like a creche, the children kept in line with tales of the boogey man). That is now going to get repeated back at the SNP forever, totally ruining independence and all that.
A reasonable person, however, might roll back a couple of weeks and wonder if it really all started at 9PM on Wednesday (the Humza camp’s Ground Zero). For example, virtually the first comment that came from anyone inside the SNP about the leadership contest was for a Sturgeon press briefer to describe Ash Regan as Lord Buckethead (it was in the Scotsman – can’t find the link).
But that was peanuts compared to what awaited Kate Forbes. She was to be portrayed not as mediocre but as evil, unfit for office, an SNP leader her own MSPs would vote against as First Minister. If you want an example of throwing around comments which are designed to undermine a candidate if they win Swinney’s ‘is she even appropriate’ or the unnamed MSPs saying she is unfit for them to vote for might be a more persuasive starting-point than ‘mediocre’.
A reasonable person, however, might roll back a couple of weeks and wonder if the current conflict really all started at 9PM on Wednesday
If you looked into Kate Forbes’ eyes as she delivered her barbs about Humza’s (undeniably poor) performance in government and you couldn’t see a hint of someone who has been horribly bullied hitting back then I suggest you weren’t paying attention. Politicians get hurt too.
So if you time the SNP’s conflict to the beginning of the leadership campaign it is absolutely clearly the case that it was Humza’s camp which set the brutal tone. Their strategy was based on the fact he’s a really weak candidate so they had been operating on a straightforward ‘destroy Kate, ignore Ash, say Nicola a lot’ pattern. And it has been failing badly.
But can you really date this conflict to three weeks ago either? The people who were outraged at Forbes’ intervention in the SNP debate are the people who said the worst things about Kate – and they are hardly new to the business of ‘control through personal attack’ as I have pointed out before.
Put really simply if you want to date the start of the current conflict in the SNP you need to go a fair way backwards. The regime that has been in control of the party has maintained that control through punishment beatings. Serious bullying in the SNP was not only endemic, it was systematic.
This is my point; when you let the conflict genie out of its bottle it is very hard to put it back in again. Why is Alba such an angry entity at times? In part because half its members were bullied out of the SNP in various ways. Why do Sturgeon critics so often make it personal? Because her people made it personal about them.
That’s why I think people are missing the real dynamic in the leadership election. What is really happening is that everything simmering under the lid in the party as a result of almost ten years of aggressive suppression of dissent is bubbling up.
Every tough question which was studiously avoided, every party policy that was never really supported, every strategic decision into which almost no-one got any input, every grievance resulting from the behaviour of the party’s officially sanctioned bullies – it is all surfacing. And it will keep surfacing from now on.
Why? Because the party’s sanctioned bullies all work for and so hid behind Nicola Sturgeon and that made them invincible. But now the same group of people are hiding behind Humza Yousaf and that makes them very vincible indeed.
They are about to lose their unchallenged hegemony no matter what happens and that makes them desperate – which in turn makes them dangerous. They tried to make the leadership campaign appear and disappear with lightning rapidity in an attempt to continue to suppress debate and hope it would eventually go away. It hasn’t.
If something isn’t working and someone else has a better idea, it may not always be welcome but it is usually essential it is heard.
But they are only as dangerous as a powerful leader lets them be. They are not the real danger. The real danger is much, much more pressing. You see Kate Forbes was simply wrong to say that the Scottish Government was mediocre. The Scottish Government was briefly mediocre but from the moment Sturgeon’s education plans began to unravel, virtually nothing went well.
The Scottish Government isn’t mediocre, it is utterly disaster-prone. Humza isn’t a bit out of his depth, Humza has been completely overwhelmed by every governmental brief he has had. The SNP hasn’t lost its way, the SNP is on the verge of an existential struggle.
When things are this bad (there is a serious possibility that the SNP’s Chief Executive could be imprisoned for fraud) there isn’t a pain-free way to resolve them. Discussing them at any time and in any forum will be very painful. The problems are fundamentally ugly. There is no two ways about it.
But not discussing these problems is why the SNP is up to its neck in them. The world didn’t need Kate Forbes to articulate the problems encircling the Scottish Government – they’re very, very real, and they’re coming in thick and fast whether she names them or not. But the SNP really, really needs her and others to articulate them nonetheless, because they are going to sink the party and the cause of independence.
Is a live TV debate the place to do that? Not ideally, but the blame for that lies with those who repressed and prevented absolutely every other forum in which it could have taken place.
It Humza is put in charge the whole machinery of the SNP will once again be thrown behind making sure the children aren’t allowed to discuss important matters any more. The leadership election may therefore be the one and only chance the party has to explore these issues. Reducing it to a three-week campaign forces people’s hand, making the debate more brutal than needed.
This is the Sturgeon/Murrell legacy and the party can try and ignore it if it wants but it is coming for it anyway. If a leadership debate (the only debate you’re getting folks) isn’t the place to do it I would be interested to hear what is. And if anyone is thinking about saying ‘party democracy’ could you give me advance notice while I prepare to stifle my laughter.
Here’s the other thing about conflict – just as it can be destructive, it can also be utterly essential. The clash of ideas is like a marketplace for hope for the future. If something isn’t working and someone else has a better idea, it may not always be welcome but it is usually essential it is heard. The SNP under Sturgeon prevented debate and imposed autocracy. This is the legacy of that suppression.
Don’t blame Kate Forbes for speaking truths that need to be heard before it is too late. I may not agree with some of her solutions, but I most certainly applaud the courage she and Ash Regan have shown in standing up among the SNP’s spineless silent ones and saying some of the things that members need to hear. Urgently and before it is too late.