The SNP: one thing at a time

by | 8 Jul 2024

There isn't a single solution for the SNP, there are a string of fundamental problems which must be tackled one at a time.

There is a joke I’ve been telling a lot recently, given the state in which the cause of independence finds itself. The military hold a training exercise to assess the reaction of soldiers to a sudden, unexpected crisis. They give a group of soldiers a sedative and, while they’re unconscious, place them on a helicopter which has its blades spinning but which is still on the ground. Incendiary devices on the helicopter are then set off.

The soldiers therefore wake up to find themselves on what seems to be an airborne helicopter which is on fire. One soldier wakes up, sees this and jumps straight out of the helicopter. His commanding officer says to him ‘what were you thinking? You didn’t know the helicopter was on the ground.’ The soldier replied ‘look, the helicopter was on fire – one thing at a time.’

And that’s where we are. There is no elegant, all-in solution to the situation the SNP (and, by extension, the cause of independence) finds itself, so all that can be done is to identify one problem at a time and deal with them sequentially.

That’s what I want to do in this article, which is an expansion on the piece I produced for the National over the weekend. (This is, inevitably, fairly lengthy…)

1. Join the reality-based community

No more excuses. It wasn’t Alex Salmond and Alba. It wasn’t Wings Over Scotland. It wasn’t a ‘kick out the Tories’ moment that excluded the SNP. It wasn’t an MI5 plot. The SNP lost because the SNP has been performing at a very poor level, delivering a mess and yet still managing to sound arrogant about it.

No more kidding on. Losing a million pounds of income isn’t something you just shake off. Saying you want to ‘reconnect’ isn’t close to being sufficient. A relaunch of what is there or a rebranding of the same old same old won’t change minds. The SNP needs to pack in this self-serving nonsense. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t think they deserved a defeat.

George W Bush’s people famously decried the ‘reality-based community’, insisting instead that they created their own reality. That has been an element of what the SNP has done in recent years, saying things that weren’t true with forcefulness.

There wasn’t a referendum round the corner, independence wasn’t closer than ever, the money wasn’t woven through the accounts, the SNP wasn’t delivering highly-competent government, it wasn’t world-leading on climate change, it wasn’t ending the attainment gap in education. All of that was spin.

The SNP has behaved like all the SNP’s problems are internal problems, that the difficulty is always people in the party not sticking sufficiently robustly to all the above fictions. What it has not done is carry out proper, reliable public attitude research work or pay attention to the public attitude research work that has been done by others.

In fact more than that, it seems that a lot of their politicians have been disbelieving the opinion polls in recent months, convinced that they weren’t going to face a setback. Apparently some were genuinely shocked to lose seats they have been predicted to lose for months. If the party can’t shake this tendency it has no chance of recovery.

Change isn’t a thing you say, it’s a thing you do

It really isn’t hard to see where this defeat came from. Again and again there was overwhelming evidence of wide-scale dissatisfaction with public services in Scotland. Again and again the SNP kept doing the same thing anyway. Over and over the situation got worse. Nothing has changed in the SNP since 2014. No relaunch or rebrand (there have been absolutely loads) has actually changed either the core personnel, the policy agenda, the approach or the tone.

Until the SNP accepts – no caveats, no whatabouts, no ‘over there!’s – that its primary problems lie in its own actions, it will not be able to move on.

2. You can’t fake change

‘It’ll be different this time. I promise. I’ve learned my lesson. I take responsibility for what happened.’ Once? Perhaps. Twice? I doubt it. A dozen times? Forget it. How many times have we heard all of this from the SNP? It’s more than one or two. In fact, it’s now a running joke.

Change isn’t a thing you say, it’s a thing you do. This cycle kicked off after the 2017 General Election where the party lost a lot of seats. It has happened again and again since. Yet what has changed? I can’t think of a single policy approach which has changed. Certainly the personnel hasn’t changed. The lines the party uses in debate haven’t changed. The media spin hasn’t changed. The tone of the party hasn’t changed. It’s internal management processes haven’t changed.

It’s little more than a year since there was much earnest talk about how the discovery that Peter Murrell had been telling lies about how the SNP was being run came with promises of change. Those led to a governance review which was created to make sure change didn’t happen. Then there was continuity candidate Humza.

When that wasn’t enough continuity they went straight back to source. The SNP has attempted absolutely everything except change. This regime is allergic to change and I’m all but 100 per cent sure you’ll find that, in a few weeks, you’ll all be wheesting for 2026 again.

If the party can’t see that this is at the root of its problems then the voters are going to put it straight. No-one wants this to continue except for the 20 or 30 people who have run the SNP for at least a decade now. I don’t think they’ll listen, so the membership must do something.

3. Leadership

Let me make a simple argument; change is more important than personnel at this stage. It is more important to signal that change is real and that things will not continue as they have than it is to find a perfect leader at this stage.

Much more than identify its next leader, what the SNP needs to do right now is create a process which delivers its next three leaders. The idea that this problem can be magicked away with a single emergency candidate (perhaps Stephen Flynn or Mairi McAllan if loyalists prevail) while keeping everything else the same is false.

There are a handful of MPs who would make a worthy addition to Holyrood, but if people think recycling two parliaments into one is the same as a fresh start then I think you’re kidding yourself

Either of them getting into power would still have a low-grade cabinet for the foreseeable future. The whole point of Sturgeon-SNP was that it was presidential, predicated on the belief that the party doesn’t matter so long as it has a single strong leader. The party is now living with the consequence of that, failing to identify a single credible replacement.

It is more important that the SNP begins a real change process and (crucially) that it is seen by voters as having undertaken a real change process. That cannot mean John Swinney. Recycle him again and you are telling the public ‘we hear your concerns but we don’t care’. Swinney cannot go through the back and turn into a different man at this stage in his career.

He’s now in the Biden space. He might once have been a saviour, but now he’s a liability. His only real purpose in continuing is to maintain factional control. The argument that there is no better candidate (also a Biden argument) isn’t a reason to run off the end of a cliff hand in hand with John. You know he can’t win, so why are you considering it?

4. Talent

If the SNP goes into 2026 with a suite of candidates broadly the same as the suite of candidates at the last election it has two problems. First it has the ‘no change’ problem which will stand out like a sore thumb throughout the campaign. Second, it has a ‘no sufficient talent with which to regenerate or sort government’ problem.

Think of it this way; if the SNP’s next two generations of leader and cabinet are currently on the SNP benches, I’m not alone in being unable to identify them. And at this stage with this many problems, the party should want that regeneration capacity in place.

What I most certainly do not mean is that the party establishment that brought us to this position should be allowed to hand-pick its allies and put them where it wants. If anyone thinks getting Stewart McDonald and Alyn Smith to Holyrood solves the problem they’re not serious. This is a much deeper issue. Nor is this a job creation scheme for out of work MPs who hardly set the heather on fire at Westminster.

That is why I suggested that the party should pursue a member-driven process of open selections in every seat. The leadership faction will always prioritise placing people who protect their power rather than what is in the long-term interests of independence, and please don’t kid yourself on otherwise.

There are a handful of MPs who would make a worthy addition to Holyrood, but if people think recycling two into one is the same as a fresh start then again I think you’re kidding yourself. There are very, very few MPs who genuinely distinguished themselves at Westminster and in reality most of them nodded as vigorously as backbench enablers at Holyrood.

Combining the SNP’s ten-year-old Westminster contingent with the party’s subpar Holyrood contingent doesn’t produce what some people think it will. The party needs real, new talent. It must take this very seriously or it risks finding itself in a long-term doom loop.

If I was either the NEC or a collection of concerned constituency associations I would impose a process which ensures a broad field of candidates in every constituency with a minimum threshold of necessary support from local party members (say a final candidate gaining at least 30 per cent of local party members). It must be impossible for the leadership to stitch up selections again.

Again and again I’m saying that success can’t be guaranteed but failure can

5. Get your tools sharpened

This is fairly simple; the SNP is decrepit in terms of its internal processes. Its HQ is woeful and its campaign infrastructure either creaking or non-existent. Its ground-level operation is denuded. Its party democracy woefully eroded. Its policy-setting and decision-making processes have been sabotaged.

This, again, prevents it from doing its job of dragging itself back into serious contention. It is clear both that the leadership has wanted this decrepitude (yet again as a means of control) and the people they have parachuted into leading roles aren’t up to it.

When there is a new leadership team, this internal renewal process must begin with urgency. It should start with the removal of basically all the HQ staff who are miles below the quality the party needs. All of these reforms provide political parties with the tools they need for their job and if they’re missing they’re in trouble.

6. Change yourself, start changing Scotland

All of the above achieves only one thing; it changes the SNP. That is crucial because the party is seen as out of touch, arrogant and aloof. Until you challenge that you can’t do much else because you won’t be trusted.

But sooner or later you need to get round to, well, actually changing things on the ground for people in Scotland. That means a major new policy programme, which in turn means dumping policies which are reinforcing the ‘arrogant centralisers’ narrative, identifying ways to signal a completely new direction and delivering change that actually improves people’s lives.

Swinney is likely to try to jump straight to that point without actually changing anything ese. If this leadership group is anything like true to form they’ll set up a new working group with the great and the good on it to come up with ideas (because this leadership group refuses to engage seriously with organisations like Common Weal or the Wellbeing Alliance).

Or worse, it’ll be ‘we need to change policy – what do the lobbyists want?’ which is a large part of why they’re in this mess in the first place. I would contend strongly that the SNP must be seen to change itself before it will be trusted to change Scotland. Of course these two processes need to take place in parallel, but the public must see them in that order.

I could write you a dozen such programmes, or a lengthy essay on the characteristic of these policies or the political strategy behind them. But writing policy is an awful lot easier than changing a political party, so I will come back to policy at some later date.

7. No promises

What I’m proposing here is clearly not without risk. I’m suggesting that a new leader, any new leader, must be considered not because they themselves are necessarily better but because they can seen to start again. They don’t need to be brilliant if they can bin the entire cadre of advisors in the SNP who created this crisis and replace them with people who know what they’re doing.

(Seriously, you’ve no idea how much better a good team can make a politician look, or how poor a good politician can look if they follow bad advice. Please drop the idea that politics is a process that emanates from the personality of a single individual because, well, Keir Starmer…)

That doesn’t mean that a new leader and new team is guaranteed to deliver success, only that the old leader and old team are all-but guaranteed to deliver failure. Nor am I certain that, left to select a new suite of elected politicians, the membership will ‘get it right’. I just know that the SNP doesn’t have the talent at Holyrood.

Again and again I’m saying that success can’t be guaranteed but failure can. The SNP is now staring at a multi-dimensional failure and I don’t believe it can escape that failure as it is. So its problems need to be tackled systematically if it has any chance of turning things around in 18 months…

…one thing at a time.

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