The SNP seems to be hallucinating

by | 22 May 2023

I returned to Scotland having spent a few days in Wales. It was enough time away to remind me how very strange things are in the politics of Scottish independence.

When I was a child I remember the following quite vividly. It was coming home from a summer holiday somewhere hot and dusty. We made it back the the little village I spent most of my childhood in and… it was strangely different.

In only two weeks I’d forgotten what ‘overgrown verdant green’ looked like. Was the road to the primary school always this overgrown? Did that canopy of trees always meet in the middle to virtually enclose that space? Is that how high the weeds always grew? Even in such a short period of time the immediately familiar became unfamiliar, however briefly.

So coming back to Scotland after a weekend in Wales was educational. Even in a short break deeply enmeshed in a different political culture for a few days I found myself returning and seeing things slightly differently than I did when I left. It’s not that my rational analysis has changed, its that things I have somewhat normalised didn’t seem normal – just for a second.

Let me rewind. I was down talking at the All Under One Banner march in Swansea on Saturday. I got to Wales on Friday and met up with someone for a catch-up, and Swansea was packed with indy people I know from early Saturday and I had lots of chats.

What was overwhelmingly apparent was a different mood. It’s not that everything is going well in Wales. It isn’t. They face a number of the problems we face. But the tone of things was different. The weekend was blisteringly positive and happy (the stunning weather helped). There was a big, colourful, lively march.

The rally at the end had only eight speakers and they were all great (well, and me). I didn’t see anyone leaving until it was done. It was really joyous. And yet there have been some big, big problems in Wales. Plaid Cymru is stuck in a nasty political crisis and doesn’t have an apparent ‘next leader’.

Meanwhile there had been various internal difficulties at Yes Cymru which necessitated a rebuilding process. It has been a long way short of plain sailing. And of course there are all the usual personality differences in any big movement.

But – its a big but – what you don’t have is our daft politic (nor the degree of apparent hatred). In Wales it seems almost unthinkable that anyone would be bad-mouthing or boycotting All Under One Banner for, well, running events where everyone can come under the one banner. They had a Labour for Independence speaker and she was listened to politely by a non-Labour audience. No-one booed.

What I’m trying to get across is the difference between a movement which faces real difficulties and disagreements but remains in touch with reality and, well, Scotland. Because arriving home is a different matter.

Tell me if I’m reading this wrong – did the SNP not spend a good proportion of the last four weeks trying to persuade us all that it was not disrespecting the grassroots movement and only missed the AOUB march in Glasgow because of an unavoidable clash of dates with the Coronation?

I had avoided too much Scottish news over the weekend and so was catching up after I landed. First I see that the SNP has decided to hold its rapidly-knocked up conference on the same day as All Under One Banner’s Stirling march. So let’s start there. Because this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Tell me if I’m reading this wrong – did the SNP not spend a good proportion of the last four weeks trying to persuade us all that it was not disrespecting the grassroots movement and only missed the AOUB march in Glasgow because of an unavoidable clash of dates with the Coronation? Had Yousaf not basically promised to be involved with AUOB?

So what possible message were they expecting to result from scheduling a conference in direct competition with a long-organised AUOB march? It’s daft to claim this wasn’t a choice because it was. The idea that this administration or this party in its current state has any pressing need to develop an independence strategy this side of the summer holidays is unpersuasive. Nor that that was the only possible date.

Even the National is struggling to pretend that Yousaf is doing a good job – or a tolerable job for that matter. The Deposit Return Scheme looks like it is going to be an expensive, highly-litigated failure to deliver. Ferry-building is now so out of control that that particular bin fire is now officially being put out by smothering the fire with ten pound notes until there is no oxygen left. And so on. Yousaf looks like First Ministers Questions comes round and catches him unawares every week.

It is very hard to believe that this special conference is going to generate a change of pace, new ideas, a sudden revitalisation of the SNP or any of the other reasons you might want to hold it. It doesn’t look like a strategically wise decision any way I look at it – neither necessary, wise nor productive.

And then I get off the plane to the arrivals gate and there’s a National in the airport newsagent. And it says Yousaf is organising a ‘summer of independence’. So we’re clear here, that has been announcement before the conference to set the strategy. The conference will not even happen until ‘the summer’ has started. So what kind of a campaign could this be? Even if it was serious?

The party has done this a lot in recent years. Really, a lot. But it had much, much more political capital even in the recent past and it wasn’t at the stage where everything it says is something it has said (but not delivered) at least three times before.

Which means we’re relying on the SNP putting together a really effective summer campaign between its conference and the week later when the schools all go on holiday and the summer begins. Is that realistic?

And of course I hadn’t got to Jamie Hepburn dissing marchers as basically a waste of time. And this is the SNP reaching out? By talking contemptuously of those who are still trying to keep the movement alive? The people they presumably hope will be delivering their ‘summer of independence’ campaign? I’ve had a wee glance to see how loyalists are justifying all this stuff and… well, they’re not trying very hard.

The SNP is an algorithm which operates on the basis of about five or six old lines which never move on, they just get remixed in increasingly unrealistic ways

But let’s say this is real. What does success look like? Demotivate the people who are still active by calling them names for marching, on the same day you are announcing you need them for a summer offensive? Is the total destruction of AUOB the real goal here? Do they think running really fast to do things badly will mean we don’t notice what is left behind because they’re running so fast?

Is the only goal here to, what, get elected? Can no-one see that this wouldn’t be the way to do it if that was the plan? And does no-one in the SNP think that there is any potential risk in getting elected over and over again and not really doing anything with it? Because asking for Yousaf’s vision for government is like asking a dandelion’s plans for October.

I’ve got used to this endless repeat, as has everyone else in Scottish politics. Another day, another statement about how indy is closer than ever, or a big campaign is starting, or a new indy paper is going to be a ‘game-changer’, or how the SNP is going to win supporters to independence through ‘good government’. We shrug and get back on with it.

But on Sunday it looked different. If I was picking an analogy what it looked like was what is now referred to as an AI ‘hallucinating’. That is a term for when an AI takes a lot of old information and presents it in a mixed-up way which sounds persuasive at first but bears no relationship with reality.

Coming back from Wales that’s what it screamed out at me. The SNP is an algorithm which operates on the basis of about five or six old lines which never move on, they just get remixed in increasingly unrealistic ways. It is a party hallucinating on an imagined past when no-one noticed it wasn’t delivering on its promises.

The Welsh independence movement has its problems, but it isn’t stuck in a repetitive cycle of saying things that turned out not to be true in the past. In Scotland that’s all there is, the cycle repeating faster and faster.

Now you can move from ‘Labour will give us a referendum if we hold the balance of power’ to ‘it’ll be a de facto referendum’ to ‘we’re holding a summer of independence’ to ‘we had no option but to run a spoiler for your grassroots initiative’ in the same TV interview. Faster and faster, less and less persuasive.

If Plaid Cymru was doing this in Wales it would have no credibility based on the current situation in the movement. It would be entirely politically unfeasible. Normally you can’t say the same thing three times without delivering, and then say it again and expect to be taken seriously.

In Scotland that’s all we get. I’m sure by the end of the week I’ll be shrugging along with the rest of you again. But at least for the time it took me to get out of that airport, it all looked unhinged.

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