The SNP steps off the side of a tower block…

by | 14 May 2024

Far from any real signs of change, the SNP appears broadly to be heading in exactly the same direction it has been going since indyref. The likely destination means civic Scotland needs to wake up.

It is one of my favourite little parables which I use often, cribbed from the wonderful film La Haine. A man stands on the roof of a tower block and approaches the edge. He looks down to the street far below, and steps off. As he falls, over and over he repeats to himself ‘so far so good, so far so good’.

My assessment remains, and is if anything strengthened by what I’ve learned in the last two weeks – the SNP is in serious trouble and causes dear to me such as economic reform (encompassing poverty and housing), climate change and independence will need to find a new strategy in Scotland because fingers-crossed and hoping isn’t going to work. We need the courage and clarity to make fundamental changes in the way our national debates have taken place.

I repeat my tale of the man hurtling to earth for the hundredth time because it is as neat a way as I know to explain that where you are and where you’re going are not the same thing. When things go wrong in human affairs, we generally try to persuade ourselves not to look at where we are by focussing on the destination, or to stop looking at what looks like the likely destination and focus on where we are.

It is time for me to move on from the subject of the SNP and its problems. Those problems are not going away and they’re not really changing at the moment and meanwhile things of real consequence are happening and I want to focus on those. But me thinking things are heading in the wrong direction isn’t enough. Unless others agree, we won’t get critical mass to achieve anything.

Just now the SNP is asking you to look at a destination to temper unhappiness at where we are, yet it is also asking us to stop looking at the likely destination to focus only on where it is now. I find neither convincing.

Nor it seems does the public. I fully expect a little honeymoon bounce from a leadership change (I think many people underestimate how unpopular Yousaf had become by the end) and find a little more stability for a short period of time. But I am very sceptical that John Swinney has changed the equation for voters.

The Scotsman’s opinion poll on Friday should startle a few people. Until now, on the whole, I would have said that the evidence is that there hasn’t been a large number of SNP-Labour switchers. Mostly it seems like low morale and disillusionment had led independence supporters to new levels of abstentionism.

Fundamentally, the problem with Yousaf wasn’t mainly his lack of political judgement, it was the sheer volume of crap that landed on him, and that crap will continue to rain down

But with that poll resulting in Labour taking a four-point lead on the Holyrood list vote (for the first time), I don’t think that’s any longer the case. If I was to guess what is going on it is that ‘Scunnered Scotland’ is not confident enough in anyone any more to give them two votes. But my guess doesn’t make any difference just now. What is important is that it is going on.

If this trend continues, the SNP will not take power in 2026. It might just about manage to come out the biggest party but it is hard to see how it takes power. Polls do not predict results but they do identify trends and for every single polling company just now the SNP is trending downwards.

Hence the ‘don’t look here, look at destination’. That has two elements. The Scottish Government is signalling to the independence movement that everything is still fine and still on track, and also to the commentator class that everything was Humza’s fault and all that is needed is better management of the party and the government.

You will not be surprised that I don’t find either of these lines persuasive. The commentator class is buying it for now, but that’s because they fetishise process over outcome which in turn is why they have missed so much of what is happening in Scottish politics in recent years and why their predictions have been so wrong.

That is not an attitude shared among activists and by the people outside of politics I’m talking to. On indy, if Swinney is right Scotland will be literally the first country to talk its way to independence based only on slowly rising GDP. There is no chance that will happen.

Domestically, probably something like four out of five things that went wrong under Yousaf would have gone wrong under Swinney. Would he really have had his eye on the Deposit Return Scheme to a degree that would have picked up and sorted its flaws? Would he have implemented the Hate Crime Act better? Would he have not cut the social housing and arts budgets?

We’ll know how serious they are about stability when we see how they’re handling their misogyny and conversion therapy legislation, because those offer absolutely everything except a stable political environment for their proposers. At the moment the Scottish Government still seems inclined to run towards them as was.

And will internal matters be handled differently, more competently? Let me put it to you like this, if Michael Matheson had been running up a giant iPad bill this summer and the story broke this autumn, would it be handled differently? I doubt it. Some of the PR might have been slightly better, but since Swinney is there because SNP insiders look after their own, I can’t see signs of a big shift.

But fundamentally, the problem with Yousaf wasn’t mainly his lack of political judgement, it was the sheer volume of crap that landed on him. That crap will continue to rain down, and I don’t find it convincing that Swinney can simply talk his way out of that.

Meanwhile, while Swinney’s hands are genuinely clean over Branchform (as best I have been able to make out), that’s not how politics works. The SNP was run by a triumvirate of Sturgeon. Swinney and Murrell. There is no alt-delete for that. Where Swinney is exposed is on all things Alex Salmond trial and people keep behaving like that’s not about to be a live issue again. It is.

Swinney is tied to almost everything that is going wrong. I see almost no evidence that there is any Damascene conversion in the SNP’s thinking on anything. They’re going to mend relations with business. Again. They’re going to take us to indy through patient persuasion based on good government. Again. They’re going to end child poverty. Again. This is at least the tenth time round the block for each of these stories.

The SNP doesn’t have a strategy – it still seems to think it can talk its way out of things without actually fixing them

What Swinney has not done is indicate that he’s going to do anything to change their general approach nor to accept honestly that there has been something wrong with their approach in the first place – or that he knows what it is.

I can list you things on which they need to perform major surgery (the awful Care Bill, the lazy use of ‘affordable housing’ patter to disguise lack of new public rental building, the need for a decarbonisation industrial strategy). But the point is in Common Weal we’ve been doing that for ten years and I get no impression just now the Scottish Government is listening any more now than they were then.

In November last year a cluster of SNP insiders would tell anyone who would listen that ‘Humza’s had a wee shakey start but my god, I just saw him at conference and he was immense, he’s really is turning into a great world statesman’. The same people are now saying ‘I wasn’t impressed with John last time he was leader but his transformation over the last 20 years has been breathtaking’. Hmmmmm.

This is my point; the SNP doesn’t have a strategy. It still seems to think it can talk its way out of things without actually fixing them. Not wanting to make mistakes is in no sense a technique for not making mistakes.

We can see the likely direction if we look outside Scotland. What is happening to the SNP has been happening to the pro-indy parties in Catalonia. We can learn even more if we compare Catalonia, Scotland and the Basque Country.

In the Basque election a lazy, establishment centrist pro-indy party just got turned over by a fairly radical left party which overtook it. In Catalonia a clutch of establishment centrist pro-indy parties just lost to a unionist party, and the Catalan left party lost ground too having gone off in a pretty extreme identity politics direction.

The Basques are buzzing just now. Lots and lots of things are happening there and they feel they have momentum. The Catalans have just ended up such that they may have the first president of the modern era who opposes independence. Swinney’s Scotland looks a helluva lot more like Catalonia than the Basque Country.

I write all this not in joy, not even in anger, but with a sense of clear-headed determination. The SNP want us to give them yet one more chance. I am utterly certain that that will not even nearly be enough to make progress on anything I care about. I’m not saying we should oppose the SNP, but nor am I willing to see it as perpetually indispensable.

That’s because I don’t see any great future contained within the SNP itself. Last week I wrote that all these events have opened up a civic and political space that didn’t previously exist. I am now all but convinced that if we – civic and campaigning Scotland – cannot fill that space very quickly, we better get ready for that approaching pavement which we can see getting bigger and bigger below us.

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