Opinion

This defeat was the SNP’s own creation

by | 5 Jul 2024

There is nothing that complicated about the SNP's defeat at the General Election - you can't create as many pockets of discontent as they did without consequence. But will the party learn?

The SNP has been careering towards a cliff-edge for a long time now. I am not in the camp that believes you can destroy your main political vehicle and rebuild an alternative without significant consequence. That is why I have been trying to warn about this outcome for the best part of a decade. That is why I was trying to highlight all the off-ramps, all the opportunities to avoid last night’s disaster.

But every off-ramp was blocked by the SNP establishment and we are now over the end of the cliff. The best that can be said is that this is not Thelma and Louise, this is The Italian Job. For the reason that the SNP retains power at Holyrood, it isn’t yet in freefall, it is dangling over the edge with one last chance.

I’ve been asked to write an opinion piece for The National with my thoughts on ‘where now?’. I will put my solutions in that and post it here once it is published. But first, I firmly believe that it is essential for independence supporters to be clear about why this has happened.

Last night’s results are not a sudden event, they are an accumulation of many events. Just as the rot spreads slowly but the roof falls in suddenly, so the collapse in the SNP vote last night is just an expression of a long series of problems it has generated for itself.

I have been looking very closely at the public mood over the last few years and I do not buy arguments like ‘this was a kick out the Tories election and that’s why the SNP lost’. In Scotland in 2019 the election was very much an ‘oh no, Boris’ election and the beneficiary of that was the SNP.

In fact, the promotion of this argument by the SNP establishment (personified by Nicola Sturgeon in her new punditry role) simply reflects the whole problem that got us here. The SNP ran into giant trouble because its spin was disconnected from its performance. It is clearly therefore not going to get back out of that through more spin. The party must leave self-pitying self-justification to Sturgeon. It must rather face up to reality. It must get out of its bubble.

The SNP has assembled a coalition of discontent. For a decade it has take policy and strategic stances both in government and as a party which brooked no discussion and no dissent. The Scottish Government dominated parliament and could push through what it wanted. Democracy inside the party was eroded so its leaders could do as they pleased.

This all looks strong, powerful, purposeful. But it doesn’t deliver good outcomes – in fact, it achieves the opposite, it rides roughshod right over the top of the warnings that things aren’t quite right. Spin is a concept literally based on the idea that if you set the narrative first, you win the spin.

But that’s just spin. Spin doesn’t change reality, and reality always returns. From very early on, the Scottish Government started forcing through unpopular policies which were heavily criticised by stakeholders. It was able to do this because of its electoral dominance, but it didn’t make those policies popular or the outcomes good.

Most of the discontented also identified arrogance, control-freakery and a refusal to listen to legitimate concerns as the underlying cause of their dissatisfaction

Likewise, the SNP establishment gave themselves the power to suppress democracy in the party, but that didn’t mean that they had good ideas or proper plans. The outcome of these things is a lot of people unhappy for different reasons but identifying the source of those problems as being the same thing.

After Sturgeon forced through an ill-informed education policy it made the life of teachers worse. After she announced her shipbuilding project without thinking it through properly, it went wrong and the lives of island communities got worse. After it cut the beds in the NHS, the life of nurses and doctors got worse and waiting lists got longer.

Others were pissed off at the SNP’s blatant lack of support for the non-party independence movement. Others really believed the (never credible) referendum promises. Others again got angry about the lack of ability to even discuss indy strategy within the party.

For other people again it was being taken in and then let down that did it. This is the referendum issue again, but it is also setting exciting and inspiring climate change targets without any serious plan to meet them, or promising to close an educational attainment gap that wasn’t closed, or promising a cheap public energy company that never materialised.

Some people were angry about how the gender self-ID debate was handled, some people lost family they shouldn’t have lost because of the the Scottish Government decanting covid-positive people into care homes, lots of community activists became increasingly angry about centralisation and lack of local resources, many small businesses didn’t believe the Scottish Government was backing them.

This (and much more) is a very big coalition of discontent and would give you electoral problems no matter what. But there was worse behind it, because most of the discontented also identified arrogance, control-freakery and a refusal to listen to legitimate concerns as the underlying cause of their dissatisfaction.

They were right. The SNP used to wave around its electoral dominance as a sign of its virility and as a riposte to criticisms of its performance – ‘we don’t need to listen to you, we’re really powerful and can do what we want’. Internally one husband-and-wife team controlled everything and could, again, do anything they wanted.

Worse still, the SNP started getting caught out. How many times did we hear senior SNP figures respond to failure by promising to ‘go away and learn the lessons for the future’? But how many times can you really roll that one out? When does learning from mistakes so you don’t make them again stop? Never?

On top of all of that, the party had a number of opportunities to change. It could have accepted that a lot of the above was true and changed course with a new approach. Unfortunately, every time that was possible, the party establishment rigged the process to stop change from emerging.

It is a foolhardy politician who says ‘don’t like what we’ve done? Well fuck you, there is nothing you can do about it and we’re more than satisfied with ourselves and in the end you know you have no-one else to vote for anyway so why don’t you just sit down?’ Yet that was the message late-stage SNP gave again and again.

I don’t think the people truly responsible for this disaster will fall on their own swords, which means the membership must take matters into its own hands

So to repeat, sometimes you lose elections because of One Big Thing, and sometimes you lose elections because of lots of little things. The SNP lost this election because of lots of little things, little things which accumulated, little things which drove different groups of voters away from the party. Yet they all ended up believing one big thing; that the SNP was arrogant and out of touch.

Again, I’ve been warning for the longest time that the SNP had turned into Scottish Labour 2007. Like Scottish Labour, arrogance and entitlement overwhelmed the party establishment and many of its loyalists. Like Scottish Labour, it didn’t believe that it would ever lose power. Like Scottish Labour, it was put straight on that issue via a severe electoral drubbing, in that case the 20011 absolute SNP majority at Holyrood.

But Scottish Labour still didn’t learn from that. It didn’t learn from indyref. It didn’t learn anything – and so it got a second drubbing, a second brutal reality check in the Westminster election of 2015. Will the SNP be different. Will it learn from this awful election result?

Well, let me give you a hint. There was a small, core team that created the fundamental problem over the Sturgeon era, a team that talked a lot and delivered little. When that fizzled out, they were back, almost unchanged with poor Humza Yousaf their hostage/new figurehead. When Yousaf followed their advice, he became one of the least popular political leaders in recent memory.

So the same team removed Yousaf – and brought in Swinney, who kept them all in post. From there that same team led the party to the most crushing electoral disaster of the party’s history. At the moment the belief seems to be (quite incredibly) that this same team should be given a shot to dig them out of the hole they created.

This is pure madness. Here is how to tell if the SNP has learned anything from last night; there will be a lot of P45s kicking around in the near future. I mean, can the people in charge of the SNP for a decade who created this result really think it has no consequence for them? That this is just a momentary setback in their stellar careers?

Please, if you have any belief in independence I urge you to push back hard on some of what you will hear over the coming days. This wasn’t a function of ‘unionist media’. This wasn’t an MI5 plot with Branchform as its coup de grace. This isn’t just because people wanted rid of Tories. This isn’t because the SNP didn’t shout independence enough.

This happened because the SNP has been failing to deliver a better Scotland for ten years and, slowly, one by one, more and more people came round to realising this. When they did, what they saw was a tone-deaf, tin-eared party which could only blame others for its poor performance.

This is a failure of the SNP’s own making. The good news is that this means that the means to reverse the problems are in their own hands and the opposition parties have not inspired voters much at all. The bad news is that the SNP will need to recognise this, change personnel and change course if it is to avoid worse to come.

I don’t think the people truly responsible for this disaster will fall on their own swords, which means the membership must take matters into its own hands. The SNP must change. It must change with the utmost urgency and with a sharp focus on why this all happened. Only a complete break from the last ten years offers any chance of doing that.

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