What does the Rebel 15 mean for Scottish politics?

by | 3 Apr 2023

The new SNP administration faces a new challenge - a semi-organised group of rebels on the back benches. What does this mean and what effect may it have on politics in Scotland?

Last week in one of my pieces I was kind of hinting that Humza Yousaf was spending political capital as if he had loads of it. I was hoping you’d draw some conclusions about how much he really had. Now you know – not a lot.

I was aware of the development of a ‘Rebel 15’ last week (except it wasn’t 15 when I first heard about it). The implications of this are stark – that is the Yousaf majority potentially up in smoke. In fact a genuinely coordinated group of 15 rebels would mean that Yousaf would virtually have to ask for permission to pee.

So what really are the implications of this? Or, more accurately, what does this rebel group tell us about what is going on in Scottish politics just now?

Let me start on the implications. First, it is going to be harder to coordinate this group than it would be for a normal backbench rebel group. As a general rule rebels tend to have ideological consistency (which is usually why they are rebelling). The group of 15 has a fairly varied set of ideologies.

This doesn’t mean that a coordinated group couldn’t be effective. There are plenty of things that do unite them, like scepticism that there is currently a coherent plan for independence, irritation at the never-ending centralisation of Scotland and a concern that the party is too keen on ‘virtue signalling’ and not focussed on important issues like business support.

It is unlikely that these rebels could have an impact across the full range of policy issues because there are a number about which the group itself is likely to disagree. But that does not mean it couldn’t have a very significant impact in a number of areas – if they’re clever.

To counter this is the suggestion that they are hemmed in by the SNP’s overwhelming desire for unity. This is another simple misunderstanding on the part of Scotland’s commentator class. The SNP will prioritise unity if the broad base of its membership genuinely believe that silence and compliance will deliver desired outcomes in sane-looking timescales.

Right now the category of members who believe in near-term positive outcomes for their big hopes must be round about zero. There isn’t any doubt that there is ‘unity muscle memory’ inside the party. But those who think that there will be popular pressure for unity if the administration behind which you’d need to unify continues to be on-track to lose a pro-indy majority in 2026 probably need to revise their thinking.

In any normal party, in any normal time, if there was any normal internal democracy, the end of the Sturgeon era would have resulted in at least a bit of self-reflection

It is also a distinct misunderstanding of the situation in which the rebels find themselves. A number of them are almost certainly going to be retiring at the next election. Others look on course to lose their seats (because on current polling almost one in every three SNP MSPs are on course to lose their seats).

The actions of Yousaf in his early days have made clear that if you aren’t part of the same ruling clique whose continuity he stood to ensure then you have little future in his SNP. Inexplicably (from my perspective) he chose to spend his early days being pugilistic and exuding ‘hard man vibes’. Yet I doubt he can really back that up if his bluff is called.

All of this leaves many of the rebels with little to lose. It had never occurred to me that Team Humza would kick off by trying to exacerbate existing splits, following the previous leader’s playbook almost as if it is all Yousaf knows how to do. I had assumed he would make some soft moves to heal division. Not real moves. Not reform. But noises to head off, well, a group of 15 rebels. But I was wrong.

So what is this really about? If this isn’t a unified ideological push is it simply disgruntlement? I would argue fairly strongly that that would be a misreading. I state that because the names of some of the members of the 15 (and some others who are currently ‘adjacent’) really startled me. If you thought there was no risk of contagion beyond a small group, I think you are almost certainly wrong.

Because there really is a degree of unifying logic in this (or, from a number of conversations I’ve had, I think there is). Basically this is a group of people who are utterly sick of how the SNP does it’s business and what this means for how it does government.

They’re sick of ‘keep them in the dark and feed them shite’. They’re sick of ‘discover what you’re supposed to think on social media’. They’re sick of ‘being told how things work by someone who knows much less about it than me’. They’re sick of patronage, clique-thinking, being dragged around by personal pet project, bullying, closed government…

And they’re absolutely spot-on right to be sick of it. It is not only a democratic affront the way the SNP ruling classes do their business, it is unproductive and is resulting in a slew of big, unforced errors. These concerns were very, very much there during the Sturgeon era, but the failure to accept this and countenance change has led to this point.

So is that all going to mean the SNP is going to be dragged to the right? Is the SNP now split between left-wingers who want bad government and right-wingers who want better government? Is that the choice members have?

I will be elaborating on this point in the very near future because it is becoming a fundamental problem in understanding Scottish politics. But I want to be very clear about this; it is very difficult to sustain the argument that the Scottish Government was ever seriously left-wing at any point in the last ten years.

Scotland’s political parties have more or less all become tightly-controlled networks in which leaders offer plaint people jobs to enforce their own total control of their organisations and force or bully others out of the party

Housing policy was carbon-copy Tory policy, ‘help to buy’ schemes and all. Economic policy was growth, growth, growth, big business, lobbying, insiders – with no plan for this ‘wellbeing’ part you may have heard about. Climate change action was faked and even the fakery was based on the right-wing idea that you can keep doing the bad things (burning fossil fuels) but make them good by capturing and hiding the bad thing (the carbon) – a technology which doesn’t work and only exists to greenwash Big Oil.

Poverty was mostly an afterthought, local government was constantly undermined. The Council Tax was not only saved as a gold-plated subsidy to the upper middle-classes, it was frozen in real terms to very greatly increase the perk to the wealthy. The National Care Service is a privatised joke designed by a private consultancy too corrupt even for Boris Johnstone. And on and on.

Meanwhile if there is something that drives me totally up the wall its when people make the lazy assumption that you can’t be ‘pro-business’ and ‘left-wing’ at the same time. I set up Common Weal in part because I was sick to the back teeth of the idea that if you were left you had to be anti-business. Common Weal is in no way anti-business. We just take a view on what kind business activity should be supported and how.

So there is absolutely no reason why the rebel group’s stated aim of doing some proper thinking on what better support for business would look like should drag the SNP to the right. It is also a complete misreading of how corporate-friendly and right-wing the Scottish Government’s economic agenda currently is.

On the other hand none of this means that the rebels will successfully pull it off. It will take some ingenuity, perseverance and sharp thinking. It would be easy for this to become just another split, just another nail in the SNP coffin. It could undoubtedly fail.

But – and it is this which I think is the really important part – status quo SNP is on its last legs. Forget the ‘Humza got a majority’ stuff for a second and focus on the fact that more people voted for change than continuity with their first preference. If people wanted to send an overwhelming sign that they were happy with things as they stood they had that chance. But seriously, even among those who took that chance, how many enthusiastic Yousaf voters have you met?

What this is really about is actually quite simple. In any normal party, in any normal time, if there was any normal internal democracy, the end of the Sturgeon era would have resulted in at least a bit of self-reflection. Had it done so the SNP would certainly not have progressed in the way that it did.

No, the utterly stinking process the NEC put in place to try and make the leadership election disappear as fast as possible was designed precisely and entirely to prevent introspection and force through continuity. It barely worked. It won’t again.

When people who endorsed you four weeks ago joint a rebellion against you four weeks later, that shows you that something is very wrong. It goes beyond buyer’s remorse; it points to a fundamental problem in Scottish politics.

That problem is simple; Scotland’s political parties have more or less all become tightly-controlled networks in which leaders offer plaint people jobs to enforce their own total control of their organisations and force or bully others out of the party. The SNP does it. Scottish Labour does it. The Scottish Greens do it. It has hollowed out our democracy and seriously reduced the political talent pool.

This is, in turn, seriously bad for our democracy. So if I’m broadly right about this being a rebellion against centralised control of mass-movement democratic political parties, and if they are committed to steps to break down the SNP’s ‘cartel politics’, dismissing their efforts may be unwise.

I would conclude by suggesting that Mr Yousaf should listen to this message and learn, but from day one his entire pitch was to double-down on the SNP’s cartels and dismiss arguments for reform with extreme prejudice. He has no manoeuvrability now. Either he does what no-one thinks he can by achieving both continuity and extreme competence, or he’s going to lose an election a year for the next three years. Unity at that point will be a fairytale.

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