12 April 2023

The SNP is getting back to its fractured, chaotic roots


During the SNP leadership election I argued that, despite appearances, Humza Yousaf, the health minister and anointed keeper of the Sturgeonite flame, was the best choice the Nationalists could make.

Yes, Kate Forbes was the more individually impressive politician and yes, her centre-right economic prescriptions would almost certainly be more likely to deliver a more prosperous Scotland (and thus a more solid foundation for a second bid for independence).

But the SNP owes its current, dominant position in Scottish politics to having routed Labour in heavily-populated Central Scotland. To hold fastnesses such as Glasgow, maintaining Nicola Sturgeon’s superficially-progressive recasting of the party would be necessary, if not sufficient – and Yousaf had the best chance of doing that.

Instead, it looks as if the Nationalists might be getting the worst of all worlds. 

First, Forbes’ ran the election much closer than most people expected, taking 48% of the vote in the second round. She then refused Yousaf’s attempt to demote her from the finance brief and, when SNP HQ tried to clumsily lie about her reasons, called them out on it.

(Even had she not, claiming a politician who literally just ran to be First Minister had stepped back for a better work-life balance was never going to be plausible.)

Now on the backbenches and with a group of sympathetic MSPs already talking about publishing their own policy papers, Forbes is free to become a rallying point for discontent. And boy, is there discontent.

One of the relatively few things the new First Minister, who has thoroughly earned the monicker ‘Humza Useless’, had going for him was his association with his predecessor, who remained to the end a politician of rare ability (as a communicator if not a governor) with a strong following amongst the Scottish public, and thus the support of the party machine.

Yet that apparent advantage has reversed in spectacular fashion. Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband and for two decades the SNP’s chief executive, was forced to resign in the midst of the campaign when it turned out the party had lied about losing 30,000 members.

Then no sooner was the race concluded than the police arrested him and questioned him for 11 hours in connection with the apparent disappearance of over £600,000 the SNP raised for a referendum fighting fund.

Worse, they actually erected an evidence tent in the couples’ front garden! Days later, they seized a luxury motorhome from the house of Sturgeon’s mother-in-law.

And the revelations just keep coming: news broke that the SNP’s auditors had resigned. Then Yousaf himself, gamely winning over journalists by keeping the story going, revealed that they had actually done so six months ago, and the Party had simply not replaced them.

Sturgeon’s blessing is now an albatross around her successor’s neck. With his internal critics emboldened – some are already calling for the leadership contest to be re-run on the grounds that Murrell’s arrest would probably have tipped the result – he can’t risk being seen to be covering for the old guard, lest he take ownership of any scandal.

But if he doesn’t, he will have to stand by as the party machine of the ancien régime, which might otherwise have supported him, becomes increasingly discredited. And if a scandal does break and the SNP’s polling slumps – more than it has already, that is – he will still end up carrying the can. The groat stops at the leader’s office.

We obviously don’t know how this story is going to play out. But whatever happens, it looks like a long-postponed reversion to the mean for the SNP, which was for a very long time a highly fractious party whose origins lay firmly on the right.

Under Alex Salmond and latterly Sturgeon, the party managed to swap this out for a different model: phalanx-like internal discipline under charismatic and imperial leadership, with both ideological disputes and the details of governing overshadowed by the imperative of the cause.

This approach can be formidably effective at winning power. But it does not lend itself to wielding it effectively. Internal debate is necessarily suppressed, and external bodies suborned where possible. Ever-more power is concentrated at the centre, and control of government used to wield huge patronage.

I was put in mind of all this – the awarding of a disastrous ferry contract on apparently political grounds, the concerted campaign to increase Holyrood’s control over local government budgets, the writing of letters to civil-society critics of the Scottish Government demanding praise instead – when reading recently about how the African National Congress (ANC) managed to squander the peaceful handover of a first-world economy and put South Africa on the path to becoming a failed state.

The circumstances and scale of the problem are obviously hugely different. But in our more benign circumstances and on a smaller scale, the nationalist playbook is similar, and the results of a similar kind.

But absent an actual track record of delivering material improvements for ordinary people, let alone after having presided over the gradual failure of key state functions, a party can only maintain that hegemonic position so long as belief in the higher struggle endures.

Sturgeon knew that, which is why she announced a fresh push for a referendum every year and by the end was toying with such reckless strategies as trying to use a general election as a proxy vote on independence. But with even SNP figures now conceding that independence is not immediately deliverable, that spell is surely breaking.

When it does, and the rocks finally start getting turned over, all manner of ugly things can turn up. For what the ANC and innumerable other examples illustrate is that an under-scrutinised elite enjoying hegemonic power may seldom do right by the country they govern, but will almost always do very well for themselves.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.