30 April 2015

The SNP is much more control-freakish than New Labour ever was


Party leaderships in democracies do not like rebellions. For the busy leader and his or her whips, what matters is being able to get business transacted and laws passed, creating the impression of forward momentum and competence. Furthermore, voters, it is said, punish divided parties. This means that party leaders put great store by loyalty, and some (including Tory leader David Cameron, whose MPs were super-rebellious in the last parliament) are vexed by the idea that loyalty is not automatic.

Yet, rebellion by legislators is essential in a free society, as history has shown time and again. It is more than just a safety valve allowing pressure to be released; it is a means by which bad ideas can be tested and exposed, sometimes even leading to a change of course or at least alerting the country to danger ahead. That was the case in the 1930s, when luckily the leadership toadies did not prevail in their efforts to organise the deselection of Winston Churchill. Instead, Churchill survived and led the brave anti-appeasers who were able to mount a determined campaign that put the Conservative government under pressure to at least begin improving the nation’s defences.

Parties that cannot tolerate such dissent, over matters big and small, are dangerous beasts that can end up posing a threat to basic freedoms. They take on the air of a cult in which loyalty to the leader blinds judgement. Members start to disregard the opinions of others and in extreme cases behave as though criticism of the party or the cause amounts to an attack on the nation itself. Party and country get mixed up, and opposition is recast as treachery.

This is what appears to have happened to the SNP, a party that used to have quite a healthy of tradition of dissent and dispute. Alex Salmond was even expelled from the SNP in 1982 over the activities of the left-wing 1979 group, although note that dissent equalled (temporary) banishment. But in his first spell in charge of the SNP, there was much conflict between the gradualists – Salmond loyalists – who thought that the route to independence lay in accepting devolution and then advancing step by step to independence – and the fundamentalists, or “fundies”, who then regarded Salmond as a softie and a sell-out. Public debates were heated and even though Salmond’s strategic approach was the right one, the rebellions forced him to fight for and explain his vision.

Now, all that has changed. Former fundamentalists are leadership loyalists and the SNP is disciplined to the point of being a creepily craven cult. Criticism is verboten.

Nationalists do not like this being mentioned. It is awkward that a party supposedly dedicated to freedom should be so tightly controlled, and the leadership may fear that many of the tens of thousands of new members who have joined since last year’s independence referendum could be tricky to handle if they are disappointed at some point by a leadership decision. “Nicola (Sturgeon) is riding a tiger,” is how a wise analyst of the Scottish parliamentary scene put it to me earlier this week.

But even given that, it is still scary how little rebellion there has been. When I asked, a little sarcastically, on Twitter, whether anyone could point me to examples of SNP members of parliament rebelling against the leadership, the usually vocal cybernats (online fanatical supporters of the Blessed Nicola) were largely silent.

A few people did respond and the answers were unintentionally revealing. Someone mentioned Alex Salmond being expelled, but that was 33 years ago and expelling him and his supporters does not suggest a party that is particularly tolerant.

Someone else mentioned a prominent MSP voting the wrong way by accident in the Scottish parliament, which doesn’t count. There was one committee convener who critiqued SNP government policy, which should not be remarkable as it is her job. Others pointed to the two Nationalist MPs who opposed the party on its change of policy on Nato. The SNP now wants to scrap Trident, but shelter under Nato’s nuclear umbrella. But note that the pair resigned from the party to sit as independents, rather than staying on to fight and persuading their colleagues to change the policy back. They left but would have been flung out anyway, eventually.

For criticising the SNP leadership is now actually against SNP rules. Yes, really.

A disciplinary code is due to be rubber stamped that formalises the control of the leadership. It states that MPs or MSPs “accept that no Member shall, within or outwith Parliament, publicly criticise a Group decision, policy or another member of the Group.”

Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would not get away with imposing such sinister rules on their MPs. Imagine trying to get that through a meeting of the backbench Tory 1922 committee, or the Parliamentary Labour Party. Normally polite and pacifist Lib Dem MPs would take off their sandals and use them to beat any leader to death if he attempted to impose such controls.

Now some voters have started to notice that potential SNP MPs are troublingly sheep-like in their loyalty. This week an SNP candidate was caught on camera admitting that he would never vote against the leadership line, even if it was on a matter detrimental to his constituents. That’s just weird. The proper answer in a democracy is as follows. My constituents come first. If my party leadership does something really nuts to this area, of course I’ll vote against it in parliament. My constituents are more important than my career, and so on. It becomes more complicated if I’m a minister, but even then good people resign if they have to.

This matters, because very soon it looks as though the SNP will have a lot more power. Separatists may hold the balance in the UK parliament and the party’s leadership could be taking decisions that impact on voters right across Britain.

If this happens, please do not be conned by all the smiley Sturgeon progressive spin. Do not fall for the myth that the SNP somehow represents “a new politics” when the Nats are much more into sinister control-freakery and punishing dissent than New Labour ever was. And yet the UK could be about to fall into such people’s hands.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX