A new era in Scottish politics

It has certainly been a torrid week for the SNP with the sudden resignation on Saturday of the party’s Chief Executive Officer Peter Murrell, the husband of out-going party leader Nicola Sturgeon, amidst disagreements about the handling of the party’s leadership election. But the excited claims of sections of the British media that it is all over for the Scottish independence movement are hyperbole born out of wishful thinking. As this blog has pointed out more often than I care to remember, the SNP is not the creator of the widespread desire in Scotland for independence, its dominant position in Scottish politics is a creation of that desire, whatever issues the party faces, the underlying drivers of the wish for an independence will inevitably reassert themselves.

I am not privy to what has been going on within the National Executive Committee, which on Saturday gave Peter Murrell an ultimatum to either give a firm date for standing down from his post or face an immediate vote of no confidence, but it is clear that for some time there has been considerable unhappiness about how the party was being managed, with allegations of control-freakery, secrecy and the rumbling police investigation into the handling of party funds. However looked at from the outside it seems that the last straw for the members of the NEC was the sudden resignation on Friday of the party’s press officer Murray Foote who claimed that he had been given false information about the SNP’s membership figures by senior sources within the party when he issued a statement strongly denying a newspaper report, which turned out to have been accurate, that the SNP had lost over 30,000 members. Peter Murrell has been blamed as the individual who gave the false information to Murray Foote.

Peter Murrell had been the Chief Executive of the SNP since 1999, he presided over the mushroom growth of the SNP from a few thousand members to a party with more members than all other political parties in Scotland combined and he was instrumental in turning the party into a formidable election winning machine, but in recent years it became clear that his management of the SNP was becoming a source of division and dispute. The concentration of power within the party in the hands of a married couple was always going to be problematic and with the departure of Nicola Sturgeon, his position as the party CEO became an issue which the next leader of the party was going to have to tackle sooner or later. Peter Murrell’s resignation means that whoever wins the leadership election will be able to establish a clean break with the Salmond-Sturgeon era and put their own stamp on the party and to signal a new phase in the party and the wider independence movement.

Although there are plenty of supposed independence supporters online whose bitterness leads them to rub their hands with glee at the prospect of the police investigation into the alleged mishandling of party funds resulting in charges being brought, politically this would only benefit the opponents of independence. The only political beneficiaries would be Labour and the Tories. However the resignation of Peter Murrell means that should that unfortunate event come to pass, and it’s important to note that the party strenuously denies any wrong doing, it will be easier for the new party leadership to wash its hands of the entire sorry business and to point to the fact that the SNP is under new management.

I previously said on this blog that I was not going to make a public statement about who my own preferred candidate might be. I’m still not going to. That’s for two reasons, firstly because I do not want to inhibit debate and discussion amongst those who use the comments section of this blog as a discussion forum, but more importantly because one of the declared candidates is going to win at the end of this leadership election and whoever that is all of us who support independence need to put the divisions and disputes behind us and unite behind the new leader whoever that may be. Peter Murrell’s resignation makes it easier for that process of healing and unification to take place. We can hope that the new party leader presides over an organisation which listens more and is more responsive and open to the views of its members and to the wider constituency of independence supporters. Under its new leader the SNP must put an end to the secrecy and top down controlling which has been an unfortunate characteristic of recent years and truly become a party which is owned by and answerable to its grass roots membership.

Despite everything that has happened in recent years the SNP remains a formidable political force and still has many more members than all other political parties in Scotland combined. The underlying factors which have produced the desire for Scottish independence remain very much in play : the corruption and lack of accountability of Westminster, the democratic deficit of the British state, Brexit and the rise of English nationalism, the failure of devolution to protect Scotland from Conservative governments it did not vote for, a weakening British identity and demographic patterns of overwhelming support for independence among younger generations of Scots. All of these remain unaltered by developments internal to the SNP, or even the wider independence movement, and once this current period of turbulence has passed, as it assuredly will no matter how much Scotland’s overwhelmingly anti-independence media tries to keep it going, those underlying systemic factors will reassert themselves.

We are in a new era in Scottish politics. The new leader is going to have the task of rebuilding unity and confidence in the SNP as the leading political vehicle for Scottish independence and drawing a line under the divisions and in-fighting of the past few years. The new leader and the independence movement need to focus on persuading those as yet unconvinced of the need for Scottish independence. The resignation of Peter Murrell increases their chances of doing so well before the big electoral test of the next Westminster General Election.


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