SNP down but not out

First off, I’d like to thank everyone who left kind and supportive comments about my mother following her recent operation. She read them and was very touched and heartened by them and said that it meant a lot to her that so many people were wishing her well, even people that she has never met. She had a rough time of it in the days after the operation as she had a very bad reaction to the general anaesthetic, but thankfully she’s doing much much better now and is well on the way to being back to her old self.

While I have been preoccupied with my mother’s health crisis, the SNP has been experiencing a crisis of its own. The first thing to say here is that it is best not to comment on an on-going police investigation which may or may not result in charges being brought, so I urge anyone who comments here to refrain from speculation about any of the individuals involved.

However there has certainly been considerable and often glee filled speculation in the British media that the recent developments mean that it’s all over for the SNP and for Scottish independence. These predictions are, to put it politely, premature. There’s no denying that the police investigation has been shocking to those of us who have put our trust in the SNP as the only credible vehicle which can deliver Scottish independence, and I am sure I am not alone in feeling deeply disappointed and let down by the party leadership. But despite everything that has transpired in recent weeks, and everything that will come out as a result of this police investigation and the massive attention it will attract from an exultant British media which pays far less attention to Conservative financial scandals involving far larger sums of money which have been diverted for personal gain, the SNP remains the only credible vehicle for delivering Scottish independence.

That said, it is imperative that the new leadership takes urgent steps to ensure transparency and openness in the running of the party and restores control of the party to its membership. The SNP must be a microcosm of the new independent Scotland the winning of which is the party’s raison d’etre. A top down centralist SNP which invests all power and control in a single dominant leader is definitely not the model of an independent Scotland which we should be aiming for, yet that is the model embodied by the SNP under both Alex Salmond and his successor Nicola Sturgeon. That may have been a model which was successful electorally, but it is absolutely not the template to emulate in an independent Scotland.

However the SNP remains the only credible show in town, not just for the winning of Scottish independence, but also for ensuring that democracy in Scotland is respected. Alba supporters were ecstatic recently at an opinion poll which appeared to show that the party could win as many as five MSPs at the next Holyrood election, but this was a poll conducted by Panelbase, which has significantly over-estimated Alba’s support in the past, unless these findings are consistently replicated by other polling companies, they should be taken with a bucket load of salt. There is no evidence that Alba is able to appeal to voters who are not hard-core independence supporters or that it is able to convert soft no voters and undecided voters to support for independence.

Alba supporters hate to hear this, but their party labours under the massive disadvantage of being widely regarded as a political vehicle for Alex Salmond, who is regularly found by polls to be one of the least popular figures in Scottish politics among the wider public. Until such time as the party can come out from under his shadow and assert an identity independent of its founder, and demonstrate that it can rein in the toxicity spread by some of its more unpleasant online supporters, Alba has little chance of replacing the SNP as the major political force of the Scottish independence movement.

So Alba will not become the major political beneficiary of the SNP’s current travails, it may enjoy a boost in support on the back of the present situation, but that will come from those already committed to Scottish independence, Alba is starting from a very low baseline and has a very long way to go before it can present itself as a serious contender for power. The SNP will remain the dominant pro-independence party for the foreseeable future.

It is the Labour and Tory parties which are salivating the most about the SNP’s problems and it is Labour which believes it stands to gain the most. However Labour has effectively given up on appealing to independence supporters and to those who oppose Brexit so it is really hoping that Scottish voters will hold their noses and vote Labour despite its support for Brexit, Starmer’s wholehearted espousal of Conservative policies and his refusal to identify the democratic route to another independence referendum in the hope of getting rid of the loathsome Conservatives. But that is not a strategy likely to restore the dominance Labour once enjoyed in Scottish politics. Labour has written off a large chunk of the Scottish electorate, a strategy which merely confirms the inability of the British state to accommodate Scotland’s distinctive political culture.

Meanwhile Humza Yousaf is proving that he is not afraid to take the fight to the Conservatives and has announced that the Scottish Government is to take legal action to challenge the unprecedented use by Alister Jack of a section 35 order in order to veto the Gender Recognition Reform Bill which was passed by Holyrood last year with a large cross party majority. Certain prominent SNP figures, who not coincidentally were opposed to the legislation in the first place, have spoken out against the planned legal action, saying that it has little chance of success.

However the point here is not the likelihood of success of any legal challenge but that the Conservatives must be shown that there is a political consequence to making use of undemocratic veto powers to overturn Scottish legislation that does not meet with Tory approval and that the Scottish Government will resist this to the fullest extent of its ability. The use of the veto was especially egregious given the refusal of the Conservative Government to engage with Holyrood in order to ensure that the Scottish legislation did not impinge upon UK equalities law.

The political risk of not taking legal action is that the Conservatives will be emboldened to make greater use of Westminster’s veto powers in future, effectively neutering the Scottish Parliament and undermining the entire raison d’etre of devolution. A legal case, even one which the Scottish Government ultimately loses, will highlight the inability of devolution to do what it was sold to Scotland as being the solution to – the problem of Conservative governments that Scotland didn’t vote for imposing their will on Scotland despite the inability of the Tories to win an election in Scotland since 1955. Labour, the self-declared party of devolution are refusing to stand up for Holyrood even though the vast majority of Labour MSPs voted in favour of the bill that the Tories undemocratically vetoed. This is no longer about the narrow issue of the GRR bill, but rather about the right of the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation that the Tories dislike.

Only the SNP is able to appeal to a wide cross section of Scottish society and take the role of the spearhead of the independence movement. It remains the only mass membership party in Scotland. A relative of mine who is an office holder in his local SNP branch tells me that his branch has gained 68 new members since the news of Peter Murrell’s arrest broke, so while the SNP certainly does not have its challenges to seek at the moment, it is very far indeed from being a spent political force. It was reported this week that Sunak intends to hold off on a Westminster General Election until Autumn 2024, which gives the SNP invaluable breathing space to get its house in order, to identify a plausible path to independence, and to restore the trust placed in it by independence supporters. It’s a tall order, but an achievable one. Those who underestimate the resilience of the SNP do so at their peril.


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