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17 March 2023

The SNP seems to think it can’t lose Scotland – but it can

Collapsing membership numbers and sudden poll drops should be telling the party something.

By Chris Deerin

As a former chief executive of the SNP, an MSP for nearly two decades and a cabinet minister for much of the same period, one would expect the party’s serving president, Michael Russell, to be fairly robust in his political dotage.

Yet when it comes to skin, Russell has been dealt the thinnest end of the wedge. There has always been something of the pantomime dame about Russell – it has never taken much for him to gather his skirts in outrage – but during the current leadership contest he is reaching unscaled heights of glass-shattering hysteria. In fact, anyone reading this in Argyll, where the 69-year-old makes his home, might be advised to wrap up their champagne flutes.

Russell has a weekly column in the National, a pro-independence newspaper in Scotland, which he uses to slather praise on the nationalist administration and its leading figures, and demand unerring loyalty to the cause.

On 11 February, he penned a diatribe against a “Unionist-inspired media feeding frenzy” targeted at Nicola Sturgeon, which had the aim of “decapitating the party”. “We must stand together,” he shrieked, “for if they come for one now, later they will come for us all.”

[See also: Scotland needs its own Rishi Sunak]

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Four days later, Sturgeon announced her resignation. Such media power! “Naturally, she leaves a huge legacy,” fawned Russell, as the rest of us frowned through magnifying glasses in search of this hugeness. He soon returned to the heretics of the “unionist media”, arguing that the SNP’s otherwise constructive and good-tempered leadership contest was being “malevolently stirred and every word uttered is twisted by those who are no friends to independence”. He named the guilty: “If you think the stated preferences of the Times, the Telegraph, the Spectator and the New Statesman… are impartial and will help our party, our cause or our country, then think again. No one should countenance them for a moment, let alone court them.”

Well, Mike, I can’t speak for the other publications, but I’m afraid to say that the New Statesman has been vigorously countenanced: my phone has been red-hot for weeks. And I’ve written repeatedly in favour of Kate Forbes because I think she is by some margin the best choice for the country among the available options. I don’t particularly care about the SNP’s fortunes or those of the independence cause, but I do believe Forbes might deliver for those Scots who’ve been utterly failed by eight years of self-indulgent, anaemic government by your pals.

Russell was at it again this week, when he was quoted as raging that the row over the party’s secret membership numbers was the work of its “enemies” and intended to “discredit the SNP”. It feels almost unfair to point out that Forbes and Ash Regan, two of the three candidates, sent an open letter to Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, demanding the numbers be released. And so they finally were, with the embarrassing revelation that the party has lost around 30,000 members since 2021, from 104,000 to 72,186. Is the media to blame for this, too?

The SNP, or at least the bit of it that wants to carry on as before, is displaying all the complacency and self-regard for which it used to – fairly – criticise Scottish Labour. Labour was guilty of thinking it would never lose Scotland, until it did. The nationalists see themselves today as the natural party of government at Holyrood, and have enjoyed such dizzying electoral success for so long that they have apparently forgotten what it’s like to lose. This is possibly inevitable, but it is also foolish – it wasn’t all that long ago that they had their faces pressed against the wrong side of the window.

Those membership numbers, coupled with the party’s sudden drop in the polls, are telling them something. The final period of Sturgeon’s ministry was one calamity piled upon another, from alleged missing funds to misguided policy choices, and it clearly wasn’t just the cynics of the press that thought so. Support for independence has fallen too, and the leadership contest has turned into a catfight as the entire weight of the party machine works to prevent a Forbes victory.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Forbes would lead Scotland out of the UK any time soon, but then I don’t believe anyone would. The majority of Scots simply don’t want to leave yet, and seem highly unlikely to change their minds about that under a Labour government at Westminster.

The idea that Humza Yousaf is some sort of national liberator riding to the rescue is laughable. The past few weeks have confirmed he is not a first minister, a uniter or an inspirer, but a rather dull mid-ranker. My bet is that if he wins, he will oversee an accelerated disintegration of SNP support and increase public appetite for a change in Bute House.

As Tony Blair once put it, the kaleidoscope has been shaken and the pieces are in flux. And not before time, one might think. The SNP, like the furiously vibrating Michael Russell, seems completely unable to consider the causes of its decline with any frankness. That, in the end, will be its undoing.

Read more:

SNP leadership candidates need to abandon the independence delusion

The SNP machine is in a state of panic over Kate Forbes

Why Kate Forbes just won’t quit

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