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8 May 2024

How the SNP lost itself in hyper-liberalism

Scotland’s hegemonic progressive regime was a chimera. Labour should take note.

By John Gray

A political implosion in Scotland confirms an observation commonly made in military circles. In the aftermath of war, strategists look for lessons to be learned. Often lessons are identified, but seldom learned. Directed by governments, armies go on repeating the same mistakes until the entire operation fails, as it did after 20 years in Afghanistan.

The choice of a new SNP leader replicates this pattern. Nicola Sturgeon secured Humza Yousaf as her successor because he promised to carry on her policies. Her understudies have now acclaimed the appointment of her protégé John Swinney, leader of the party from 2000 to 2004 and another continuity candidate. But continuity in the SNP means continuing decline, the reduction of a once hegemonic party to a spent and marginal force, and the end of the independence project for the foreseeable future.

It was not his lack of political skills that made Yousaf’s position fundamentally untenable. While terminating the 2021 Bute House power-sharing agreement with the Greens so abruptly and brutally was a fatal mistake, he was compromised from the start by the inheritance bequeathed by his mentor. Long-standing failings in healthcare, education and the economy were taking their toll. But it was Sturgeon’s embrace of a hyper-liberal agenda that undid her. Backing the Gender Recognition Bill in the face of intense public disquiet and opposition, a streetwise, Machiavellian politician mutated into a purblind ideologue. The classic deformations of one-party states were never far from the surface. Events supervened – allegations of misuse of party funds, hubristic and then inept leadership – and the regime fell apart.

Sturgeon’s most substantial legacy is the collapse of the progressive regime she attempted to install in the country. If Swinney as leader unifies the party around her programme, he will lead it to irrelevance or extinction. If he is a stopgap, appointed to block the accession of Kate Forbes – who is popular with the electorate but loathed by the party hierarchy for her conservative religious views – the result will be the same. Either way, he will own the heavy defeats that lie ahead for the SNP in the Westminster and Holyrood elections.

In order to understand the present, one must pierce the veil of the dominant discourse. When Yousaf and his former Green allies talk of avoiding “toxic culture wars”, they mean silencing opposition to the radical changes in language and behaviour they plan to enforce on society. The underlying premise is that they are advancing the inexorable course of history.

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In fact, progressivism is in political retreat not only in Scotland but throughout much of the West. In former social democracies such as Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, parties of the right are the strongest groupings. In Germany, the hard-right AfD has become the party most favoured by people under 30. Even in the woke Anglosphere, the tide is turning. Largely ignored by the British media, the New Zealand coalition government, elected in October 2023 and led by the conservative National Party, is dismantling the country constructed by Jacinda Ardern.

The by-election loss of Blackpool South to Labour amid the local elections of 2 May confirms that Britain is not immune from this trend. Coming only 117 votes behind the Tories, Reform has demonstrated a capacity to inflict heavy damage on them. Rwanda – an exercise in performative right-wing politics staged by a dying centrist government – will not save Rishi Sunak. Labour’s loss of control in Oldham and the ousting of the Labour deputy leader of Manchester council by a candidate from George Galloway’s Workers Party testify to a similar disaffection. This is not only Gaza costing Labour Muslim votes, though that is a mounting risk for Keir Starmer. As in Rochdale, Galloway’s fusion of old-fashioned socialism with cultural conservatism seems to be resonating with the white working class too.

In Red- and-Blue Wall constituencies, towns and villages, masses of voters are seized with loathing and contempt for the Tories. Many are possessed by a burning desire for revenge for the incompetence, folly and successive betrayals of the past 14 years. Some are turning to the Liberal Democrats for a purer version of the progressive faith. Most are defaulting to Labour as the least bad option under the current electoral system.

Hyper-liberal ideology is not about to lose its institutional power in education, the media and the apparatus of government. In practice a scheme of outdoor poor relief for the distressed middle classes, it also supplies a belief system that relieves them of the burden of thought. Not the least of its advantages is that incessant chatter about race and empire distracts attention from the systemic dysfunction of Western capitalism.

Yet Scotland shows a hegemonic hyper-liberal regime to be a chimera. At the peak of Sturgeon’s power, practically the entire political class was fixated on gender deconstruction, imported American “anti-racism” and net zero cultism. But even within the SNP dissent could not be suppressed, and much of the public remained unconverted. It is not only democracy that is fragile. So is the ruling caste that seeks to manage or circumvent the democratic process. The lessons of Scotland are not difficult to identify. Whether they will be learned when the baton of progress passes to Labour is another matter altogether.

[See also: Can John Swinney be more than a caretaker leader?]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll