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Scotland declares independence from the SNP

The party is now in serious trouble: divided, factionalised and beset by scandal.

By New Statesman

For over a decade, in spite of its mediocre policy record and ideological fractures, the Scottish National Party defied political gravity. Both supporters and sometimes even opponents treated it as the political wing of the Scottish people.  They were wrong to do so.

“A dominant party is that which public opinion believes to be dominant,” wrote the French sociologist Maurice Duverger in 1954. “Even the enemies of the dominant party, even citizens who refuse to give it their vote, acknowledge its superior status and its influence; they deplore it but they admit it.”

Such was the case with the SNP as it won four consecutive Scottish Parliament elections. But the party is now in serious trouble, divided, factionalised and beset by scandal.

Humza Yousaf’s resignation as First Minister after just 13 months in office was a humiliation for a party that had long prided itself on its statecraft. The Bute House Agreement that the SNP signed with the ultra-liberal Scottish Greens in August 2021 was always politically dubious. It encouraged Mr Yousaf’s government to neglect the economy and public services in favour of marginal progressive issues such as gender reform.

In a prescient interview with the New Statesman last December, Kate Forbes, who narrowly lost to Mr Yousaf by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in the 2023 leadership contest, called for the agreement to be repealed. “Nearly all the issues that have lost us support in the last year are found in the Bute House Agreement and not in the SNP manifesto,” she said.

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But the manner in which Mr Yousaf ended the power-sharing deal was panicked rather than strategic. “I really value the Bute House Agreement,” he said on 20 April after the Greens announced an emergency vote on the pact. “I want to keep achieving a lot with the Green Party.” Only days later, Mr Yousaf declared that the agreement had “served its purpose” as he sacked the Greens’ co-leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, from his cabinet.

The SNP leader did not appear to have considered the possibility that they might in turn sack him. “I didn’t mean, and I didn’t intend, to make [the Greens] as angry as they clearly are,” he later remarked to much ridicule. Mr Yousaf had no alternative plan to sustain his minority government. Rather than advertising his strength, he merely confirmed his weakness.

Mr Yousaf, the second-shortest-serving first minister in history, had the sense to recognise that his position had become untenable. He also conducted himself with dignity last autumn as his parents-in-law were left trapped in Gaza as war raged around them. But the inept manner in which he handled this political crisis showed why he was an unsuitable first minister.

The SNP’s struggles, however, go far beyond one man. It was as an insurgent force that the party rose. Westminster was assailed as the root of Scotland’s ills; independence was prescribed as the cure. But as the nationalist cause stalled – the UK Supreme Court vetoed a unilateral referendum in 2022 – the parlous state of Scotland after 17 years of SNP government became undisguisable.

The country has plummeted down international league tables for maths, science and reading; it has recorded the highest number of drug deaths per head in Europe; and it has failed to reverse its economic stagnation and demographic decline. Yet, rather than adopting a hard-headed focus on such issues, the SNP pursued an array of quixotic causes: the doomed Gender Recognition Reform Bill; the illiberal Hate Crime Bill; the botched bottle-return scheme.

After this holiday from reality, the question is whether the party can reconnect with the electorate. A leader such as Ms Forbes would deliver the hard truths that the SNP needs to hear: wealth creation as well as wealth redistribution matters; public services require reform rather than simply more resources; and unreflective progressivism alienates Scotland’s moderate majority. A continuity candidate such as the former leader John Swinney would defer a necessary reckoning.

Unionists should avoid triumphalism: discontent with Westminster as well as Holyrood endures. But after years of being treated as a political fiefdom, Scotland is declaring independence from the SNP.

[See also: The new age of global threats]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March