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16 March 2017

5 of the biggest splits behind the SNP’s disciplined facade

After independence, there may be some scores to settle...

By James millar

On Monday Nicola Sturgeon brutally ended speculation over whether she’d be triggering another independence referendum and opened up a whole new field of confusion over what she’ll talk about instead when she addresses her party conference this weekend.

There’s also a question as to what delegates will talk about. With the referendum question now addressed party members can discuss other matters – the things that divide them rather than the one thing – independence – that unites them.

Last week an Ipsos-Mori poll showed that independence divides the nation. It showed the two propositions of independence and the union running neck and neck. But it was another aspect of that poll that hinted at an equally interesting aspect of SNP politics.

It found that while 48 per cent of people said an independent Scotland should be in the EU, almost as many wanted a self-determining Scotland free of Brussels control.

It points up the inconvenient truth that whatever the result of the next referendum the party will splinter.

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Win independence and the SNP’s raison d’etre is no more.

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Lose and the prospect of a third referendum will be so far down the road that many will have to rethink their place in politics.

Difference of opinion over the EU is just one of many divides within the SNP:

1. Gradualists vs fundamentalists

Alex Salmond found electoral success when he copied the New Labour playbook and headed a broad-based and gradualist movement. SNP success has been built on not scaring the horses. For this wing of the party, the 2014 referendum came too soon.

Sturgeon is Salmond’s protégé. The likes of Angus Robertson and John Swinney are equally managerial.

But, out of office, Salmond has slipped back to more impatient ways – he’s known to want a second shot at independence while Brexit has politics in flux. There are plenty of party members delighted Sturgeon has now granted the wish they’ve been making ever since September 19 in 2014. But as the campaign unfolds there’ll still be tension between the two factions.

2. EU vs anti-EU

Last week Jim Sillars, once a big beast of the party, came out as an Outer when it comes to the EU. He follows Alex Neil, who was in Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet until the Scottish elections last May and voted to Leave the EU in June. Neil claims he was not alone among SNP MSPs.

When I quizzed the party’s education spokeswoman Carol Monaghan on the possibility of independence outwith the EU she was relaxed about that option. Others are positively campaigning for the party to adopt a Norway-style position of access to the single market without membership of the EU.

Discussions have been had among the party’s top brass. The line is currently that independence is the priority. They can wish the EU issue away but it won’t wash.

3. Right vs Left

Like Jeremy Corbyn, many in the SNP are cool when it comes to the EU because of leftish concerns that it’s at heart a capitalist construct concerned more with trade than trades unions.

All parties have a left wing and a right wing, but the SNP has a wider spectrum than most because it’s the only viable vehicle for Scottish independence, whether that is your goal for reasons from the right or left. So, in Westminster, you have trade union man Chris Stephens sharing a Commons bench with corporation tax cutting Stewart Hosie. While Tommy Sheppard was in the Labour party back in the day – and knocked around with Corbyn and John McDonnell when they were all in local government in London – Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh stood for Holyrood as a Tory.

The party’s pensions team alone consists of former titan of finance Ian Blackford and Bennite socialist Mhairi Black.

4. Holyrood vs Westminster

Dundee MP Chris Law found himself subject to police investigation after someone made allegations about his book-keeping. The claims were untrue – the question is who made them. Rumour has it that it was someone inside his own party.

In Lanarkshire, there appears to be some sort of skirmish being played out between Alex Neil and MP Phil Boswell over who gets to stand in May’s local elections.

Now this is the sort of shenanigans Scottish Labour used to get up to when they didn’t have to worry about the result of the next election. Under the SNP they are dubbed McMafias.

Even within groupings there can be grousing. Prod a backbencher at Westminster and you might get a moan about the so-called Super Six – Angus Robertson, Pete Wishart, Stewart Hosie, Eilidh Whiteford, Mike Weir and Angus Brendan MacNeil, the six MPs who held their seats before the 2015 landslide.

5. Competent vs Bampots

Ask any SNP MP to talk about the splits in their party and this category is the one that will yield most names.

The same names come up time and again on the able side of the ledger. Angus Robertson is respected for the way he’s bedded in the 50 new MPs who arrived two years ago. Brexit spokesman Stephen Gethins, House of Lords critic Kirsty Blackman and lawyer Joanna Cherry are universally well regarded by MPs on all sides.

Stewart Hosie too, when he concentrates on the matter in hand, inspires awe and envy for the way he can swiftly get to grips with financial statements and pick them apart.

Like any workplace though there are cliques and criticisms and many MPs are willing to name the colleagues they don’t rate.

Paul Monaghan is regularly fingered for his wayward tweets. Despite possessing a keen political brain, Angus Brendan MacNeil is best known for his childish heckling.

Ronnie Cowan seems to attract opprobrium from colleagues who accuse him of ideas above his station.

Corri Wilson was found to be employing her children, Stirling MP Steven Paterson claimed expenses for dog care (and paid it back after saying it was a mistake). These are the sort of sillinesses that the SNP were supposed to be sweeping away.

These differences of opinion won’t stop the SNP ruthlessly pursing the cause of independence in the run up to the latest independence referendum. But these petty rivalries are a hint that, while the rank and file and elected members share the same goal, they do not share a wider vision.