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14 September 2017

Will Alex Salmond’s attention seeking test the SNP’s aversion to criticising their own?

Despite their ideological diversity, the nationalists are uncomfortable with internal dissent.

By Chris Deerin

There was a sharp intake of breath in Scottish Nationalist circles this week when an op-ed by the writer Andrew Tickell appeared in the Times. Tickell is one of the pro-independence writers who made his name blogging during the 2014 referendum. He is smart, thoughtful and fair-minded – unusually so, in that circle – and now a regular on the media circuit.

In the article, headlined “Seasoned showman Salmond must bow out”, Tickell made the case that the former first minister’s refusal to lower his profile since stepping down as leader in 2014, and especially since losing his Westminster seat this June, has become a problem for the Scottish National Party and, not least, his successor Nicola Sturgeon.

The truth is that the current leadership has long since grown weary of Salmond’s jack-in-the-box antics, his insatiable lust for publicity, his barrelling interventions into nuanced political calculations. He has been the opposite of a good ex-leader: at times, less a back-seat driver than an aggressive competitor slamming his rusting jalopy into the side of Sturgeon’s ministerial limo.

Despite this, Sturgeon has been careful in her public comments. When asked about Salmond’s freelancing she will usually say something like: “Alex was my mentor and I owe him a great deal. As does Scotland.” In part, of course, the Nats need to protect the reputation of their greatest contemporary figure, regardless of his attempts at self-sabotage. But it goes further than that. Nats do not criticise fellow Nats, full stop.

This was why Tickell’s article caused a shock: he went public. “The former first minister seems determined to squander his prestige and become his successor’s albatross,” he wrote. “He is entitled to a midlife crisis; he is not entitled to it at Nicola Sturgeon’s expense.”

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Salmond outdid himself this summer by appearing in a one-man show at the Fringe. The vainglorious billing – “Have you ever wondered what Scotland’s longest-serving first minister really thinks?” – alarmed his erstwhile colleagues. As Tickell put it, “the spectacle of one of Scotland’s leading politicians reduced to self-serving provocateur was a dismal one. While the British government ground through a wet summer of bad headlines, stumbling from crisis of competence to crisis of competence, the former first minister decided to spend his time soaking up the appreciation of simpatico crowds and generating daily, unhelpful newslines for his successor.”

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There has been an ongoing debate about Salmond’s status since leaving Bute House. He has repeatedly strained at the edges of the strategy set by Sturgeon. As she has attempted to navigate her way in a nation that shows every sign of wanting to move on, for now, from debating independence, that clearly has no desire for a second referendum any time soon, and that seems to be growing tired of the SNP after 10 years of power, he has acted with abandon, confidently predicting separation within the next few years. The question has been: is Salmond licensed by Sturgeon to play to the frothing base, to keep them perky and riled up, or is he simply a grandstanding berk who can’t bear the idea he no longer matters?

Tickell has no doubt about the answer: “None of these interventions seemed to have an ounce of strategy to them. Mr Salmond took the opportunity to sow policy confusion… everywhere generating awkward headlines and slurping down the oxygen of publicity the Scottish government dearly needed. The First Minister has shown the patience of Job with Mr Salmond’s increasingly tragic public antics — but she shouldn’t have to.”

It’ll be interesting to see whether this heresy damages the writer’s standing in pro-indy circles. It is certainly the case that plenty share his view, and entertain their own doubts about Salmond’s behaviour, character and ego. But thinking it and saying it are two different things. One is reminded of the footballer who said to the referee: “Hey ref, what would you do if I said you were a bastard?”

Ref: “I’d send you off.” 

‘Well, what would you do if I thought you were a bastard?”

“Not much I could do, is there?” 

“Then I think you’re a bastard.”

For those Scots who never got round to drinking the Kool-aid, one of the most baffling and frustrating things about the past decade has been this obsessive loyalty, the almost total uniformity of opinion and robotic obedience displayed by the SNP’s elected representatives and supporters.

It’s not hard to find examples of Labour or Conservative MPs launching rhetorical grenades at their own side – look at the past record of the current Labour leader, for example – but you’ll struggle to track down a single statement by a Nationalist MP or MSP that is out of line with official party policy.

The idea that everyone in the SNP holds the same opinion on every subject is of course ludicrous. In fact, despite its social democrat credentials, it’s arguable no other party encompasses such a wide ideological split.

There are at least two reasons for the Stepford behaviour: one is that the SNP has a single, defining purpose that the other parties lack – education, health, the economy, law and order, and foreign policy all come a distant second to the task of securing Scottish independence; another is its intolerance of dissent. Shortly before the 2015 election, at which the SNP won a whopping 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, it amended its standing orders to dictate that “no member shall within or outwith the parliament publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group”. Having a pop is, in effect, outlawed.

One can only imagine the derision that would have greeted such a ruling had it been made by one of the other parties, and how little observance there would have been. But SNP politicians stuck to it diligently.

It’s been a weird and, frankly, unhealthy situation that may finally, if slowly, be changing. One reason is simply the passage of time: a couple of years on, many of those newbie MPs have developed into seasoned operators who are more willing to flex their muscles. Also, SNP politicians are dropping like flies – 21 of the 56 MPs were kicked out by voters in June. This stuttering momentum has undermined attempts at Stalinist control from the centre. After the election there was even some discussion among MPs of whether Sturgeon should carry on, and there is grumbling about the appropriateness of the role played by her husband Peter Murrell, who is the SNP’s chief executive.

This growing independence of thought and speech very probably alarms the Nat panjandrums who have become steeped in a modern culture of unquestioning loyalty. But it wasn’t always this way – in the 1980s and 1990s there were fierce battles between the gradualists and fundamentalists over how to achieve independence. And it may not be to Sturgeon’s disadvantage to loosen the reins a little, to let the SNP seem like less of an imperious cult and instead present a more honest reflection of our flawed, disputatious society.