Are you Tories in disguise? Not the kind of football chant you’d expect to hear levelled against the SNP, which has spent the past few decades so aggressively defining itself against Conservative values and policies.
Yet a looming campaign of broad industrial action faces the ostensibly labour-friendly Nationalists – exactly the kind of headache that more commonly confronts Tory governments.
Staff at the Scottish Qualifications Authority are threatening to strike over planned reforms that would see the exams body, which has struggled throughout lockdown, scrapped and replaced by a new agency. The union Unite claims SQA employees are paying a price for political failures, that there has been a lack of consultation around the changes, and that they face the risk of redundancy.
They are not alone, and the dread phrase “winter of discontent” has reared its head. The Royal College of Nursing is considering a strike due to what it says is burnout, staff shortages and low pay. Refuse workers in Glasgow, fresh from an eight-day stoppage that overshadowed the Cop26 conference in the city, have rejected a 5.8 per cent pay offer, with the GMB promising a fresh strike ballot that could see bins go uncollected in the run-up to Christmas. UK academics, including those in Scotland, are threatening to walk out due to a pensions dispute, while workers on the Caledonian Sleeper service are poised to take industrial action this weekend over pay and conditions.
An embarrassing strike by rail workers during Cop26, which would have meant no trains between Edinburgh – where many delegates were staying – and Glasgow was only avoided at the last minute. Rail services were heavily reduced on Sundays for months because of the row.
A dark, wintry Scotland lit by smoking braziers, with pickets brandishing anti-SNP placards and unleashing inventive rhymes about what its ministers might do with themselves, was not part of the ruling party’s gameplan. In its 14 years in government it has smartly positioned itself on the side of the ordinary joe against the depredations of the London elite. It has styled itself as a rebellious outsider to the establishment even as its time in power has stretched on and on, and has always held out the carrot of an independent Scotland in which industrial disputes would be replaced by a cosmic love-in. This has all helped the Nats supplant Labour as the preferred party of Scotland’s workers.
But in the end, you can’t govern without falling out with people. Arguably, the SNP should have fallen out with far more than it has while in office. Its tenure has been marked by a reluctance to pursue much-needed reforms to public services in order to keep public-sector workers onside, always with the prospect of a second referendum in mind. The gory results of that approach are revealed with each new release of data – or at least the limited data we are allowed to see.
The same thing always happens to governments. You run out of money. You can’t please everyone. You have to say no. And your insistence that you are more compassionate, nicer, more moral than the other lot hits the buffers. Your MPs and MSPs get drunk on airplanes, or recklessly break Covid rules, or use anti-Semitic language and then abandon you for a different party, or pester a 16-year-old boy on Facebook, or are accused of harassment, or have messy affairs.
You face accusations of financial irregularity, and high-profile challenges to your integrity. Your policy failures – say, on drug abuse, on ferries, on BiFab – become so obvious as to be visible from the moon. You may be no worse than previous governments, but it becomes harder to sustain the argument that you are much better.
The greatest threat to the SNP’s hegemony in Scotland – and it is no more than a whispered threat at this stage – is that it becomes seen as just another government. Its ability to avoid political gravity has to a large extent been based on the implicit and explicit insistence by Nationalist politicians and their supporters that the movement somehow occupies a superior moral plane to normal administrations. Its independence offer is to make this enlightened society permanent. This has always been self-deluding nonsense, a sort of religious rapture among glassy-eyed Yes voters, and after so long in power the SNP ship is inevitably badly dented, barnacle-encrusted and patched up. A plain jane administration for a plain jane nation.
A winter of discontent would be something else, though. Labour is desperate to regain a foothold in its former geographical, demographic and economic heartlands. The local government elections due next year will be an important indicator of whether that is becoming a realistic prospect. A series of strikes by angry workers that also inconvenience Scots going about their daily lives might well see gravity begin to reassert itself. You can’t blame Westminster for everything. Labour can blame the SNP for a great deal.
Not everything is about independence – it is not always the answer and it is often not even the question. Sometimes people just want to know that their rulers are competent, effective, focused on the more immediate but no less important things, and not full of crap. The last thing the SNP can afford is to look like only the latest tired, ageing and ultimately failing government.