It takes a certain kind of leader to demand unity in a political party and get it. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Nicola Sturgeon had the right stuff. They were serial winners, with commanding personalities and a clear vision, around which their tribes could cohere.
Characters like these are rare, though. It’s why they stand out, and why they remain constant reference points. In particular, those who succeed them tend to struggle, as small boats do when caught in the wake of an ocean liner. The latter, who grab the ball when it comes loose from the scrum and spend their time desperately trying not to drop it, is a more familiar type in our politics: John Major, say, Ed Miliband or Theresa May. All had their talents, but none ever really convinced. Therefore they operated under the permanent Damoclean threat of mutiny and defenestration.
Rebellion quickly becomes a habit. If backbenchers think they are likely to lose their seats, if their party is notably unpopular with the public, they will feel they owe the boss little in the way of loyalty. Weakness is exploited and truculence is publicly displayed, often with little fear of sanction.
This is what is currently happening inside the SNP, and indeed the broader independence campaign. For so long under Sturgeon, the movement spoke with one voice. SNP politicians voted like lemmings in London and Edinburgh, whether they agreed with the position taken or not, and happily supported the myth that independence was only one more heave away. But the movement has broken into factions, to such an extent that its map increasingly resembles that of the 19th-century German confederation: a complex and confusing mass of competing kingdoms, grand duchies and free cities.
Angus MacNeil is only the latest example of this shift. The Western Isles MP has been suspended from the SNP Westminster group for a week after allegedly calling the party’s chief whip Brendan O’Hara “a small, wee man” and throwing a bundle of letters at him in parliament on Monday evening (3 July).
O’Hara was appointed in January when his predecessor Martin Docherty-Hughes was forced to stand down just six weeks after his appointment, following an angry row with fellow SNP MP Stewart McDonald. Docherty-Hughes had sent out fake emails in an attempt to identify a suspected leaker, and then wrongly blamed McDonald.
Stephen Flynn, who has been Westminster leader since December after mounting a coup against Ian Blackford, is trying to quell the roiling tensions within a group that has become embittered over its distant relationship with the Edinburgh mothership. He is also having to manage MPs who openly oppose the party’s divisive gender reform proposals, and who were aghast at Sturgeon’s plan for a de facto referendum at the next general election.
There is trouble, too, at Holyrood, where SNP representatives show little sign of affording the new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, the blind backing they gave to Sturgeon. Fergus Ewing, scion of the party’s most famous clan, faces suspension after voting for a no-confidence motion against Lorna Slater, a hapless Green minister in the SNP’s governing coalition.
There is little confidence on the back benches that Yousaf will enjoy a sustained spell in office. The party’s deputy leader Keith Brown, removed from the cabinet by Yousaf, is said to be unhappy. The defeated leadership candidate Kate Forbes and her allies Ivan McKee and Michelle Thomson, while publicly supportive, are developing alternative policy proposals in areas such as public-sector and economic reform. This is in part preparation for the strategic rethink the SNP will have to undertake as its era of hegemony draws to a close.
There is growing unhappiness among MSPs over the outsize influence that the tiny and radically left-wing Greens hold within government. Yousaf made the continuance of the coalition a cornerstone of his leadership pitch, but many of the policy errors that have undermined his early months have stemmed from the junior partner. (Such as the ill-fated bottle return scheme and the abandoned attempt to prohibit fishing in 10 per cent of Scottish waters.) The tail is seen to be wagging the dog, and patience is wearing thin.
Meanwhile, as the police investigation into SNP funding continues, the profile of its former leader Alex Salmond is rising. He is a fierce critic of the direction in which his former party has moved, and hopes the rival Alba Party can attract disillusioned independence supporters at the next Holyrood election. Even the once supine SNP voices in the media are showing signs of revolt. While much of this drama is playing out in public, it is only a glimpse of the whole truth.
The independence movement is a drifting and disillusioned ship, and panic is setting in. For most mainstream parties, this kind of turmoil is common enough. For the SNP, however, it marks a dramatic shift from the recent norm. If the party is finally going down, the end will likely be brutal and bloody.