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1 May 2024

The SNP’s agonies are simply democratic politics working

Humza Yousaf and his party have learned a painful lesson: many Scots are still social conservatives.

By Andrew Marr

If we want wisdom on Scotland, we may go to the late Tom Nairn. On the political transformation of his native land, he could be pithy: “As far as I am concerned, Scotland will be reborn when the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post.”

That Dundee newspaper, like most newspapers, is not in robust form but it is still there. The Church of Scotland still boasts 280,000 members and around 650 ministers. Like most established Western churches it is in decline – only a quarter of a century ago, a fifth of Scotland’s population, or a million people, identified with it. But again, everywhere, in villages, suburbs and city centres, it is robustly still there.

So, there is a way to go. But of course, Nairn was making a wide point. He was recognising that Scotland, even among those yearning for a nationalist revival, was still a country of social conservatism, deeply shaped by centuries of Presbyterianism and entertained by a media culture no more liberal than anywhere else in Britain.

And this is, basically, what the SNP is suddenly having to remember. Its alliance in government, formed by the Bute House Agreement of August 2021, tied it to a Scottish Green Party well to its liberal left. “And more to the point,” one leading SNP politician told me this week, “well to the liberal left of the Scottish electorate.”

Nicola Sturgeon and later Humza Yousaf convinced themselves that their electorate was more virtuous, more liberal, more ardent about net zero and social justice than the dozy voters south of the border. As the SNP’s central cause, independence, foundered on the impossibility of finding a route to another referendum that was both legal and could not be stopped by Westminster, its began to focus more and more of its energy on other issues – on the hate crime legislation, on trans rights, on recycling schemes that failed and on well-intentioned marine protection measures which left out the interests of fishing communities.

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Seduced by a Holyrood parliament groupthink, the Scottish government got well ahead of Scottish voters who are, like voters in every part of the UK, struggling with the cost of living, housing shortages, fear of crime and growing unease about a dangerous world. So, as the party leadership simultaneously slid into factional fighting and arrests over alleged embezzlement of funds, the SNP polling numbers began to slide. The latest survey by YouGov puts Labour ahead of the SNP by a single point, which would give it 28 seats in a general election in Scotland, against 18 for the SNP – an extraordinary turnaround and the best possible news for Keir Starmer.

The SNP must find a new leader at speed. The two candidates who have emerged so far both offer, in different ways, a turn back to the core interests of Scottish voters. John Swinney is an SNP veteran – he joined the party aged 15 and was its national secretary as long ago as 1986, before a long stint as deputy first minister under both Alex Salmond and Sturgeon. He is widely seen as a decent, calmly capable continuity candidate. But his own career is not unspotted; twice he faced a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament, once over a change to the exams system and once over the handling of harassment allegations.

Kate Forbes, the staunchly religious and socially conservative young Highlander, is, at the time of writing, still swithering about standing again. With views on economics more pro-business than much of the SNP, she is charismatic and polarising and the darling of the right-wing Westminster press. She is rightly against the idea of a “stitch-up” or coronation, but the party has to decide whether it feels strong enough for a fierce internal contest right now.

Some 25 years on from the founding of the Scottish Parliament, the question is being raised as to whether the devolutionary project has failed. If there is failure, however, it is not one of democracy but of the politics of the hitherto dominant party. Indeed, the SNP is already beginning the process of correction, which the voters themselves will complete. We would not, would we, suggest that Westminster should be abolished because of the sins of the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss administrations?

The fundamental problem for the SNP is hidden in that remark of Nairn’s. It named itself not the Scottish nationalist party, but the Scottish National Party; the party, that is, of all of Scotland, the party whose belief in independence allowed it to reach across ordinary political divides and sweep everybody inside it.

This all-together aspiration in party politics is always a delusion and often, in due course, a source of decay and corruption. Ireland’s Fianna Fáil, at different times in its history, could provide some lessons; so could the British Conservatives and even, in rare moments of hubris, the British Labour Party. Bit by bit those who fail to “believe”, or join up, or bow the knee to the party leadership are edged out of public life. Vigorous party contest is meant to end all that.

In Scotland the belief that the nationalist cause naturally embraced all true Scots has allowed spasms of intolerance in that political family; it has enabled the SNP at different times in its 90-year history to be hostile to the welfare state, to be prejudiced against Catholics – a long-standing Protestant bigotry finally ended by Alex Salmond – and in more recent years to adopt identity politics and a kind of imposed-from-above liberalism.

The problem is that the nationalist family in Scotland still includes, like most families, all sorts. Growing up I remember fierce and thickly tweeded old men with briar pipes and leather patches on their jacket elbows who spoke of the peril of Irish Romanists, who thought all taxation was theft, and were solid for the SNP. Those people have mostly gone quiet in mossy cemeteries by now, but there are plenty in Scotland who dream of independence and have socially conservative views, or are enthusiastic monarchists, or are even sceptical of climate change.

Holding such people in an organisation which also includes some of the most self-righteous urban liberal republicans anywhere in these islands was always going to be a hard gig. This is only another way of saying that parties which aspire to include everybody inevitably import feuding and factions. Is the SNP a party of the left or centre right? A party which has been proud of its Marxist supporters, but which also voted to bring down Jim Callaghan and let in Margaret Thatcher, has never been quite able to decide. Yet again, this chill spring, it is going to have to try.

The enemies of Scottish nationalism are having an absolutely wonderful time. A “national party” which has for so long been wagging a censorious forefinger at them for their sins of incompetence, self-indulgence and immoral delusion now finds itself flat on the ground with its legs in the air.

But this is democratic politics working. This is how errors are corrected. This is how the softly corrupting effects of being too long in power and too little scared of your opponents are cured. These, in short, are not the mortal agonies of Scottish devolutionary politics but simply its growing pains. It doesn’t stop them being bloody painful. But this too will pass.

[See also: Will anyone in the SNP dare challenge John Swinney?]

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