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10 July 2024

The SNP’s uncivil war

Scores are being settled inside the party after its electoral humiliation by Scottish Labour.

By Chris Deerin

It was only in May that John Swinney launched his bid to become SNP leader with the words: “I want to unite the SNP and unite Scotland for independence.”

Both are currently looking like forlorn ambitions. The party’s rout in the general election, where it was reduced from 48 seats to a mere nine, has taken independence off the agenda. And that dreadful result has been followed by a vicious bloodletting, including calls for Swinney’s resignation. The air is thick with the sound of scores being publicly settled.

The SNP is not a happy place. Alex Neil, the former Scottish health secretary, demanded Swinney step down before the party conference in the autumn, to be replaced by a team of Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes and Westminster leader Stephen Flynn. “They would be a great joint ticket,” said Neil.

If, Neil aside, calls for Swinney to be removed remain muted, that is because he has only been in post for a few months. Given the hand he was dealt – plummeting poll ratings, a police investigation and a mediocre record in government – the SNP was always going to face a tough outcome on 4 July.

But still, the result was much poorer than expected. Scottish Labour has surged to the front of Scottish politics, winning 37 of the country’s 57 seats, up from just one in 2019. The momentum is now with leader Anas Sarwar ahead of the campaign for Holyrood in 2026.

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Further, the SNP have effectively been expelled from the central belt, which is Scotland’s main population centre. It now holds no Westminster seats in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife or Ayrshire. It lost, too, in Stirling and Falkirk. This is hardly a promising platform on which to retain power in Edinburgh. And by then it will have been in office for almost two decades.

Another problem facing Swinney is his closeness to Nicola Sturgeon. The nature of her leadership, her departure and the state in which she left the SNP is a source of intense anger for many.

Nor has Sturgeon managed her post-leadership phase well. Rather than step back and stay quiet, she has launched herself into the public eye, even as the police probe into party funds has continued, with her husband, former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, charged with embezzlement.

It’s clear that Sturgeon made a mistake in agreeing to appear as an analyst on ITV’s election night coverage, alongside George Osborne and Ed Balls. She seemed out of place and defensive, responding weakly as seat after seat fell to the SNP’s opponents. Her unwillingness to accept her central role in the party’s decline is an increasing source of contention.

There needs to be a reckoning, whether Sturgeon wants one or not. In an open letter to party members this week, Jim Sillars, the respected former SNP deputy leader, described her as “Stalin’s wee sister”. He wrote that “July was inevitable given how the Sturgeon/Swinney era misled the movement, lost its common sense in government, promoted marginal issues as national priorities while the real priorities of the people such as education, housing, NHS, infrastructure, were notable only for the staggering level of incompetence with which they were dealt with.

Sillars added: “Whether the leadership has the grace to repent is of no matter. It is a busted flush. The people have no regard for them.”

Ousted MP Joanna Cherry, a high-profile critic of Sturgeon, was equally scathing following her defeat. “People who really want independence feel we dropped the ball,” she said. “People who don’t want independence but voted for us because we had competence and governed with integrity feel we’ve lost our competence and there’s a question mark over our integrity.” Swinney, she added, “has not steadied the ship: the ship has gone down.”

That central issue of independence is now the SNP’s biggest problem. In the aftermath of defeat, Swinney admitted his party would have to urgently rethink how it was selling the plan to Scots – it would “need to take time to consider and to reflect on how we deliver our commitment to independence”.

The problem is, though, that Scots simply aren’t buying right now. Their priorities, as elsewhere in the UK, are the economy and the NHS. Talk of a bright new future under independence sounds more outlandish than ever – it is irrelevant to voters’ current needs. 

The challenge facing Swinney and his team is a big one, and perhaps insurmountable. Amid the loud chorus of internal discontent, and with many significant names gone after the general election, they must somehow build a case for 2026 that acknowledges their failures, continues to promote independence in some form, and offers an agenda that can attract back those voters who have defected to Labour.

The earliest opportunity will come in the autumn, when Swinney will set out his first programme for government. Forbes told me recently that the core of this will be “less writing, more doing”. Private finance, she said, would have to be the answer in areas such as net zero and affordable housing. High levels of inactivity in the jobs market will be tackled. There will also be a heightened focus on growing tech start-ups, and it will be made easier for domestic and foreign investors to enter the Scottish economy. 

None of this solves the independence conundrum, of course. The SNP’s core belief is currently a political burden. The party can’t stop talking about it, but it risks seeming ever more remote from an  electorate that believes now is not the time.

Finding a way to reconcile all this would tax any political operator. In such difficult conditions, with a party in open revolt around him, the odds are long that Swinney can find the answer. In truth, it’s not even clear there is one.

[See also: The Tories will keep losing if they chase Reform]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change