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13 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 4:17pm

The SNP can’t mask its left-right split forever

Socialists in the party could be game for a progressive alliance. 

By James millar

Expect the atmosphere at SNP conference this week to resemble that of the last ten minutes of a football game, when one team is piling on the pressure and it seems inevitable that they will get a winning goal.

No-one knows how it’ll be achieved – perhaps a piece of individual brilliance, perhaps the other team will make a mistake, perhaps it’ll be a scrappy bundled-over-the-line affair, but the fans have the feeling that victory will be achieved, and soon.

That’s where the SNP are with independence.

The exact route to another indyref is unclear, but after Britain’s Brexit vote there’s increasing confidence that somehow it’s going to happen, and soon.

Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU. But at Conservative conference Theresa May twice took the opportunity to tell Scots they’d be bound by the UK-wide result, putting northern noses out of joint.

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Even if she doesn’t announce a timetable in her speech on Saturday, Nicola Sturgeon can’t resist the clamour from her own members for another poll indefinitely. 

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That’s prompted many in the party to turn their thoughts to the next general election.

For the 56 – the MPs returned to Westminster in the SNP tsunami of 2015 – are a disparate group.

Not just in terms of ability – it’s now clear who is clever and capable and who is lightweight lobby fodder – but also outlook.

Former investment banker Ian Blackford and ex-oil industry exec Hannah Bardell only belong in the same party as trade unionist Chris Stephens and Bennite Mhairi Black as long as they’re bound by the dream of independence.

By 2020, that’ll likely be either achieved, or far in the distance, depending on the result of another indyref, but the outcome will be the same. The MPs will have to define themselves in another way.

Black’s nailed her colours to the mast. In her blockbuster maiden speech she claimed the Labour party left her. A few weeks later Labour elected Jeremy Corbyn leader and came straight home to her – but she’s found a way to resist Corbyn’s charms.

By 2020, it could be different. There’s already whispers of the likes of Black, Stephens, firebrand Neil Gray, and former Labour officer Tommy Sheppard standing on an avowedly left-wing platform. Meanwhile, those in the SNP currently preoccupied with economic policy, like Stewart Hosie, George Kerevan and one-time Tory Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh would plough a different furrow aimed at lower taxes and private enterprise.

Socialists could be elected in Scotland in 2020, no thanks to Corbyn.

But he – or any other Labour leader come to that – could surely count on their support in Westminster. It’s another factor making some sort of progressive alliance look all but inevitable post 2020. Mhairi Black or Tommy Sheppard as shadow Scottish secretary in four years time? It’s both possible and plausible.

The potential post 2020 split in the SNP along left/right lines is just one of a number of faultlines opening up among the Westminster group and between the party’s MPs and MSPs.

Those who lived through Scottish Labour’s hegemony have heard MPs whine about MSPs above their station, and vice versa, before, and witnessed poisonous internal party conflicts.

Competent careerists, keen to make a name for themselves, complain that their less sophisticated colleagues are holding them back.

In little over year the party has seen two MPs resign the whip following questions over financial affairs – Natalie McGarry has been charged, Michelle Thomson may rejoin the fold soon – and others have had fingers pointed at them, albeit usually with very little basis. Then there’s the sex scandal that cost depute leader Stewart Hosie his post. And let’s not forget Stirling MP Steven Paterson, exposed in his local paper last month for claiming £40 expenses for dog care. The money has since been paid back. It’s a litany that led one cynical former Labour MP swept away by the SNP tide to bitterly declare: “They are doing things differently to us, they’re getting caught.” 

The SNP may be rock solid when it comes to independence, but that leaves them brittle and the cracks are beginning to show.

Activists believe the prize of independence is within sight, but with the final whistle, a whole new ball game will kick off for the SNP. Seems some of the party’s members and thinkers are already getting in training.