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27 January 2020updated 24 Jul 2021 5:38am

How internal divisions are threatening the SNP’s drive towards independence

Increasing support for an illegal wildcat referendum is undermining the party’s attempt to win over unionist voters. 

By Chris Deerin

A key reason behind the SNP’s enduring success has been its unparalleled unity. For years, the party has observed an extraordinary discipline among its elected members – no public rows, no divergence from the official line, no criticism of the leadership. With Labour and the Conservatives caught up in explosive existential fights, the Scottish Nationalists have, in contrast, appeared a beacon of stability.

This is in large part because everyone in the SNP shares the overarching goal of securing Scottish independence. There is a “brother and sisterhood” feel to the party that isn’t found elsewhere, or not to the same extent. Individuals and disagreements matter less than the cause. The culture of uniformity has been enforced by the leadership and by the SNP’s constitution, but in truth this has barely been needed – the push for independence has produced an opt-in, self-motivated generation of apparatchiks.

But they’ve been at it a long time now, the Nats. After 13 years in government in Scotland, the SNP hull is barnacle-encrusted and deeply scarred. One referendum has been fought and (narrowly) lost. The same people – Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Mike Russell – occupy the top jobs, as they have since the Noughties. These people are still full of energy and passion, but new voices are coming through, with different ideas and a sense that the old guard has had its chance, or at least is quickly running out of time.

Westminster has been the obvious laboratory for this difference to foment. The 2015 general election delivered an avalanche of seats to the SNP (56 of Scotland’s 59) and with them came an army of newbies, not all of whom were frontline-ready. Over the years, and 400 miles away from the usually short leash of Bute House, these politicians have established their own groups and cliques. The London leadership of Alex Salmond, until he lost his seat in 2017, was divisive even within the parliamentary group – many of the new arrivals found his bar-room boorishness and arrogance, his cynical manipulation of and ease with House procedures and traditions, tremendously off-putting. The realisation that what from the outside had looked principled and dignified was anything but saw reality and disillusion crash in.

For the most part, the MPs have held their tongues. But one can now detect a willingness to advance personal views, to go against the leadership grain, even to contradict official policy. One example: in an interview with the Sunday Times at the weekend, Mhairi Black, the young left-wing firebrand, said that there “could be mileage” in an illegal independence referendum, if the UK government continues to refuse to allow an official vote. In recent weeks, Joanna Cherry MP, perhaps the closest thing Sturgeon has to a rival, and senior MSP Alex Neil have argued that the Scottish parliament may have the legal competence to hold an advisory referendum. 

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The idea of a “wildcat” referendum has been supported by Angus MacNeil, the free-thinking Western Isles MP. Perhaps, as a result, he now finds his chairmanship of Westminster’s international trade committee at risk. The SNP’s current Westminster leader Ian Blackford – a Sturgeon loyalist – is understood to favour an election among SNP MPs to choose nominees for the post.

Sturgeon is unambiguously opposed to the wildcat approach, pointing out that playing by the democratic rules has brought her party within touching distance of its goal. But there is a sense that control over message, mechanism and timing is slipping away from her. This may be a key reason the First Minister persists with her bizarre insistence that there will be an independence referendum this year. No one, including Sturgeon, believes this to be the case. But the radicals in her party want more, faster, and this appears to be her strategy to contain this energy. As the SNP’s record in government comes under an increasingly critical microscope, it also serves the party to keep talking about independence rather than problems with education and healthcare.

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The fracturing of the single narrative voice is hardly unusual in politics, but it could be especially damaging to the SNP. Voters know its overwhelming purpose is to break up the UK – for many, this is its main attraction. An internal squabble over tactics and strategy, an inner loss of confidence in the current leadership, will not reassure the electorate. It is unlikely to make new converts, which is what the party needs if it is to win IndyRef2.

As one of these potential converts, I thought it might be useful to spell out my own thoughts on what I’m hearing compared to what I need to hear. First, the relentless noisefest about independence is incredibly off-putting. Blackford’s monotonous focus on the issue at PMQs doesn’t just make the Tory benches groan when he stands up. Sturgeon’s 2020 demand is so brazenly untrue that it’s hard not to feel insulted. For most people, there is much, much more to politics, and to life. The same must be true for our elected representatives.

Second, I’m not ready to make up my mind yet. If there were, by some miracle, to be a referendum this year, I’d vote no. I want to see how Brexit unfolds, whether Labour can be returned to sanity, and what kind of Boris Johnson we get. Once these things are clearer, and if the balance isn’t to my satisfaction, I’m likely to support independence.

Third, the sense that the current furore is a deliberate smokescreen to avoid debating the Nats’ failures on public services hardens the heart. Independence, if it comes, should be born on a wave of achievement, not the embrace of mediocrity or worse. I want a recognition that schools policy isn’t working as it should, and a sense of grip across all public services. Failure is ok – is in fact necessary – so long as it’s accompanied by ambition, courage and a willingness to rethink when the facts dictate it.

These are only my reflections – but from conversations in recent weeks, they’re broadly shared by others who could in time be persuaded to support separation. For this cohort, the Nats are falling far short at the moment. Without them, independence will remain an unfulfilled aspiration. Over to you, Sturgeon.