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A collapsing tent

The SNP is heading for disaster

Artillery Row

Even in an era of contentious leadership contests, few have been as rancorous and undignified as the contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon as the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP). 

As voting for the new leader opens today, the party is as divided as at any point in its history. Kate Forbes, the Finance Secretary, has trashed the record of her chief opponent, Humza Yousaf, the Health Secretary, stating in effect that she would sack him for incompetence were she to win the leadership. For his part, Yousaf has insinuated Forbes might undermine social rights and shift the party to the right on economic policy. Both have derided some or all of Sturgeon’s flagship policies, whilst Forbes even implied her own government’s record was mediocre. The situation is now so severe that the SNP’s deputy leader in Westminster has suggested it could split. 

For a party that has prided itself on iron discipline over the last 20 years, such yellow-on-yellow attacks can seem like a new phenomenon. The reality is that the divisions being aired today are as old as the party itself. When they come to the fore, it spells electoral disaster for the SNP and its cause of separation. 

With Sturgeon’s sudden resignation, the SNP lost a talismanic leader

Like all political parties, the SNP is essentially a collection of factions united in a common aim — in its case, independence. What complicates the situation for the SNP is that, unlike its rivals (who can generally be split between wets and dries, social democrats and socialists) the SNP suffers from a myriad of intersecting, internecine, groups competing for influence. A conventional left/right divide has been inherent in the SNP since its emergence as a single political force in 1934, following the fusion of the centre-left National Party of Scotland and the more culturally nationalist Scottish Party. Whilst those on the centre-left have generally won out — Sturgeon’s government is the exemplar and culmination of this — that has not always been the case. 

The SNP is also divided between fundamentalists, who take an absolutist approach to independence; and gradualists, who are willing to accept lesser constitutional change as a stepping stone to separation. From fundamentalist origins, the momentum swung in favour of the gradualists in 1976, when they persuaded the party to support devolution — only for it to swing back in favour of the fundamentalists following the defeat of the 1979 devolution referendum, with many Nationalists believing they had been duped. 

The big tent of the SNP is then further enlarged by the blurring of the boundaries between the party and the independence movement more generally, which are often (but not always) one and the same. As the party-political standard-bearer for independence, for instance, the SNP accepted dual members from other parties as late as 1948, whilst prominent separatists also have been and remain outside its orbit. 

These tensions, so prevalent in SNP history, have been kept largely in check over the last two decades, partly by personalities and partly by political achievement. Both Alex Salmond and his successor, Sturgeon, held an iron grip on the party, the former being a particularly skilled party manager. Salmond narrowly persuaded the SNP membership in 2012 to drop its long-held opposition to NATO membership for an independent Scotland, delivering a vital victory for the party’s centre-right as they tried to reassure voters about the security of an independent Scotland. 

Domineering leadership was coupled with electoral success: first in 2007, when the SNP became the largest party at the Scottish Parliament, through to 2021, where it won a fourth term in devolved government. Most importantly, the party has been united by the prospect of an independence referendum — delivered but defeated in 2014 — and by the prospect of a rapid rerun. This was repeatedly promised but never delivered by Sturgeon, with Nationalists convinced that it would finally deliver victory.

The current descent of the SNP into factionalism is the result of the demise of these three factors. With Sturgeon’s sudden resignation, the SNP lost a talismanic leader who had helped keep its competing factions in check. Never as skilled at political gladhanding as her predecessor, Sturgeon was nevertheless a stalwart who comforted the old SNP, whilst also playing an outsized role for the many new members who joined the party post-referendum in 2014. None of her potential successors enjoy either her profile in the party or her ability at politics. 

Semi-apocalyptic historical precedent faces the next leader of the SNP

At the same time, and in a perhaps related development, the SNP’s dominant position in Scottish politics appears to be slipping. Recent polls suggest the Labour Party, written off as a political force in Scotland after its 2015 wipe-out at the hands of the SNP, is in line for a resurgence. Sturgeon’s policy choices — notably a presumption against further oil and gas development in the North Sea — will also encourage Scottish Conservatives to believe they can retain or even grow their heartlands in Scotland’s north east, despite slipping in the polls nationally. 

The SNP could perhaps weather these two storms were it not for the impossibility of a second independence referendum, which was definitively confirmed in November last year following Sturgeon’s misjudged appeal to the Supreme Court for the power to hold one. The two front runners to replace Sturgeon, Yousaf and Forbes, have all but admitted a second referendum will not happen, whilst public opinion that was once marginal is now clearly opposed to separation. With the one thing capable of uniting the SNP ruled out, at least in the medium term, the party will do what it has in the past: turn in on itself. 

The internal strife and factionalism following the defeat of the 1979 devolution referendum is a case in point. The carrot of constitutional change (in this case a Scottish Assembly, rather than full independence) had been taken away, perhaps (it seemed at the time) forever. In its place, the SNP focused on recriminations and realignment. As well as the reversion to fundamentalism, the period also saw the emergence of the so-called ‘79 Group, who lobbied for a lurch to the left by making the SNP an avowed socialist and republican party. To counter this, centre-right figures formed the Campaign for Nationalism, fighting the ‘79 Group at party conferences and conventions throughout the early 1980s.

The situation was so severe that by 1982 the party leadership under Gordon Wilson had to explicitly outlaw internal factions, although he still struggled to set the direction of the party amidst often bitter disputes. The Scottish public, which had begun to warm to the SNP in the 1970s, looked on in disbelief at the petty squabbling and incompetence displayed by the Nationalists. At the 1983 General Election the SNP saw its vote share collapse by a third, losing 53 deposits in the process. Instead, Scottish voters increasingly placed their faith in the Labour Party, ushering in a period of dominance that would only be accentuated by the advent of Thatcherism. Despite occasional successes, it would take the SNP decades to properly recover credibility amongst Scottish voters. 

This is the semi-apocalyptic historical precedent that faces the next leader of the SNP, whoever that may be. Without the presence of Salmond and Sturgeon, without the prospect of electoral success, and — most importantly — without the chance of constitutional change, they will lead a party that will be consumed by its ancient factionalism. In the case of the ruptures of the early 1980s, it set the SNP and the cause of independence back almost two decades. For those of us who support the Union, we can fervently hope that history is now repeating itself. 

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