The SNP's strategy on indyref2 has been a mistake

Written by Kenny MacAskill on 25 June 2017 in Comment

Kenny MacAskill: This was an election for SNP MPs to Westminster yet the indyref strategy allowed it to be portrayed as a referendum on Nicola Sturgeon

Brexit came as some dreamed of a new age of empire – driven not by red-coated soldiers but trade from London. Freed from the EU, they would replicate the grandeur of the East India Company and more. The dream was unravelling as doors remained firmly shut. However, a crushing electoral victory over the seemingly hapless Jeremy Corbyn would buy power and time. Instead, it’s Theresa May who is a “dead woman walking” – dreadful in public and devoid of policy or poise. She couldn’t have anticipated terror attacks but they simply highlighted her own failings.

Far from establishing a New Jerusalem, she’s created a latter-day Ruritania – a regime in office but deluded as to its nakedness, waning British influence simply intensified. She is now required to do a deal with a pantomime villain in the DUP and from a province from which the Tories were previously distancing themselves. Her EU opponents must be laughing at her re-enactment of an Ealing comedy.

The tragedy is that it’s for real. It is a dreadful position with no route forward but seemingly, no road back. A hard Brexit may be avoided but a heavy price still needs to be paid, and the cost will be borne by those who can least afford it.


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The election saw no real victor. There was a moral victory for Corbyn given the traducing he endured but the reality was he still lost. Unless the Tories implode there’ll be no election any time soon and as the SNP have found, what goes quickly up, can come down just as fast.

North of the border it was success for some, (but shaded by their UK colleagues), or victory (albeit in defeat) for others. The Lib Dems won seats but remain an even more marginal force across the land. Labour came back from the grave in Scotland but predicated on a Corbyn bounce, not their Scottish constitutional strategy. It won’t be easy to harmonise the ascendant Momentum faction with the Blairite leadership here.

The Tories did well and an increased profile and presence will follow. However, the antics of their London colleagues damage them and the dalliance with the DUP increases the whiff of Orangeism. Moreover, they’ll require to state more than what they oppose, which some who supported them might find unpalatable.

For the SNP, it may have been a victory in votes and seats, as the leadership claimed, but it looked and felt like a defeat. It’s the price they’re paying for failures in policy and organisation over recent years. The strategy on indyref2 has been a mistake. The First Minister was right to place it back on the agenda post-Brexit but wrong to run so hard on it thereafter, never mind name a date. Neither the mood was there nor the existence of unity in the Yes camp. Regardless, the adulation of those who want independence now was allowed to dominate thinking, rather than building the base in the country to try again in the future. Understandably so, given Nicola Sturgeon’s an outstanding campaigner, as was shown during the referendum.

However, those surrounding her have had her seemingly campaigning ever since. It’s as if they’ve failed if she’s not before a camera on a daily basis and as the saying goes, she’d turn up for the opening of an envelope. If she were to appear less but for more significant events, it would allow her to govern more effectively, as well as increasing the profile of her ministerial team currently permanently in the shade. This was an election for SNP MPs to Westminster yet the strategy allowed it to be portrayed as a referendum on Nicola Sturgeon.

The SNP slipped in voters declining to turn out, more than from a switch away to other parties. But as Corbyn showed, people react to hope and vision. It was also the success of the independence referendum. However, the campaign lacked a message until late in the day. Poster adverts of what appeared to be a tartan rug on empty green benches was the most uninspiring SNP advert in years. Only belatedly was the protecting pensions and benefits message aired.

When you have your Finance Secretary in charge of both party and elections, it’s a sign of weakness, not strength. Nicola has access to great brains, as her Growth Commission shows. Sadly, they seem to have been side-lined and a policy vacuum exists. The SNP campaign was insipid but the Scottish Government has become policy-lite. It’s not necessarily a lurch to left or right that’s needed but ideas and boldness. Moreover, as power was concentrated at the centre, the grassroots was allowed to fragment. Organisational expertise acquired over years dissipated and activity seemingly moved from the doors to social media. That needs reversed.

Nicola Sturgeon is right to take time to reflect but widening her policy circle and tightening the party organisation are not incompatible things – but rather, essential.

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