Second in command: what role is there for the future SNP depute leader to play?

Written by Jenni Davidson on 26 February 2018 in Inside Politics

The choice is of SNP depute leader has been seen as significant but will it really shape the direction of the party?

Nicola Sturgeon stroking Angus Robertson's beard - Image credit: PA Images

There’s a running joke in the Armando Iannucci comedy series Veep, about fictional US vice president Selina Meyer, where she constantly asks her secretary, ‘Sue, did the president call?’ and the answer is always no.

It highlights how unimportant and out of the loop she is. He never calls. She is his second in command, but she’s not even worthy of a conversation.

Closer to home, how often to do you hear about the depute leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Or the Scottish Conservatives?

Who could, if not a member of those parties or professionally involved in politics, name the second in command?

The talk is of Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie, not Jackson Carlaw and Alistair Carmichael.

Even the co-leader of the Greens, Maggie Chapman, is a peripheral figure compared to Patrick Harvie.

The role of second in command is an awkward one.

At best, they can support their leader and have their back. Less inspiringly, they’re simply there to stand in, in the unfortunate case that it is required. At worst, they’re plotting to take their place.

Conversely, a high-profile depute leader is not necessarily desirable.

Alex Rowley had a higher profile as depute leader of Scottish Labour precisely because he was often pulling in a different direction from Kezia Dugdale.

However, despite Rowley’s different agenda, no one thought it would substantially change the direction of the party – only choosing a new leader did that.

Indeed, Dugdale, as deputy to Jim Murphy, supported policies such as the reintroduction of alcohol at football matches which as leader, she then opposed.

Yet, and not for the first time, the SNP depute leadership contest is being discussed as if it might alter the direction of the party.

When Stewart Hosie stood down as leader in 2016, there was talk of what it would mean if left-winger Tommy Sheppard took his place. Would it pull the party to the left?

This was despite criticism of Nicola Sturgeon, who is noted for her strong, and largely independent, leadership, for not taking enough advice from colleagues.

At the time of writing, only two people have confirmed they are putting themselves forward – Glasgow Cathcart MSP James Dornan and Julie Hepburn, a former member of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and political education convener –  with further candidates expected to emerge in the coming weeks. Two MPs have ruled themselves out.

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, who would have been a likely frontrunner, has said he won’t be seeking the role, indicating that he has enough on his plate as an MP and leader of the SNP group at Westminster.

He told the Press and Journal it would be “too much to ask” to take on the depute leadership on top of his other roles.

He said: “I am the Westminster leader and that is not something I anticipated. I am very much enjoying leading the group and I think there is an immense task over the coming period getting through the morass of Brexit.

“I take quite seriously the responsibilities I’ve got as leader in Westminster and supporting the government in Holyrood.

“If I was depute leader as well, something would have to give. I think it is maybe simply too much to ask.”

Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee chair Pete Wishart MP had also been expected to throw his hat in to the ring, but has decided against it.

On his blog, he said that his decision was based on not having the backing of other party members for the direction he would take the role in.

He said: “After listening very carefully to the response to my agenda, I have decided that I do not believe that I have sufficient support within the party and I will not now be standing for the post of depute leader of the Scottish National Party.”

Wishart had set out five areas he felt the party had to reform, including setting out a new independence proposition, trying to unite Remain and Leave indy supporters, assessing why the party lost 21 MPs at the last general election, and reforming processes to make sure the party was organisationally fit.

He has also called for the party to take a “pragmatic” approach to an independence referendum.

“I firmly believe that a referendum should take place at the optimum time for success, taking into account external features such as the increasing concerns around Brexit, and to proceed only when we have sufficient evidence that it could be won.”

This is markedly different in tone to James Dornan, who told Scotland on Sunday that a Yes vote could be achieved as early as next year and placed pushing for independence central to his campaign.

He said: “Circumstances are changing almost every day. It has to be at a time, from the SNP viewpoint, when it is of maximum benefit for us and when that will be will be close to the election time, maybe 2019/2020 would be my guess.

“Politics have never been more volatile than they have over the last few years.”

This could put him at odds with Sturgeon, who appears to have backed off from a second independence referendum for the moment.

It also highlights some of the internal tensions in the party that the depute leadership contest is supposedly trying to resolve:  left or centre, strongly or moderately pro-Europe, fast or slow towards indyref2.

While clearly no one in the SNP wants to witness another No vote, the party is divided between those who favour a softly-softly approach while others wish to push ahead. However, with Sturgeon in charge, it is unlikely that the depute leader will be able to greatly influence either the party’s direction or speed on the matter.

The other depute leader contender has been more of a surprise. Julie Hepburn, married to skills minister Jamie Hepburn, is an outside candidate, neither an MSP, MP, nor a councillor.

She has served on the party’s NEC and has twice been the political education convener. But it is that outsider status that she plays as her USP.

In a Facebook post, she said: “I imagine the initial reaction of most SNP members will be ‘who?’

“I am not an MSP, councillor or MP – so although as a member of the SNP for almost two decades I know hundreds of party activists, it will be unlikely the wider membership will have heard of me.

“However, I have taken this decision after encouragement from many of our activists across the country.

“Like me, they would like to move away from the assumption that just because previous depute leaders have been high-profile parliamentarians, that this is necessarily a trend we should continue.

“Like me, they would like to see someone with a proven track record of service to the party and internal reform take on this position.

“Like me, a number of activists would also like to see at least one woman in this contest.”

In pointing out that there is an important internal role for the depute leader to fulfil, while highlighting that the party is not short of high-profile figures, Hepburn is correct.

Far from being short of leaders, the party is awash with them: Ian Blackford has a key role at Westminster, where he gets to question the Prime Minister every week at PMQs; John Swinney, as deputy first minister, would stand in for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon if need be, and provides day-to-day support; and Derek Mackay as business manager also has a key policy role.

So while selecting a depute with a different policy agenda to Sturgeon might signal the future direction or the dominant forces within the party, it would not be beneficial to have someone pulling in another direction just now.

Given that, what role is there for them to play?

As Hepburn points out, the expectations of the depute leader role have changed recently because Angus Robertson was also the party’s Westminster leader.

But in fact it was his polished performance against the Prime Minister at PMQs that raised his profile, not his position as depute leader of the party.

With Blackford out of the running, that dual role for the depute leader is now closed.

So what should they do? Is the party looking for someone who can work behind the scenes or are they looking for a future leader?

It’s an obvious question, given that Sturgeon and Dugdale both started out that way.

However, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, has ruled himself out of ever wanting to be first minister, so can the party afford to re-imagine its depute leadership responsibilities in an innovative way?

While Sturgeon is very firmly in charge, as first minister and leader of the SNP, perhaps the new depute leader could shape a very different kind of role than has been the case to date.

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