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Comment: The SNP diluted its radicalism with the prospect of government

Nicola Sturgeon speech at SNP conference in 2019 - Image credit: Ailean Beaton/Holyrood

Comment: The SNP diluted its radicalism with the prospect of government

Political parties have much in common with organised religion. 

Each party has its own orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Apostasy is the worst sin and there is plenty of evidence of zealous converts. 

Adherents to the cause disagree vehemently over matters outsiders fail to fathom. 

So, with the Scottish National Party, a party that has gone from fringe to established religion in short time, the party has changed in surprising ways. 

Its orthodoxy has been reasonably stable, evolving slowly, though rather sclerotic in its main objective while its orthopraxy has gone through remarkable changes. 

Political faiths and religions share a common conceit in laying claim to the revealed truth. 

System of beliefs evolve subject to changing contexts, though an inner core may remain constant.  Challenges to core beliefs provoke outrage amongst the faithful.  

It is more convenient to retain the language of beliefs and appearance of continuity while allowing meanings to change.

But what is/are the SNP’s core belief(s)? 

The SNP constitution states the party’s objectives as ‘independence’ and the ‘furtherance of all Scottish interests’. 

‘Independence’ was only formally adopted in 2004 but had been commonly used long before then. 

Previously, it had been ‘self-government’, a convenience as it allowed a range of opinions to come under the party umbrella and an idea that informed how the party itself operated. 

Independence has a harder edge and was a rallying cry rather than a clearly defined constitutional objective. 

But clarity of definition became necessary with the prospect of power for the party.

Paradoxically, the SNP’s core belief softened as its language hardened. 

The explanation is simple. The SNP needed a major overhaul post-devolution involving, as discussed below, a significant change in party orthopraxy. 

Replacing ‘self-government’ with ‘independence’ was ideological red meat to throw to activists concerned about other changes. 

But ‘independence’ comes in a multitude of forms and ultimately depends on relations with other states and polities. 

The SNP’s biggest problem is that the key relationship is with the rest of the UK (rUK) and that is a relationship that cannot be defined solely in Scotland. 

It would be absurd to imagine that a UK government keen on maintaining the current union would do other than seek amicable and strong links with an independent Scotland. 

But equally, it would be absurd to expect such a UK government to hand the SNP a gift by admitting this before Scottish independence. 

This inevitably limits serious debate through no fault of the SNP.

The SNP has been understandably timid in discussing this crucial, indeed defining, relationship.  Experience in the 2014 referendum has not helped. 

The proposal that Scotland would share sterling with rUK was rejected by all three main British parties. 

Negotiations on relations were never going to be serious in the context of a referendum. 

It was in rUK’s interest to adopt what amounted to a separatist position in its defence of the union.

There is, of course, that other stated SNP objective – the ‘furtherance of all Scottish interests’. 

This vacuous objective can mean anything, but how it has been interpreted by the SNP is important and this has been remarkably consistent over time. 

Many today, especially converts, assert that the SNP developed a left of centre policy profile fairly recently. 

The notion that the SNP moved leftwards from the 1980s conflates and confuses policy programme and party image. 

It was not difficult to project a more progressive image in the 1980s by re-packaging existing policies without a substantial change of policies. 

Its policy programme in the 1970s was far bolder than today, though this boldness was often obscured by internal schisms and a desire for a catch-all image. 

Its policies on the economy, environment, defence and disarmament, land ownership and use, local governance, nuclear energy and redistribution of wealth were further to the left than anything pursued by the party since 2007. 

Small groups with specialist knowledge and interests were able to guide, cajole and lead policy development within the party.

The SNP continues to project a left of centre progressive image while it has drifted from its radical roots. It diluted its radicalism with the prospect of government. 

In 1999, the SNP promised to use the Scottish Parliament’s meagre fiscal powers with its ‘penny for Scotland’ policy. 

If 1979 taught the SNP the importance of image, the lesson the SNP took from 1999 was that boldness (if indeed such a modest proposal can be so described) does not necessarily pay off. 

Spin doctors, pollsters and focus groups took the place of party conferences and national councils in policy formulation. 

Independence could not be ditched, but it was parked coming at the bottom of the party’s list of priorities. 

A lesson was drawn from Labour’s 1997 election when the SNP proposed to hold a referendum on independence, allowing voters sympathetic to the SNP but doubtful about independence to support the party without the immediate prospect of independence.

The 2011 overall majority caught the SNP off guard. It had focused more on winning elections than developing the meaning of, or case for, independence. Independence was still little more than a slogan. 

It had assumed that it needed to demonstrate competence in government as a first step and had done so better than even it expected but had failed to consider how to turn positive perceptions of governing competence into support for independence. 

The independence white paper owed more to the skills and professionalism of Scottish Government officials than SNP officials and spokespeople. 

What emerged, but neither side in this adversarial binary debate could admit, was a diluted form of independence. 

But the SNP’s independence policy development has since ground to a halt. 

The currency issue was outsourced to a commission, allowing the leadership distance from any proposals and allowing its chair to take the heat from any adverse reaction. 

The lesson the SNP has taken from this experience appears to be to avoid difficult issues.

There is, however, one area where boldness has been evident. 

As in the 1970s, small groups are able to influence or capture policy making, but the focus now is on the SNP in government. 

While this counters accusations that the SNP policy agenda is spin doctor-designed populism, it has raised concerns across the party, cutting across the generations with no discernible difference between pre- and post-surge members and includes many loyal to the current leader. 

Much of the concern focuses on the changing nature of policy development, the most significant change witnesses in today’s SNP compared with the recent past.

There is more to a political party than its beliefs and policies. Each party has its own orthopraxy, its own way of operating and it is here that the SNP has undergone a dramatic change. 

Democratic parties are expected to be run democratically, their orthopraxy expected to reflect their values and beliefs. 

The SNP of old was highly democratic, participatory and decentralised. 

The party of self-government practiced self-government. 

Its activists revelled in debates, especially on the conduct of internal practices and procedures.  Conference debates mattered and party members were ‘sovereign’, to borrow a word favoured by the party. 

The SNP prided itself on its collective leadership. It did not have a leader but a convener, who was not necessarily the party’s best-known personality. 

National Executive Committee (NEC) positions were a barometer of activists’ mood and fought intensely. 

Devolution changed all of that. The NEC was abandoned in pursuit of a seat in the Scottish Parliament. 

This migration largely left the NEC to the party’s second division. The SNP’s internal structures were hollowed out. 

Reforms in 2004 took this a stage further. Power shifted from the activists to the new office of ‘leader’. 

This made some sense, though it has been taken far beyond what many activists likely envisaged.  Ordinary members were given a vote on the leader and depute leader rather than a conference vote and the hurdle for entering the contest was restricted. 

Few will remember Bill Wilson, an ordinary SNP member who had challenged John Swinney for the leadership in 2003. 

The prospect that an incumbent SNP first minister could face an annual challenge was understandably unacceptable.

But practice was even more profound than the formal rule changes. 

This started under Alex Salmond’s leadership and has developed further under Nicola Sturgeon. 

The SNP was gradually transformed from a self-governing institution into a centralised machine around a dominant single leader. 

Party members and activists have largely acquiesced as electoral success was delivered. But doubts exist and concerns lie just below the surface.

The membership surge following the independence referendum has not reinvigorated the party as might have been expected. 

Branch meetings may attract more members and have been refreshed, but the impact of the surge has been limited. 

It is as if the leadership either does not know what to do with this vast new membership or is fearful of ceding power back to the membership. 

There are stirrings of discontent, as witnessed by the reaction to the NEC’s decisions on who can stand for Holyrood, an episode that brought orthopraxy to the attention as much as related issues of orthodoxy.

The SNP has undergone significant change over the last two decades. 

The emerging myth of a party that has become more progressive suits the leadership. 

In fact, the party has, with a few exceptions, become more timid, more conservative and much more centralised. 

The biggest changes have been in its orthopraxy which have had implications for party orthodoxy. 

Without pushing the analogy too far, the SNP has undergone a reverse reformation, lost its presbyterian democratic credentials and transformed into a hierarchical institution in which leadership infallibility is accepted, even if privately doubted, by many of the faithful.

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