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Getting rid of Fergus Ewing seems like electoral folly for the SNP

Humza Yousaf and Fergus Ewing were once Cabinet colleagues | Picture: Alamy

Getting rid of Fergus Ewing seems like electoral folly for the SNP

Veteran nationalist and former Scottish Government minister Fergus Ewing is today at home recovering from a bout of Covid, nursing proudly his recently won accolade of Holyrood MSP of the Year, whilst paradoxically pondering his future within the SNP.

Later this week, the SNP parliamentary group at Holyrood will meet to decide how to punish Ewing for a variety of perceived misdemeanours but which basically boil down to Ewing’s public hostility to the Bute House Agreement and the SNP’s inclusion of the Greens in government.

Ewing has publicly critiqued a number of Green-led initiatives but specifically – and what singles him out from other recent party rebels like Kate Forbes, Michelle Thomson or Ash Regan, and therefore marks him out for special treatment – is that he voted in favour of a Tory-led motion of no confidence in the circularity minister, the Green MSP Lorna Slater, for her shambolic handling of the ill-fated and costly deposit return scheme which has cost the country millions and for which he had been a vocal critic.

Internal party disciplinary matters are usually just that, matters for the party made behind closed doors. But the treatment of Ewing is instructive when reflecting on where the SNP is headed, what it has become, and whether it is in denial about its own future, because ultimately Ewing’s dissent, and the party’s response to it, reveals how out of step with public opinion the SNP strategists and the hierarchy really are.

I’ve never been a member of a political party, was agnostic about the independence referendum but attracted by Salmond’s positivity, have been a pragmatist about the outcome of the ballot box at every election, held broadly the same politics since a teenager, and get doggedly passionate about issues where I see injustice at play.

So maybe it is hard for me to understand the raw emotion that would drive members of the SNP, whose raison d’être is independence, to turn on one of its most longstanding and popular champions simply for having the audacity to voice legitimate criticisms widely held among the electorate, and more specifically expressed by Ewing’s own constituents on HPMAs, STLs, DRS and on GRR. And ultimately for not being able to support what has clearly been incompetence on the part of the minister largely responsible and who doesn’t even belong to his party. 

I admit, I don’t get it. It seems utter electoral folly.

Has the party learnt nothing from its treatment of Margo MacDonald? 

I am told by party insiders that Ewing only has himself to blame for “not playing the game”. Well, for some, politics never was just a game. It was a serious matter that included serious debate. Ewing was fundamental to Salmond’s winning case to show competency in government. It was this that laid the foundations whereby the 2014 referendum was almost won and that shifted the Overton Window to normalise the prospect of independence. And the fact that the party was always a broad church was part of its winning formula.

I am told that one of Ewing’s unforgivable sins has been voting along with Tory amendments and that had they been Labour amendments but still against the government, he would not be viewed in the same dismal light. Such a simple take on events, that has Nicola Sturgeon’s “detesting Tories” at its heart, rewrites history and forgets that Salmond worked so well with the Tories back in 2007 that the results in government successfully changed minds from ‘no’ to ‘yes’, and importantly the mere association didn’t make him a Tory.

It can’t be repeated enough that the SNP has been in power for 16 years and for many who have watched the opportunities for transformative change gradually rot away, to be replaced by a managerialism, entitlement and an autocracy, this has become the very antithesis of everything that the party promised about doing politics differently.

And I get that Humza Yousaf finds himself in an invidious position. He needs to stamp his own authority on the party he now leads and to address a fast-growing perception that he is simply out to please.

But equally he is leading a party that is losing electoral support, has a reputation for being out of touch with business, and is firmly in bed with a minor party that has made it the butt of jokes. Sturgeon gave legitimacy to the view that people that disagreed with her could be ignored. That kind of divisive politics is something Yousaf should avoid. He promised a bigger tent, a more inclusive environment, a way of operating that would allow for discussion and debate.

But the sheer symbolism of Madame Écosse’s son being forced out of the party he has campaigned for all of his life and was born into seems like an incredible act of self-harm, particularly when you are about to lose a byelection, forced by an actual scandal, when your popularity is slipping primarily because of the very issues Ewing has highlighted, when you have already removed one of your longest-running MPs for questioning your tactics to achieve independence, you are heading into a general election you misguidedly dubbed a proxy referendum, and in which you are potentially facing oblivion, how can you risk alienating a further swathe of support?

At every party conference, SNP leaders talk emotionally about standing on the shoulders of giants, the SNP campaigners who doggedly helped take the SNP from the loony political fringe and made it into a serious party of government. The Ewings are baked into that narrative. 
Intolerance of dissent and a small-tent approach wins few friends. Winnie Ewing personified independent-minded politics, she challenged orthodoxies, was grit in the body politic as well as in her own party. The SNP of today would likely expel her. For her son, it might now be a case of ‘Stop the SNP, I want to get off’. And who could blame him?

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