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by Jim Sillars
17 October 2015
Jim Sillars: leadership keeping control

Jim Sillars: leadership keeping control

“Obedience is the chloroform of politics”
(Mary Riddell, columnist, The Telegraph)

Will this be the last SNP annual conference where the practice of the past 22 years will be accepted? That is, with the leadership in total charge and control of the party organisation, the agenda and policy?

The pre-referendum party membership, having imbibed the doctrine of the strong leader, which produced deference as a new form of loyalty, seemed content with their role of happy-clappy supporters for whatever was handed down from on high.

Post referendum, with all those new members, many from the Labour movement, will this elitist outrage upon what used to be a democratic structure continue?  Or will the new membership, no doubt staying within bounds until after next May’s elections, assert its rights thereafter to be involved in policymaking and decisions, including those where the membership differs from the leadership? Will they, like me, believe it is far healthier for a party to engage in discourse and debate rather than submit itself to the judgement of the few?


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Striking a balance between the party’s rank-and-file institutions – Conference, National Executive, National Council and the parliamentary group – is not easy. When the SNP had few MPs, the party organisation, represented principally by the National Executive, with its reports to National Council, was supreme. But once a numerically strong parliamentary group was formed, as happened in 1999, that could no longer be the case as power and judgement exercised on a daily basis lay with the PG, who had to tackle issues as they arose. There was never any attempt at leadership level to seek a new balance that would provide for the party to retain important powers. The opposite happened: the change in the constitution during the John Swinney leadership gave more power to the parliamentary leadership and relegated the National Executive to a housekeeping role.

I suspect that few who joined after the referendum read the constitution. It would be worth their while doing so now.

The status quo is unsustainable. Nothing bears that out than the issue of when to hold the next independence referendum. It is a subject lying at the heart of Scottish politics. There have been resolutions submitted about it for the conference, yet it is not on the agenda. If it is not on the agenda, will it be included or excluded from next year’s Holyrood election manifesto? If it is excluded or included, who will make that decision without a conference vote as guidance? The party leader?  Alone, or in consultation with whom? 

The truth is, that on the referendum, the conference will have to wait until Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to know what the party will find, or not find, in the manifesto. That is no way to make such a policy upon which the fate of the Scottish nation will rest. It is imperative to proclaim the need for a referendum mandate, to be exercised at a time of our choosing, backed by reasons: ruled by a government we rejected, tied to a UK economy that is fundamentally weak as it floats precariously on an ocean of debt with the worst balance of payments since the 1830s, and with the poor under the hammer.

Are those in the SNP who know the deterioration in Scotland’s position and condition to stay mute, hoping one single person will do the right thing? It cannot be sensible to have a decision of that importance resting on the judgement of one person, or a small group.

This fault line in the decision-making in the SNP – and its consequences – were manifest in the document that lay at the heart of the referendum campaign – the Scottish Government’s White Paper. It was produced by a small number of people and sent out a message of ‘change no change’ – keep the pound, the Queen, EU and Nato – when the case for independence was a crying need for change in the way our economy was structured, gross inequality corrected, and our position and attitude to the world required to be different from that of a mini-UK.

The White Paper contained three glaring gifts to the No side: the currency union with rUK (a gift to George Osborne); the 10 per cent corporation tax cut (a gift to Labour); and an assertion about continued EU membership (another gift to No).

It is symptomatic of the misplaced deference that has become the norm in the SNP that when people like me pointed out the obvious about the currency union – that it gave the initiative to the Westminster Unionists – we were scolded for lack of loyalty and told the decision was made and, therefore, had to be backed. What were we to do? Shut up knowing that it was a policy bound to give the No side a significant advantage or speak out by advocating a plan B, our own currency? Those of us who chose the latter have put down a sensible marker for next time.

The currency union, the idea of the Fiscal Commission, had not one but several flaws, based on groundless assumptions: the idea that the interest of five million people would weigh heavily with the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee’s decisions was naïve; that it was the only policy put forward meant that in the event of a Yes majority, rUK’s Chancellor and the Bank of England would know we had nowhere else to go, leaving the Scots negotiators with no hand to play; and lastly, but first in importance as far as the debate was concerned, it handed the initiative to the Unionists’ side, needing only to say No to create the maximum uncertainty.

The White Paper authors wallowed in the advice of the Fiscal Commission, but Nobel prizes in economics are not the same as being politically aware and none on the commission took the politics into account.

The same tightly knit group marshalling the contents of the White Paper, free of any dissenting voices and without the benefit of debate over its contents with backbench MSPs, blundered into the 10 per cent corporation tax cut, seemingly unaware that the Labour Party would seize upon it as indication of a big business agenda dominating Scotland if we voted Yes. The Europhiles at the top of the SNP had no position on continued entry to the EU except to assert that we would be accepted without much of a problem. They did not seem to anticipate the kind of negative sounds that would come from Brussels and the warnings of being out before we could get back in.

Like them, I did not anticipate the EU expelling an independent Scotland. But the reality to be faced during the referendum campaign was that negative sounds would be heard, and trumpeted by the No campaign as another area of uncertainty. There was no flexible European policy, such as looking at EFTA not only as an alternative but as a bargaining tool with the EU, with us having somewhere else to go with our status as the only EU oil producer and the key contributor in terms of sea area to the Common Fisheries Policy. In fact, there was an attempt to cut off any idea of considering EFTA when the SNP government produced its Scotland in the European Union document, full of errors in respect of EFTA membership.

The SNP is a vital component of the Yes movement – but it is not the Yes movement. There are others which are important, and the lesson has to be learnt by the SNP that next time it cannot expect its view – based on a narrow elite’s decisions – to stand central to the issues that will dominate the next campaign.

There is an urgent need for the SNP leadership to embrace a real policy role for the membership in future and the ability to consult more widely when producing ideas and policies meant to advance the case for independence. It is sufficient to note that the board of Yes Scotland played no part in the production of the White Paper, yet was expected to back it.  

That unilateral assertion of absolute leadership of the campaign cannot be permitted again, because it is a weakness. Either the leadership acknowledges that its past practice cannot endure, or the membership starts to assert its rights. This is not a make-or-break conference on that issue given the proximity of the next election, but some significant signs of change need to emerge from it.  

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