Entitlement and personal ambition risk shifting the SNP’s focus from independence
Looking at what is going on within the SNP right now, it would be easy to dismiss it as navel-gazing from within the political bubble. But when petty internal politics spill onto the public stage, then the dangers for a party of government, whose reputation has been built on the discipline of steel, are obvious.
And the question that hangs is whether the leadership is losing control.
So where to start? Sitting behind the social media ping-pong that has seen torrid accusations of workplace bullying against a sitting MP, Joanna Cherry, go public, only to be countered with claims of conspiracy by the accused, is a complex mix of issues, some big, some small, and all overshadowed by the smoking volcano that will be the Alex Salmond court case.
So, it is true that for those with short memories, there has never been a time quite like this for the SNP. And with elected members slugging it out over Twitter and briefing against each other to the press, it is easy to conclude that all is not well. But for the rest of us, we can remember much harsher times.
And despite the garrulous nature of recent public spats over currency but more particularly over the transgender debate, they are in themselves small beer and have simply been the conduit for carrying a simmering discontent to the surface.
A bit of a bloody nose for the leadership at conference over one small amendment over timing to a currency proposal in a 32-point motion was a small victory for the membership but a reminder to the FM, if ever she needed it, that she couldn’t always have it all her own way.
However, leaked emails, party conference protests and vitriolic campaigns of abuse that have polarised what should be a nuanced debate about sex and gender into a ‘them and us’, has exposed the party to the potentially more damaging accusation of virtue signalling when it should be getting on with the day job.
And none of that was helped by a letter signed by 15 senior SNP politicians including Cherry and no less than three ministers sent to a daily newspaper calling for a pause in the government’s “rush” into changing the definitions of male and female.
This, coming on top of leaked texts from high-profile MSPs including a minister and a committee convener, which had accused the First Minister of being “out of step” with her colleagues on trans rights, hinted at the fact that while Sturgeon might be driven by parity when it comes to policy, that doesn’t necessarily apply to her approach in cabinet.
The rows may have exposed a nuanced difference in ideological approach to equality but they have also shone a light on the resurgence of that age-old fundamental split in the SNP – between those that want indy now, like Cherry, and those, like the current FM, who have always been on the gradualist side of the party.
And there is also a new front – Salmond versus Sturgeon.
And while it is hard to believe that Salmond, currently facing charges of attempted rape, sexual assault and breach of the peace, could be in any way pulling strings over policy or orchestrating a coup of a party that he no longer even belongs to, such is the febrile nature of the current chatter that outlandish theories are being expounded upon. One is that he and Joanna Cherry are preparing to take over from Sturgeon, and another is that they plan to form their own independence party and take support away from the SNP.
These may be far-fetched, but they have gained some traction. And with Salmond’s court case expected in November, which has the potential to bring down the First Minister and destroy the party, no theory is currently out of bounds.
And Cherry is a formidable character, a QC who makes no bones about the fact that the party should be grateful to have her. She is also on the more impatient wing of the SNP and leaked emails to her party branch reveal a woman on a mission – describing herself as a future leader of the party and one that is none too happy with the current direction of travel or indeed its pace. At each step she seems at odds with Sturgeon.
It is perhaps no coincidence then that Cherry is also an ally of the former first minister. She was one of the chosen few, mainly women, who found their political voice through the Women for Independence movement and who were invited by Salmond to Bute House dinners where they were literally anointed by him as the future.
There were some there, like Jeane Freeman, who already had an impressive political hinterland as a high-profile Labour activist and former special adviser to a Labour first minister, but others who didn’t and who were led to assume that they would be automatically elected, even before they had joined the party, never mind been vetted, gone through a selection process or put their name on a ballot card. It’s why some high-profile personalities are understood to have then walked away, perhaps not quite believing that in some things they were just like everyone else.
And it is that sense of baked-in entitlement that is important for where we are now, because the SNP is not like any other political party – it is a cause, a hybrid creature with a span of political views bonded by that one thing, independence. Introduce entitlement and personal ambition and the focus shifts. The SNP might not think it is like any other party, but right now, it is acting that way.