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How did the SNP manage to get its general election message so wrong?

Humza Yousaf and Stephen Flynn campaigning in Aberdeen | Alamy

How did the SNP manage to get its general election message so wrong?

It’s now two months since the SNP launched its general election campaign. A blockbluster of a PR exercise held during a Westminster recess with the coincidental but tragically fortuitous backdrop of an overnight UK military intervention in Yemen which only added succour to the nationalists’ main campaign plank of Westminster bad. 

A rally designed to catapult our so-called First Activist into the nation’s psyche and put independence back on the table. 

An event to fire the starting gun on SNP electioneering and rally the troops to fight a campaign that was, and still is, yet to be called.

An early occasion to shake the collection buckets as a reminder to stash the cash from local branches for a party whose finances are under investigation, and for whom an election is just another heavy cost to bear.

A launch bizarrely underpinned by a categorical assurance that the party of government in the UK was already “finished”. That Sunak was “done”. That the Tories had lost the election even before it had begun. And an extraordinary proclamation that the next prime minister would be Sir Keir Starmer. 

A slam-dunk claim of victory for Labour by an SNP first minister who should be fighting Labour all the way but which only served to highlight how at odds this was with his main election mission, “to wipe the Tories off Scotland’s electoral map”. Why expend all your energy and finances in that one direction when the deed is already apparently done?

But, argued the first minister, if Labour has already won the election [note, it hasn’t] then there’s no need to vote for them so, hey, vote for us [eh, wouldn’t that mean Labour might not win?]. 
To follow the FM’s convoluted logic, if you want a Scottish voice to be heard in No. 10, then don’t vote for the party that is likely to get the keys, vote for the party that can never actually get its foot in the door. 

It’s nonsensical. The rationale is hard to reconcile with any political nous, the electoral reality is clearly at odds with the fiction being spun, and voting SNP to send a message to a future Labour government is an argument easily countered by Starmer who need only ask, “why send a message, when you can send a government?” 

But this is not the only aspect of the party’s quixotic approach to possibly one of the most important ballots this century. 

With the country on its knees recovering from Brexit, from a pandemic, and from 14 years of chaotic Tory-rule, with public services in tatters, the economy in recession and conflicts in Europe and the Middle East threatening global security, change has never been more required.

And while the party of independence would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect clime for making its central argument for separation, it struggles to even find its own united front in a national vote that its leader says has already been won by another party.

So while Humza Yousaf senselessly funnels his energies into a fait accompli, his deputy suggests SNP MPs should not even take up their seats. Scots MPs in absenteeism, à la Sinn Fein, and all the painful baggage that comes with that very thought is hardly a winning campaign slogan on the doorsteps.

And although Keith Brown’s call was almost immediately slapped down by Yousaf, the hare was out of the traps and running and whether it was kite flying or just plain getting it wrong, it signalled that this is a party without real direction, strategy, or leadership.

And while its Westminster leader smarts at the “contempt” with which he believes his MPs have been shown by a Speaker that he argues is in the pocket of Sir Keir Starmer, he still has to contend with the contempt shown by his own deputy leader who would prefer Flynn’s MPs are not heard at all. 

‘Stand aside for Scotland’ is no winning election call. And least of all given Stephen Flynn would contend that it is only the SNP at Westminster that stands up, not down, for Scotland.
How could they have managed to get this so wrong?

The SNP, standing up for hard-working Scots, who even at £28,000 a year find they are being taxed more by that same party that simultaneously argues against taxing more from the billion-pound profits of the energy companies.

The SNP that claims to be progressive and to have the elimination of poverty at its core, but which freezes council tax and then smarts at councils facing bankruptcy heading with cap in hand to Westminster and to the Tories.

The SNP that blames Westminster for its housing crisis while the head of the housing charity, Shelter, accuses it of “gaslighting” Scots by cutting the housing budget.

The SNP that calls for others to dial down on the toxicity of debate while endorsing front pages that characterise their opponents as traitors. The party that preaches peace but was war gaming during a pandemic and expressly wishing for a constitutional “rammy”.

A party that rails against the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords while one of its most high-profile elected members, and previous leader at Westminster, reportedly lobbies the UK party leaders hard for a peerage. A party that plays fast and loose with the definition of what ‘once in a generation’ might mean in terms of a referendum but seems relaxed enough with the prospect that a peerage for a nationalist committed to the idea of dismantling the Unionist establishment would be for life.

And yet Fergus Ewing was suspended only for going against the SNP whip and not for trying to reverse a decades-long opposition to the unelected second chamber.

These are all hard contradictions to counter. And at the same time, the SNP can’t even agree on its name or its logo, nevermind on its strategy for independence and what this election result could mean for that. It looks incoherent.

Next week, Humza Yousaf will have been Scotland’s first minister for a full year. His predecessor succeeded by allowing the SNP to become a party of all things to all people. The SNP is fond of claiming ‘firsts’ and yes, it may well lay claim to being the first to embark on the general election campaign, but its message to the electorate is currently as confused as the party’s identity and purpose. It needs to get a grip.

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