The SNP is in a dismal place right now
Hitting the reset button on a personal computer clears the memory and forcibly reboots the machine. That is what Nicola Sturgeon failed to do last week when she addressed only the timing of a referendum and further nudged her party, like a wonky PC, into what could be its meltdown.
Sturgeon’s government is in a dismal place right now, and not having the humility to recognise the reality of the consequences of her party’s failings will be at the root of its demise. Yes, the SNP won the Westminster election, but it lost the campaign, and with it went more than just the 21 MPs and the scalps of totemic figures like Alex Salmond. It has lost momentum, and after three successive elections that evidence a trajectory of down, gone too is that spirit of reinvention, of a seemingly inexhaustible ability to pick itself up and shake itself down.
And worse, Sturgeon, a giant of a politician, appears shrunken, cut down to size, reduced to name calling and defensively sniping from the sides. And it isn’t worthy.
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Yes, this was a dismal election campaign and yes, maybe the 2015 election was an anomaly, a delayed but positive reaction for the SNP to a lost referendum in 2014, when the result gripped Scotland like a hangover and even those on the winning side were of heavy heart. But winning 56 seats out of a possible 59 was never something to be truly taken seriously. It was more of an aberration that took a party of six to 56. But instead of being treated with a healthy mixture of bewilderment, good luck and curiosity, it bred complacency within the SNP and a false belief in its own infallibility.
That hubris meant little raking over the coals after a lost referendum. No real scrutiny of that lost majority in 2016. No review of party governance. No real analysis of vote share, swing and of what was being said on the street. And then there was Brexit. Sturgeon was right then to go with her gut and say that things had changed. That there was a material difference in circumstances, that Scotland should not be dragged out of the EU against its wishes, and a second independence referendum was back on the table.
She was right. Then.
But Scotland – where 62 per cent voted to remain – didn’t seem to much care. Sturgeon, a woman famed for her acute political antennae, failed to recognise the shifting sands and did not respond.
A snap election further wrongfooted her. Sturgeon was on the verge of a cabinet reshuffle to create her power team to respond to Brexit and ongoing criticism, but the campaign put those plans on ice.
Ruth Davidson’s ‘vote no to a second independence referendum’ was genius in its simplicity – the kind of political jingoism that used to be the copyright of the SNP. It forced the party to talk about the case for independence, which it hadn’t prepared for and defend its record in government, when it wasn’t ready to do so.
And there was too an artifice which disguised the reality. Nodding donkeys say what they think they are paid to say. Canvass returns did not reflect what was really happening, because when you have a dysfunctional campaign, a party HQ too close to the leader and a chief executive therefore beyond reproach, enthusiastic campaigners hear what they want to hear and tick boxes they know they want their bosses to see. And so, with no real inner circle, party veterans and interested bystanders don’t speak their minds. One question persists: where is Sturgeon getting her advice from?
The SNP did get a bloody nose at this election, but the build up to that blow didn’t happen in the few short weeks of that unexpected campaign, it had been building for a while and that is where the fault lies.
Sturgeon had amassed a whole bank vault of political currency when she sailed high in the polls and could seemingly do no wrong. But inexplicably, she hoarded when she should have been on a spend, spend, spend. She could have used that collateral to charm the electorate with radical plans for building the better Scotland that only now she has launched a fund to prepare for, worked on education and health to slay her critics and restore faith in the credibility of her team, and cashed in some of her popularity to say some unpalatable things that only she could get away with – then.
A few years ago, Sturgeon was the ‘Mother of the Nation’, but somewhere between the summer of 2015 and the latter part of 2016, she lost her common touch and didn’t move with or hear popular opinion.
There were good arguments for both beginning an independence campaign post the Brexit vote and for shelving it until after the next election, but there is no good argument for a statement which basically says nothing has changed. It leaves a referendum date hanging over us like a sword of Damocles. And voters will not be won back or inspired by a timetable.
Last week the Tory leader in Scotland, Davidson, put the SNP government on notice to quit. And while there is a very long way to go for her to be viewed as a potential first minister, or for her team as a government in waiting, it should be, at the very least, a wake-up call to the SNP that their direct threat in four years’ time comes from a party that they said Scots didn’t vote for.