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by Kirsteen Paterson
02 October 2023
'Scandal alone' cannot explain SNP downturn as party reaches 'defining moment', experts say

First Minister Humza Yousaf greets crowds at a pro-Scottish independence march in Edinburgh

'Scandal alone' cannot explain SNP downturn as party reaches 'defining moment', experts say

"Scandal alone cannot explain the SNP's downturn", a new study says - but its formula for success could have continued for years without the police investigation into party finances.

In a new paper, Scottish experts claim the SNP faces a "legitimacy crisis" caused by internal changes which followed its post-indyref membership surge.

More than 50,000 people signed up in the month after the September 2014 vote. There were 126,000 members during its 2019 peak, with the figure falling to 72,000 by March this year.

The drop was revealed as a result of transparency row which broke out as Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf fought to replace Nicola Sturgeon as party leader.

In a Bute House conference, she said her decision was "not a reaction to short term pressures" and she could no longer give the job the full energy it required.

However, the report states that Sturgeon's resignation took place amidst "three pressures" of the Supreme Court defeat over Scotland's power to hold another independence vote without Westminster sanction, the acceleration of the Operation Branchform investigation into party finances and divisions of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

And it says that, post-indyref, the SNP has benefitted from a "strategic depoliticisation" as "layers of civic society and media opinion, in Scotland and beyond, accommodated to the SNP as the natural governing party".

Referencing Operation Branchform, it states that SNP election wins have "depended on a paradox of crisis in the British state and being a governing party of the British state" since 2014.

It goes on: "Reckoning with this contradiction could have been postponed for some years if the police investigations had not intervened. But the model's logical limits would prevail eventually."

Titled The Antinomies of Insurgency: The Case of the Scottish National Party, the paper is written by James Foley and Ewan Kerr of Glasgow Caledonian University and Tom Montgomery of the University of Stirling and appears in The Political Quarterly journal.

It argues that indyref brought a "clear break in historic assumptions between Scottishness and Labourism" and that Westminster-led austerity "symbolised the retreat of the British state as a guarantor of social citizenship".

And, writing for Holyrood, the authors say the Scottish National Party has now reached a "defining moment".

Sturgeon became SNP leader and first minister after her predecessor Alex Salmond stood down in the wake of the No result in 2014.

The report states that this leadership shift resulted in "successful social movement rebranding" from which the image of independence politics emerged "younger, more female and less middle class than before", also reflecting "pervasive disaffection with a fossilised Labour electoral dominance".

And it claims that activists became "increasingly passive" in the party as a "pronounced presidentialism" took place under Sturgeon, while party functions were centralised and parliamentarians required to sign pledges "not to dissent or to criticise the party, leadership or fellow members in public".

Of the post-2014 membership surge, it states: "Far from democratising the party, the influx triggered a centralising reflex, ossified internal power relations and precluded critique of leadership decisions. 

"In strengthening the governing party, the politicisation of the 2014 referendum would paradoxically serve to depoliticise social questions of inequality within Scotland.

"The resulting accumulation of frustrations and grievances injected destructive new energies into Scottish politics, which prefigure the SNP's legitimacy crisis."

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