Why the SNP is imploding

The independence project faces an existential crisis.

Malcolm Clark

Topics Politics UK

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As anticipation builds for the fourth and final season of Succession, the SNP has done us all a favour by filling the gap with a binge-worthy distraction of its own. SNP Leadership Contest has plenty of backstabbing and priceless comedy clangers. Scotland hasn’t had this much fun since Billy Connolly decided to put on shoes shaped like giant bananas. For my money though, some of the plot lines border on the unbelievable.

At the time of writing, the ballot may have to be re-run following this weekend’s resignation of Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive and husband of Nicola Sturgeon. Critics reason that those who have already voted might have done so differently had they known he had covered up the party’s massive fall in membership.

As the laughter rings out across Edinburgh’s cobbles, a troubling thought is beginning to concern those of the nationalist persuasion. After almost two decades in which the SNP dominated Scottish politics, might this weekend’s shenanigans be a sign of things to come? Sturgeon’s resignation as first minister in February released pent-up forces that had been building for years under the disciplined surface of the SNP’s PR machine. Some nationalist commentators are seriously placing odds on the party splitting into two, whoever wins the leadership race. The whiff of an existential threat to the whole independence project is in the air.

Many observers blame the plummeting support for independence on Sturgeon’s obsession with trans rights. It certainly hasn’t helped. Every time the subject comes up, a low growl of pain is released by the party membership. During last week’s leadership debate on the BBC, continuity candidate Humza Yousaf tied himself in knots as he tried to reconcile the contradictions of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill – the policy that Sturgeon staked her career on.

The far bigger problem for the SNP is the confusion of its candidates on independence – the very cause the party was created to advance. After 16 years of SNP government, none of those standing to be its next leader has been able to propose a single convincing scenario for achieving independence.

In the same hustings, Kate Forbes suggested that a more competently led Scottish government might persuade No voters to back independence. Good luck with that one. The next General Election has to be held by January 2025. The latest news on the two much-delayed ferries the SNP commissioned from a shipyard it nationalised suggests we will be lucky if they are in service by then.

Forbes’s rival, Ash Regan, has proposed an even less convincing method of winning hearts and minds. It’s something she calls a ‘voter-empowerment mechanism’. Although no one but Regan is sure exactly what she means, this seems to entail a giant advertising campaign, which will ‘empower’ voters with constantly updated information on Scotland’s readiness to embrace sovereignty. Whether voters would believe the propaganda coming from a party that has just had a clear out at the top due to its lack of transparency over figures remains to be seen.

As for Humza Yousaf – Mr Continuity to a dwindling number of friends who haven’t yet resigned from their roles at the top of the party – he claims he is more interested in the ‘why’ of independence than the ‘how’. This is a brilliant argument, until you realise it’s the ‘how’ that SNP members want an answer to.

Whisper it gently, the reason none of the candidates has a clue how to achieve independence is that there are no options left. Unless and until the Scottish public shows massive and enduring majority support for independence, all the SNP can hope to do is not to actively put people off the idea. A low bar you would think, if it weren’t for the present leadership.

The truth is that the SNP faces a world that has changed in ways no one could have predicted when the Scottish parliament was established in 1998. Back then, secessionist movements across the world were on the march. But this trend has since been halted and even reversed.

The SNP’s rise to dominance was accompanied by a mood music that suggested many big nation states might fragment. Increasing European integration, pushed by the EU, was seen as empowering regions at the expense of nation states. The collapse of the Soviet Union made the risks of being a small European country appear less foreboding, too. In Quebec, a second referendum on whether it should proclaim independence from Canada was just beaten by a whisker in 1995. In Catalonia, the independence movement had the wind in its sails, especially after the global showcasing of Barcelona in the 1992 Olympics. In Belgium, the Flemish independence movement was evolving into a serious electoral force with the creation of a new centrist party in 2001, the New Flemish Alliance, which agitated for Dutch-speaking secession. All across Europe – in Provence, Corsica, Brittany, northern Italy, the Basque Country and Valencia – independence movements claimed to be the future. But they weren’t.

In the 25 years since then, all the secessionist movements have failed and for different reasons – each of which poses an uncomfortable lesson for the SNP and limits its room for manoeuvre. Above all, nation states proved remarkably adept at either blocking or neutralising their demands.

In Quebec, the nationalists kept within the law, but the loss of the second referendum fractured the movement and for a time, it became a fringe force. The Quebec nationalists have recently experienced a resurgence, but that reflects the fact that they have, to all intents and purposes, abandoned secession as a serious demand. No wonder. Polls suggest that only around a third of Quebec voters remain interested, with two-thirds opposed. The independence movement has instead reinvented itself as the natural champion of Francophone interests at the national level, and as competent administrators at home.

Could the SNP do something similar? One reason so many of the party’s MPs opposed Sturgeon’s madcap idea of declaring the next General Election a referendum on secession is that they know a substantial minority of SNP voters don’t actually want to go through the effort of making independence happen. They vote SNP because they want a robust champion of Scottish interests. Nobody ever lost votes in Scotland for wanting a bit of a ruckus with the English.

The problem is that a substantial section of the SNP’s membership is drawn instead to the Catalan example. In 2017, the independence movement there organised an illegal referendum. The poll was boycotted by many pro-unity Catalans, rendering the result meaningless. Protests were brutally repressed by Madrid and leading Catalan nationalists were jailed. This reaction was so ham-fisted it should have backfired. But it hasn’t. Instead, the nationalists have been torn asunder, with one wing loudly branding those who work within the system as traitors. This is the kind of outcome Sturgeon dreaded. It explains why she tried so hard to lead her party away from an illegal confrontation with Westminster.

In 2021, Believe in Scotland, a pro-independence campaign group, launched a new slogan: ‘Independence is Normal.’ It was taken up by many leading SNP figures. But now we know secession is anything but normal. Activists in Quebec, Catalonia and elsewhere continue to agitate, but for now the debate has moved on. In a world that faces new geopolitical risks, large, federated nation states no longer seem as outdated as they once might have. Will any of the SNP’s leadership candidates admit that uncomfortable truth? I don’t suppose the SNP members are ready for quite that much honesty. Yet.

Malcolm Clark is a TV producer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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