Strange that the first big challenge to the SNP leadership since 2012’s NATO vote went largely unreported by the press and broadcasters. But then, Nicola Sturgeon’s first party conference defeat as leader was over land reform – and as any government minister and every media commentator will tell you, that is the driest, most abstract, arcane, complex and minority issue imaginable.
Strange then, that young Nicky Lowden MacCrimmon from Carse of Gowrie branch led the call to reject the leadership position with some perfectly intelligible questions: “Does radical land reform leave 750,000 acres of land in offshore tax havens? Does radical land reform leave tenant farmers with no right to buy? I don’t think as a party we are being as radical as we have the powers to be. When you [offer] radical land reform then we’ll sign up to it.”
Stranger still that in a disciplined party like the SNP and a Scottish election year – when the appearance of unity is supremely important – Mr Lowden MacCrimmon’s move to send back the motion was carried by 570 votes to 440. Yet none of this prompted further media probing – perhaps hacks expected the bloody nose to be delivered over fracking instead and were experiencing a bad case of wrong leaves on the line.
Perhaps they had already decided the only important speech would be Nicola Sturgeon’s and the only important issue, the non-debate of indyref2. Perhaps they were wrong.
Of course, there’s no doubting the massive popularity of the SNP leader and the Still Yes enthusiasm of her audience. But SNP delegates increasingly understand there’s more to politics than the timing of the next referendum and more to being politically active than blindly toeing the party line.
That’s why the land reform upset was hugely important. It marked the appearance of a new force in Scottish politics – the grassroots of the SNP – and like all constructive rebellions, it didn’t come from nowhere.
SNP members on Islay spoke out in a Channel 4 News report, broadcast the night before the vote. Young farmer Tony Rogza talked about classmates still living with their parents because so many Islay farms had been taken back by landowners keen to get agricultural subsidies. East Lothian tenant farmer Andrew Stoddart broke down in tears speaking about his imminent eviction from land he has farmed for 22 years without fair compensation for improvements estimated at half a million pounds.
Mr Stoddart says “Things have got dramatically worse for tenant farmers since 2007.” Nine other tenant farmers are in the same situation and legal action against the Scottish Government may yet be their only recourse. Deeply ironic because Andrew’s been a member of the SNP since 2004.
In short, keen supporters of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP and independence are proving quite able to raise inconvenient truths on issues generally sidelined by mainstream political debate – and some broadcasters have proved capable of telling the story in powerful human terms. According to Nicky Lowden MacCrimmon the Channel 4 News report was the last straw; “Seeing Andrew Stoddart on TV and the stories from Islay just made me think someone has to say something. It was one of those, ‘if not me then who, and if not now, then when?’ ” moments. I take it very personally when the SNP is characterised as feart or bottling it on radical land reform. I know this isn’t how people feel in my branch or on social media. What I stood up and said was what other members have been saying to me.”
Indeed, many speakers were lined up last Friday, ready to question the radical credentials of the SNP’s own Land Reform Bill. Mr Lowden MacCrimmon – a community worker – just happened to be called first.
A keen hillwalker, he has become, “acutely aware of the ecological damage and desertification of the highlands linked to the pattern of land ownership” and says his interest in the issue broadened after reading Andy Wightman’s book The Poor Had no Lawyers and attending a branch meeting at which I spoke on the twin issues of land and local governance reform – apparently the first branch meeting in 75 years addressed by a non-party member.
I mention that merely to demonstrate how the new influx of members has encouraged a “loosening of the stays” at grassroots level which is democratising and challenging the top-down style of leadership in the SNP – a process that will ultimately strengthen or disrupt the party, depending on the responsiveness of party leaders.
Land is not the only thorny issue. Clearly there’s grassroots dissatisfaction with the moratorium on fracking – and if the leadership had put up a motion congratulating itself on returning real power to communities via the Community Empowerment Act they might well have experienced another close vote.
Mind you, one defeat doesn’t challenge the top-down way successive SNP leaders have run their party – not in the short term, anyway. Indeed, it re-emphasises the overwhelming success of their party machine. In days gone by, folk seriously disgruntled over a policy issue would take their support elsewhere. But where to go when the SNP are the only political game in town? Labour and the Lib Dems have failed to champion decentralisation of power or democratisation of land ownership. The Greens have failed to gain traction with their own radical proposals – in part thanks to limited airtime.
Here too, though, there could be an upset. In her closing speech Nicola Sturgeon urged members to vote SNP “1 and 2” in the Holyrood elections. But a fair number of delegates in Aberdeen were openly talking about splitting the ticket – voting SNP for the constituency seat but Green for the List seat. I’d guess the SNP leadership are fully aware of this “fair’s fair” sentiment among new recruits who’ve spent two years working side by side with Green independence campaigners. I’d further guess the strength of grassroots feeling may explain why the First Minister had to address the issue at all.
Of course, none of this challenges Nicola Sturgeon’s enormous popularity or near total control. But it means SNP manifesto writers must now consider committing to another, more radical bill on land reform in the next parliament if ministers cannot beef up the current one.
That’s quite a change of tack for one weekend. And it can easily happen again.