Lesley Riddoch: Time for everyone to join party

A massive surge in political membership brings with it the challenge to encourage non-aligned activism, writes Lesley Riddoch
Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvey will have to manage the new political landscape very carefully. Picture: John DevlinNicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvey will have to manage the new political landscape very carefully. Picture: John Devlin
Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvey will have to manage the new political landscape very carefully. Picture: John Devlin

The SNP is fast becoming “Scotland’s natural party of government.” Is such a concentration of power good for democracy or might Britain’s third-largest party yet surprise everyone by using its new-found clout to transform the nature of politics north of the Border?

With 80,000 members, the SNP leadership could be forgiven for feeling a trifle smug. Yet the SNP has not been alone in experiencing vigorous and invigorating growth.

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The Greens now have 6,400 members and (effectively) three MSPs, the SSP has also grown and both parties are dwarfed by the collective clout of non-party movements whose regional meetings regularly exceed a thousand folk.

This burgeoning of local activism doesn’t just pose questions about legitimacy for party politicians – it does the same for leaders of “civic society”. The groups who signed a weekend letter demanding wider involvement in the Smith Commission once had the field to themselves. Now it’s clear they generally represent the formal, institutional, structured side of civic society – not its vibrant, informal, unsalaried grassroots. Many folks had misgivings about the proposed revival of the Scottish Constitutional Convention for just this reason – it was accorded respect as a representative cross-section of Scottish society but it also super-served prominent members of the “great and good”.

If democracy is to mean more this side of the referendum (and the Border) the SNP cannot slip into old Labour Party thinking – with its controlling, dominant, “winner takes all” attitude to power and tendency to marginalise those regarded as “off message” and not “our people”.

To be fair, the SNP has been far better at involving non-party members in governance. But the party’s remarkable internal discipline could easily become an all-controlling default. During the referendum campaign, nuance, humour and engagement were usually lost as the “debate” became a sterile, unpleasant, combative place. It’s up to the SNP to ensure that doesn’t happen with the next part of Scotland’s democratic journey.

The SNP could guarantee a different political environment by considering something genuinely radical. Something that would build on Scotland’s reputation for refreshing the parts British democracy cannot reach. Something that would, yet again, put a big idea not an arm-wrestling competition at the heart of Scottish political life. Something as selfless as the Labour Party’s adoption of the STV system for council elections – and as transformational. The SNP could stand candidates in the 2015 Westminster elections as part of a devo-max alliance rather than simply as the SNP.

Now the downsides of this are immediately apparent.

The SNP has effectively won the peace with its massive membership surge. It will soon benefit from electing a new leader and – thanks to Labour’s confirmation that “devo-nano” will suffice as its “enhanced offer”– the SNP looks set to become a voting repository for the two-thirds of Scots who want full fiscal autonomy in next year’s Westminster elections. That’s good news for the SNP – but is it really the best democratic solution? Of course it’s possible the May elections will revert to type and voters will opt to perform “one last push” to keep David Cameron out rather than send another home rule message to a set of politicians who evidently aren’t listening.

Equally, there are few constituencies in which the SNP’s junior partners would definitely score if the SNP could not. There would doubtless be disagreements over the strategy and name – should it be a devo-max or a Yes alliance?

And yet equally attractive democratic possibilities beckon.

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Local constituencies could select their own candidates – from the SNP, another party or no party – but count on full support from party machines including the SNP. It’s probable that a single, combined slate would produce more devo-max supporting MPs than the sum of individual party successes. It would also offer Scottish voters a way to back Home Rule, enliven Westminster and create an effective, independent, left of centre Scottish grouping to parlay with a minority Tory or Labour government. Ironically – thanks to the rise of Ukip – small but well organised groupings can expect disproportionate clout at Westminster.

A devo-max alliance would allow new faces into politics and reflect the Herculean efforts of local Yes groups by reversing the top-down nature of political business and giving decision making power to grassroots activists. Suspending the grubby self-interest of business as usual would continue the feeling of “specialness” and joint purpose that infused the Yes campaign during the referendum.

Above all, it would shift the SNP into a more statesmanlike mind-set in which trust not just clout is the name of the game.

There’s a slight precedent. In Norway, just such a hitherto unthinkable act of co-operation occurred in the 1945 general election when – after five years of German occupation – all main political parties expressed their determination to sink petty differences and build a new society by standing on the same joint manifesto. Many historians feel it was marked Norway’s birth as a truly self-governing nation – not the formal moment of independence 40 years earlier. At last, Norway knew what those powers were for – what direction the country should take.

Of course there are big differences. This joint effort would obviously extend only to those parties, groups and voters who want full tax raising powers and oil revenues devolved to Scotland – and that’s not most political parties even if it probably is most Scottish voters. There would be the potential for a guddle as new ways of selecting local candidates were hatched.

Norway had a century of devo-max, four decades of full independence and the recent memory of war, resistance and occupation before its politicians could think of making a powerful, selfless, symbolic gesture to usher in a new way of doing politics.

But the power of the moment is similar. And the huge leap forward in the democratic capability of ordinary Scots demands something bigger from the SNP as it does from the Smith Commission, Unionist parties, David Cameron et al.

Nicola Sturgeon has already conceded that the people will decide if and when there’s to be a referendum re-run. Perhaps that same powerful, wider constituency should have a say in the way Scots organise our next democratic adventure in May – even at this late, late hour.