IN THE natural order of things, a political party suffers a devastating defeat and then begins rethinking its strategy.
This often painful process is made all the more difficult for its utterly scunnered participants by dint of the fact that it’s invariably played out in public. Newspaper columnists and other tiresome smartarses will delight in every mis-step and half-baked idea, while opposition politicians can be expected to keep kicking whichever fleshy parts they see.
But, in post-independence referendum Scottish politics, the natural order of things is all to heck.
The SNP may have led the Yes Scotland campaign to a sizeable defeat – by 45 to 55 – in the vote on breaking up the United Kingdom, but of soul-searching there has been none. Instead, as you scarcely need me to remind you, the Scottish Labour Party – despite being on the winning side of the constitutional argument – is the one going through a fraught existential crisis.
Labour’s problems run deep and far pre-date the referendum, but the party’s failure to wring a single positive out of victory in September has been a remarkable thing to watch.
The crisis in its main opposition party is one very good reason why the SNP has not rushed to carry out a postmortem on the referendum result. Another is the fact that Nicola Sturgeon is an unopposed candidate for leader. Shortly after 10am on Friday, as the SNP’s annual conference opens, she will be confirmed as Alex Salmond’s successor.
The absence of a leadership contest has removed from the process any substantial debate about where the SNP goes next.
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Instead, through the contest for the deputy leadership, we’re heard aired some ideas which are unlikely to find much favour with Sturgeon. For example, two of the candidates – Stewart Hosie and Angela Constance – have been hugely supportive of the idea of a “Yes Alliance” pact at the next general election.
This would see pro-independence parties agree to field only one candidate between them in certain constituencies.
It’s a ridiculous idea. We would spent a long time looking for the constituency in which Sturgeon would withdraw her party in favour of a member of the Green Party or a Trot.
Sturgeon has not declared her preferred candidate to be her deputy but, with his opposition to the pact plan, Keith Brown appears most in tune with her thinking.
As the SNP conference approaches, officials are still uncertain about who exactly the party’s 57,000 new members are. Sturgeon’s much-derided (by opponents) tour of the country to address new members has been a sensible start in ensuring that these strangers fall into line behind the leader.
At one rally, Sturgeon was urged by a member of the audience to adopt a new policy where the SNP winning a majority of Scottish MPs would be taken as a mandate for a declaration of Scottish independence. Wisely, she was having none of this and made herself quite clear on the matter.
By way of background music to Sturgeon’s tour has been a nattering classes obsession with calling a second independence referendum as soon as possible. Pro-Yes commentators and activists are hungry to the point of fainting for another crack of the constitutional whip.
None of this is especially helpful to Sturgeon, whose plans for government do not place the break-up of the UK above all else. She believes that, having won the battle to be the dominant party when it comes to constitutional policy (and with the Smith Commission now planning more powers for Holyrood, who could argue that this isn’t so?) the SNP’s aim should be to establish the same credentials when it come to social and economic policies.
Excitable new members of her party, whipped giddy by the SNP’s most recent polling – putting the party at 52% when it comes to general election voting preferences – may blithely assert that the SNP has already done this. They will explain that Labour is dead in Scotland and that’s the end of that.
But Sturgeon is less certain of that. She recognises that the SNP’s success is a very recent phenomenon and that Labour, while certainly in some considerable distress just now, is not yet vanquished.
Next Saturday, Sturgeon will deliver her first keynote speech to a conference of the SNP as its leader. Many in the audience will hope to hear from her a rallying cry that with a rush and a push, the prize of Scottish independence can be theirs.
Sturgeon may disappoint. Her speech will be aimed not at those in the hall but at those outside and that means not only Yes voters but the majority of Scots who voted No.
Amid the excitement about rocketing party membership and unprecedented poll ratings, Sturgeon has not lost sight of the fact that Scots did not elect her First Minister. She is acutely aware that she has to prove herself, especially, to those No-voting Scots who backed the SNP in elections on the basis that they believed Salmond to be the best person to govern in Edinburgh.
Sturgeon has had an unexpectedly easy ride since the referendum but it is time for her to have a frank and potentially difficult debate with her party about Scottish independence. As well as addressing and, presumably, shutting down talk of electoral pacts, she will have to decide whether the SNP should promise another referendum in its manifestos for both Westminster and Holyrood.
If the mood music coming from Yes circles is anything to go by, Sturgeon will be under considerable pressure to do just that and rally the faithful for another pitch at breaking away from England.
But this could be hopelessly risky. The SNP’s past electoral success is based on the support of Scots who rejected independence and it would be foolish to assume those people have suddenly changed their minds.
After Sturgeon becomes leader of the SNP on Friday, her priority must be to explain clearly her party’s position on independence, now and for the foreseeable future.
It’s time for Nicola Sturgeon and the all-new SNP to have a chat.
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