Euan McColm: Hats in the ring spoil Sturgeon high wire act

From Nicola Sturgeon's point 'of view, the level-headed Angus Robertson will be a hard act to follow as deputy leader. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
From Nicola Sturgeon's point 'of view, the level-headed Angus Robertson will be a hard act to follow as deputy leader. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
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When the SNP’s membership began soaring after defeat for the Yes campaign in 2014’s independence referendum, not everyone in the party was thrilled.

Sure, more than 100,000 new members told an explicit story about a party on the up. And the money those new members paid for the privilege of joining didn’t do any harm either.

But, behind the scenes, wise heads in the SNP worried about how the party would keep so many new recruits in line. Those whose disappointment in the 2014 result had driven them into the arms of the nationalists were, by and large, of the view that a second referendum should be held as soon as possible; Alex Salmond’s replacement as leader, Nicola Sturgeon, thought otherwise.

It’s testament to Sturgeon’s skills as a leader that, since then, she has been able to manage the expectations of a huge, unwieldy party membership. She has kept them on their toes, ready to leap into constitutional battle at a click of her fingers while repeatedly failing to give them the referendum they so dearly want. That prize sits, just out of grasp, a tantalising possibility whose existence ensures discipline.

The First Minister’s cautious campaign may be about to be hopelessly undermined as the SNP chooses a new deputy leader.

The previous incumbent of this position, Angus Robertson, stepped down a fortnight ago. Robertson, a Sturgeon loyalist, had held on to the job despite losing his seat in last summer’s general election but, after that result, it was always a case of when rather than if he would quit.

Already, Robertson’s decision has exposed a significant split in the party over how it should proceed on the matter of independence.

The Glasgow Cathcart MSP, James Dornan, was first to declare his candidacy. Dornan, not, I would posit, known for his smart political thinking, stomped all over the First Minister’s cautious approach to the constitution.

SNP members should prepare for a second referendum as early as next year, said Dornan. This, I’m bound to point out, is not how the First Minister and members of her inner circle see things playing out.

And it’s not just on the timing of a second referendum that the views of Dornan and Sturgeon diverge. He told Scotland on Sunday last week that he was not convinced that plans for a second referendum were to blame for the SNP’s loss of 21 Westminster seats last June.

This analysis – if that’s not overstating the quality of the thinking here – runs counter to that conducted by senior party figures who believe (wisely, in my opinion) that the SNP’s mebbes-aye-mebbes-naw approach to another vote on the constitution became intensely irritating to the No-voting majority.

Pete Wishart MP – who has not yet declared his intention to run – is also dipping a toe in the water of this particular debate. His take is rather different to Dornan’s. Wishart, who discovered, when his majority was slashed to just 21 last year, that using social media to taunt No voters as “nawbags” was a damned stupid thing to do, advocates a more cautious approach than Dornan. Now is the time, he says, for the SNP to think carefully about its next move and to consider more thoughtfully the views of those nationalists who voted Leave in last year’s EU referendum.

The SNP deputy leadership contest is shaping up to be a battle between two contradictory positions. Sturgeon could well do without this.

The First Minister most assuredly does not require as her deputy party leader someone agitating, like Dornan, for indyref2 sooner rather than later. She has been quite brilliant in the way she has offered party members nothing when it comes to the constitution while having them believe huge progress has been made. Dornan – or someone similarly excitable – would threaten this uneasy agreement between the leader and the led.

Opinion varies in SNP circles about what precisely Dornan thinks he’s playing at. The two conflicting views are either that he believes Sturgeon is wrong on the timing of a second referendum and is ready to defy her or that he is out of his depth and hasn’t thought of the implications of what he is saying.

Whether Dornan is rebel or fool is neither here nor there. If he becomes deputy leader on the promise that he’ll have the party ready for a referendum next year then he’ll create an expectation among members that Sturgeon will not be able to meet.

A second independence referendum will only take place with the consent of the UK government and, after a majority of Scots voted for Unionist parties last year, there’s no way that’s going to be forthcoming next year; Dornan’s campaigning on the basis of a referendum that won’t happen is either deeply cynical or deeply foolish. My money is on the latter.

Wishart’s decision to participate in the debate – if not yet the contest – will be no more comforting to Sturgeon. The MP for Perth and North Perthshire is a divisive character, whose enthusiasm for goading opponents – and voters – on Twitter makes senior SNP figures despair. As one veteran campaigner told me: “It’s nice that Pete wants to do some thinking – the problem is he wants to tell the rest of us about it.”

Robertson, though rejected by voters last year, had made a decent fist of the deputy leader’s job. A moderniser and political centrist, he was acutely aware of both the importance and the fragility of his party’s relationship with voters who might back it at elections but who continue to reject independence.

Sturgeon will, I’m sure, want to see someone similarly level-headed as the next deputy leader. So far, that candidate has not emerged. Instead, the First Minister is facing the prospect of a battle between two politicians she doesn’t rate.

Neither James Dornan nor Pete Wishart has the political chops to be deputy leader of the SNP. The danger for Nicola Sturgeon is that they destabilise her party while demonstrating their inadequacies in the weeks ahead.