Euan McColm: How SNP's strict discipline is stifling debate

A party that refuses internal discussion of significant issues should not be surprised to find itself lacking solutions writes Euan McColm.

The SNP is a well-drilled political machine, where party unity is taken for granted, writes Euan. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Discipline is essential in a successful modern political party. You can’t just have politicians and activists saying and doing whatever they please, can you?

Unsurprisingly, when it comes to keeping members in line, nobody does it better than the SNP; the Nats have discipline down to a T. Why, the SNP is so serious about maintaining discipline that its MPs are bound by a code of conduct that forbids them – on pain of expulsion – from criticising either colleagues or decisions made by the party.

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The SNP is a well-drilled political machine, where party unity is taken for granted.

Former Health Minister Alex Neil MSP at India Quay, Fountainbridge, Edinburgh

But, while discipline is an essential ingredient in a viable, modern political party, if it is too strict, it can have a debilitating effect. If even the expression of a contrary thought is punishable by career-ending removal from the party, why would an elected member do anything but keep the head down while following orders from above?

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Euan McColm: How SNP's strict discipline is stifling debate

The effect of severe discipline in the SNP has been to discourage freedom of thought. The majority of the party’s MPs and MSPs are uninspiring lobby fodder whose sole purpose in political life is to do whatever they are told by whips.

Fifteen years ago, the SNP was a model of indiscipline, a party riven by fierce disagreement over how Scottish independence might be won; colleagues briefed against each other with huge enthusiasm.

Former Health Minister Alex Neil MSP at India Quay, Fountainbridge, Edinburgh

Back then, Alex Neil MSP was seen as the leading member of the SNP’s fundamentalist faction. While then leader John Swinney espoused a slow and steady approach to winning the constitutional battle, Mr Neil and his acolytes favoured a bolder approach.

Mr Neil lost that particular battle of wills and, after deciding to become a team player during Alex Salmond’s second spell as leader, moved through the ministerial ranks, becoming Cabinet Secretary for Health. When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister in November 2014, she shuffled Mr Neil into the Social Justice brief, where he remained until his resignation last May.

Mr Neil has not gone quietly on to the back-benches at Holyrood. While Miss Sturgeon and her most senior colleagues have pushed ever harder for a second referendum, Mr Neil has been a voice of caution, warning against rushing into another vote.

It is not only on matters constitutional that Mr Neil has inconvenient thoughts. Last week, he published proposals for significant reform in the NHS. He recognised that - despite the Scottish Government’s repeated mantra that progress is being made – the health service is struggling to make necessary improvements.

Among Mr Neil’s ideas was a separate tax, specifically targeted at the NHS. This, he suggested, would encourage the public to support the necessary funding to provide a service on a par with “more advanced” European countries.

Mr Neil’s intervention – “unhelpful” according to one of his former colleagues in Government – initially caught the attention for its implicit criticism of the direction in which the NHS is going under the current administration rather than for its substance. It has been so long since anyone in the SNP dared suggest that everything in the policy garden is not rosy that Mr Neil’s remarks came as quite the surprise.

Those in the SNP who would rather Mr Neil had kept his thoughts to himself should think again about their positions. Debate, the exchange of ideas, intellectual battle – this is the stuff that keeps a political party alive. A party that refuses internal debate on significant issues should not be surprised when its find itself lacking solutions.

Tony Blair’s Labour Party of the 1990s was renowned for its tight discipline. The leader’s office used a cocktail of fear and potential patronage to keep elected members on-message. Now, Mr Blair confesses regret over his failure to risk spending much of his considerable political capital during his first term in office. In making itself electable, the Labour Party had become too cautious.

Likewise, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon is unwilling to risk radical reform of public services. Miss Sturgeon guards her political capital jealously.

All political parties at Holyrood agree that the NHS in Scotland is currently underperforming. The arguments are well-rehearsed: the opposition parties blame the SNP, the SNP blames a combination of previous – unionist – administrations at Holyrood and Westminster cuts.

With a second independence referendum on the horizon, the instinct among the SNP high command is to keep debate about services to a minimum. The First Minister would far prefer to explain her belief that Scotland should be independent than to debate staffing shortfalls in the NHS.

But what if, as the odds suggest, the SNP doesn’t win the second independence referendum? What would the First Minister – or, more accurately, her successor – have in reserve to impress voters?

The SNP’s record of reform of public services is pitifully weak. Populist policies such as free prescriptions and tuition fees have drawn the eye away from the cracks in our health service and our education system.

The nationalists, if they are to maintain their dominance of Scottish politics, require more interventions of the sort made by Mr Neil. He started out in an era when politicians wrote pamphlets and published papers as a matter of course.

Alex Neil’s paper on the NHS – with its focus on how Government might start delivering on its objectives – makes one nostalgic for the days when challenging orthodoxy wasn’t taboo.

More “unhelpful” stuff like this would do Scotland no harm at all.