Euan McColm: SNP needs a long, hard look in the mirror

Its success at stifling dissent within its ranks has left the party clinging to policies that make no sense, writes Euan McColm

Sturgeon still appears to put a second referendum at the top of her agenda. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Sturgeon still appears to put a second referendum at the top of her agenda. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

It used to be said – often by exasperated party officials – that the SNP was a broad church. This assertion was frequently made when a member of the congregation said something outrageous in public.

But the broad church claim was not solely a device to explain away controversy, it was also true: people with views from various points across the traditional left-right political spectrum coexisted quite happily in the SNP. Those who considered themselves radical socialists gladly shared a party with those of a more right-wing inclination.

United by their desire for Scottish independence, activists would publicly declare conflicting views on any number of issues from the monarchy to nuclear power.

The problem with broad churches, however, is that for non-believers they can seem rather confusing. How can it be that fellow believers adhere to completely different scriptures?

These days, the SNP’s membership is united on the centre left. The church has narrowed. A clearer vision of what it stands for – basically, the values that voters believe Labour has lost – combined with strict party discipline has put an end to the expression of ideological division within the SNP.

A great part of the SNP’s appeal as it began its rise to dominance a dozen years ago was its unity. Here was a party of people working together rather than briefing against each other. What a refreshing change from the norm.

But the party’s strict discipline has had another, less positive effect. The SNP, as far as I can see, has given up any kind of self-examination. The modern SNP has no time for questions. It is concerned only with presenting carefully spun answers. As a result of this unwillingness to reflect upon what it may be doing wrong, the SNP maintains positions long after it has become clear that they are incoherent.

Take the party’s current view on EU membership. The argument that, in order to protect a common market in Europe, Scotland should break a common market in the United Kingdom simply doesn’t make sense. Scotland exports more to England and Wales than it does to mainland Europe.

SNP members have no interest in exploring that inconsistency, they simply nod their heads in agreement whenever First Minister Nicola Sturgeon makes her flawed argument.

The SNP, among other parties, used to enjoy mocking Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair for its controlling tendencies. Now, the nationalists are the masters of shutting down dissent.

SNP MPs are bound by a rule that makes a disciplinary matter of disagreement with any policy of the party.

These Stepford MPs are emblematic of a party that’s lost the ability to look at itself in the mirror.

Power is jealously guarded by those at the top. The membership appears perfectly happy with this, seeing loyalty to the cause of independence as paramount.

Thus, when the party does alter its position, elected members slickly change their beliefs at the click of a finger.

Remember how the SNP used to make a virtue of the fact that its MPs did not vote at Westminster on matters that were devolved to Holyrood on the basis that they had no right to try to influence matters affecting only England (subtext: so why should the English have a say on anything to do with Scotland?) The party u-turned on this, explaining that of course it had to have a say on such matters because there was always a financial implication for Scotland when money was spent south of the border.

This was always the case, but while it suited the SNP to hold its position of abstention, this was a fact that could comfortably be ignored. Then times changed and it was time for a new principle, or tactic, if you prefer.

The SNP is currently looking somewhat exposed on the bright ideas front. The First Minister’s hope that the result of the EU referendum would spark a surge in support for Scottish independence was not to be realised. Since June, Sturgeon has placed the “protection” of Scotland’s place in Europe at the top of her agenda and the pro-UK majority has held steady.

The SNP first came to power in 2007 after a campaign during which then leader Alex Salmond was quite adamant that the party would govern for all, regardless of positions on Scottish independence. Sufficient numbers of pro-UK voters were convinced by this – and disappointed enough by Labour – to give their support to the nationalists.

The fact that, despite referendum defeat, the SNP continues to dominate elections in Scotland suggests that there remains a proportion of the electorate that wishes to remain inside the UK while being perfectly happy to have the SNP run the show at Holyrood.

Sturgeon’s relentless politicking over a potential second independence referendum may leave those voters wondering whether the SNP really is concerned about their priorities.

A veteran SNP campaigner of my ken suggests that the SNP could do with a little more dissent in the ranks, reasoning that if one course of action is not working (and the polls tell us Sturgeon’s current course isn’t leading her to Scottish independence) then another should be discussed.

This is unlikely to happen. SNP politicians and supporters are now living life as if they are on the brink of victory; independence is within touching distance.

This being so, they fear the suggestion that they are not fully united and completely prepared. This has led to crippling caution when it comes to policies.

But what if the SNP is not on the verge of breaking up the UK? What if Scottish politics is now frozen in a stand-off? If this is so, how is the SNP helping to advance its cause with its flawed strategy of insisting victory is imminent?

All of us benefit from some self-reflection, and the same is so for political parties.

If the SNP wishes to make converts to the cause of independence, it should start by casting a critical eye over itself.