It took me a wee while to work out why Robin McAlpine's essay for the Jimmy Reid Foundation jarred interestingly, and seemed somehow at odds with the ordinary run of Scottish political discourse. Entitled "Loyalty never seems to get in the way of the voracious right", the core of Robin's argument is that...
"If the right of the SNP is allowed to simply disregard Party discipline and kidnap the agenda in an attempt to create a New SNP, then New SNP will pay a price. It is the left of the party which has shown loyalty and discipline that needs to stop this – by speaking out now."
Explicitly drawing parallels with the arc of the New Labour project, McAlpine concludes:
"If SNP policies are all up for debate, fine. If the position on Nato was just sort of conversational, not an actual commitment, then the left should rise up equally vociferously about the corporation tax policy. There are two simple reason for this. The first is that a message has to come out of the SNP that it is not about to be captured by the right. And the second is that the SNP leadership must get the message that if it accommodates the wilder fantasies of its right wing, it is allowing the lid to be lifted off the box and a battle for the soul of the Party is underway."
Although the essay uses the phrases easily and repeatedly, and takes its readers to think readily with the concepts, when last did you hear anybody talking about the SNP left or right wings? Who constitute these wings? What characters belong to these internal blocs within the party with consistently antagonistic perspectives on matters economic, social - or what have you? Where might we locate Alex Salmond, or Nicola Sturgeon on this spectrum? What of Kenny MacAskill or Stewart Stevenson? The interesting thing, it seems to me, is that the collectives McAlpine promotes - "the right of the SNP", the "left of the SNP" are not really part of contemporary Scottish political discourse at all. Without a good deal of mapping of this virgin territory, the SNP isn't readily envisageable or even semi-regularly envisaged in the media, in print, in our discourses in terms of the French Révolutionary spectrum of its political "wings".
This is curious. Examine the SNP purely at the level of ideology (used here "neutrally" as opposed to pejoratively). Prima facie, one might think the diverse constitution of the SNP - a party which encompasses old style social democrats, socialists, social conservatives, social liberals and neoliberals - risks disagreement at every turn. As political coalitions go, you might expect nationalism to prove particularly unwieldy. That being in government, and embroiled in a series of detailed policy decisions across state domains, would generate a series of political scuffles in the SNP, as incompatible policy agendas and visions for the state - united under a bare nationalism - vie for dominance. At least in public, and for all I know, in private too - none of this has materialised. The orderly ranks of Nationalist parliamentarians have consistently endorsed collective decisions, without a murmur, or a wayward vote being cast. If this is essentially inexplicable at the level of party ideology - which is incoherent insofar as it encompasses neoliberals and socialists in the same outfit and everything in between - how can this unyielding coherence be explained?
One explanation might be that the diversity of party opinion isn't reflected in the parliament, which is the preserve of trimming moderates and "pragmatists", whose unrigorous and comprising ideological commitments are sunk in a thin gruel of "common sense", and accordingly amenable to direction and manipulation by the party leadership. Yet this doesn't seem wholly convincing either. Kate Higgins may offer a more plausible answer. In a post last December, the Burd described SNP party discipline in the following terms:
"Years spent as apprentices on the outside looking into the establishment of Scottish politics, being snubbed, underestimated, cuckolded and belittled have taught all SNP members and luminaries the need to stick together and work together for the common cause. Simply because it’s always been us against them, with them being practically everyone on the Unionist side. It’s a siege mentality that has served the party well and which partly led to eventual electoral success."
McAlpine's piece suggests a language for accounting for disagreements within the SNP which illuminates rather than suppresses this internal diversity. It seems obvious to me that effective management of such disagreement - that is, making space for the legitimate expression of different conceptions of what Scotland's future should be like without shooting the campaign in the foot - is going to be a huge challenge for the SNP in the independence referendum, for one major reason.
The SNP is a political movement (composed of disparate and sometimes jarring strains of thought), but practically arranged as a party, with its formal hierarchies and definitive policy lines. With the atrophying of Scottish socialist parties and the stalled Scottish Greens, it looks exceedingly likely that the "Yes to Independence" campaign will by overwhelmingly dominated by, and understood in terms of, SNP policy. This arrangement has its uses: a visible leadership, folk embarking on the campaign with pre-existing working relations, organised campaign structures which facilitate a network of connections between the national and local levels.
Yet this alignment between nationalism and Nationalists has clear dangers and difficulties to be navigated. As we've already seen in the early part of the campaign, parties and their leaders are expectantly asked questions it would be absurd to ask of coalitions of opinion, and definitive answers demanded. Few should struggle to recognise that a coalition of socialists, romantic nationalists, monarchists, republicans and neoliberals might endorse the idea of Scotland as an independent sovereign state. Equally few would imagine it made any sense to demand the monarchist neoliberal speak for his republican socialist fellow citizens, about what an independent Scotland would and should look like. Both would recognise that the debates about the head of state, and about economic and social policy, were future struggles to be had. For today, both endorse the possibility of having those struggles, in an independent Scotland.
In questioning a party, by contrast, there is no such reserve, whether or not that party is stitched together of a similar patchwork coalition of diverse political commitments. "These are questions for Alex Salmond to answer", Unionist politics have all-too-regularly demanded - and significantly, the SNP leader has embraced their logic. He's started doling out the definitive answers, on the monarchy, on currency - and so on. It may well be that given the SNP dominance of the "yes" campaign, a campaign primarily emphasising the possibilities of independence could never materialise, and the Maximum Eck had no choice but to bow to the demand that his party produce a catalogue of certitudes, rather than emphasising the diverse future democratic opportunities offered by independence, in which those presently in the SNP would be but one voice, amongst other voices.
By embracing their the logic foisted upon the party by its opposition, the SNP may have gained a blunter, less risky-seeming platform to take into the referendum. Yet that bluntness surely has its price, making it still more difficult for the SNP to publicly avow and manage its internal ideological incoherences. It is an expedient of political seigecraft, but one which offers few obvious sally ports through which the SNP's internal ideological diversity might find legitimate expression without being stigmatised as suspect splits, schisms and politically damaging party disunity. You have to wonder. Is it really pragmatic to fetter oneself with the - basically absurd - expectation, cultivated and promoted by Unionist politicians and now apparently accepted by the SNP leadership, that (N/n)ationalism ought to be monolithic and monological?