22 April 2012

How can the SNP cope with its incoherence?

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?


  1. Very interesting.

    The SNP has, in essence, two different identities. One is as a single issue campaign for independence. The second is as a mainstream political party. And the coherence that is achieved most of the time comes from the primacy of the first identity.

    This is why the SNP leader in Glasgow has been unable to set out a position on how she would lead the Council. The most important thing is to beat Labour and therefore gather support for independence. What to do if actually taking over as the administration is not important.

    Alex Salmond though is a much smarter politician. He realised long ago that for the SNP to succeed as a campaign it had to prove itself as a party that could govern.

    A different question might be what would happen to the SNP if its primary goal was to be achieved. What role could a pro-independence party play in an already independent Scotland? Would it survive as a party or split on issues of how best to govern an independent country?

  2. Success brings a number of problems. As a non participant in an election for the first time since the 70's I have had a it of fun checking out Labour and SNP candidates. Labour (in my area) are desolate, no young blood and lots of bickering open and public started by one guy that got a knock back last time. SNP seem to be quite confident but the fact that the SNP number 1 in my ward is the guy that caused the Labour split when he failed the Labour Party selection last time and jumped ship makes me wonder what has happened to the life long nationalists. Opportunists may do the SNP more harm than any left right split as they must be ousting genuine activists. Although I do remember the 79 group causing ructions openly.

  3. Eh dinnae ken fit this is a' aboot

  4. Hmm. Shall we follow the money?

    Just who has an interest in creating a schism in the SNP?

  5. A useful mapping exercise. My view is that this is the rock upon which the independence will founder if it is not creatively dealt with. SNP positions on currency/monarchy/oil etc are simple that - propositions and need to be framed as such with the spotlight being cast on others (lab/LibDem etc) as to what it is that THEY would do IF we (THE PEOPLE) vote for independence. Otherwise how to persuade me to vote for independence when on currency I reject the notion of debt-based money, on monarchy I am a republican and on oil, I would leave most f it in the ground to avoid 2 degrees of warming http://www.monbiot.com/?p=1193

  6. The SNP has been able to portray an image of relative homogeneity because everything else is generally regarded as secondary to the goal of independence.

    There are two problems with this. First, when in opposition or in government and not actually doing very much then these things are easier to manage. It's when big issues actually have to be decided that the problems arise, and clearly there's no bigger issue for the party than independence.

    A related point is that only a minority of the public are content to see independence as an end in itself, and to that extent Salmond et al know that they have to spell out some kind of vision of what indepependence would look like, even if ten years post-independence Scotland could look altogether different.

    Thus using the levers of power and/or trying to get the public to support independence necessitates examining the issues and to that extent risking conflict within the party.

    Which in turn explains why the Scottish Government isn't doing much policy-wise in the meantime - it doesn't want to forment any internal SNP dissent.

    Of course, to the extent that public opinion necessitates the more detailed exposition of what independence would actually mean then a degree of infightinng is inevitable.

    It's the old balancing act of trying to get the public on board while keeping the party in line. Tony Blair largely managed this with new Labour until in power. You could say that the Queen, the pound and NATO are the SNP equivalent of Labour's Clause IV.

    LPW looks at the issue primarily from the party's perspective, while in today's SoS Alex Massie considers the issue more from the voters' viewpoint - the Hampden crowd v Murrayfield, etc.

    It's trying to reconcile the two that's the difficult bit.

  7. Fascinating piece again from LPW. Maybe Eck takes his inspiration from G&S -

    "The House of Peers, throughout the war,
    "Did nothing in particular,
    "And did it very well:

    And ta for the quote from the Burd whom I have never looked at before - fine stuff.

  8. @Gordon_J "has been unable to set out a position on how she would lead the Council" The SNP actually has a full detailed and costed manifesto for Glasgow. http://www.glasgowsnp.org/Council/Manifesto_2012/

  9. The first comment is really interesting actually because it illustrates the gulf which exists between Labour and the SNP in terms of their internal structures and organisations. I was struck hearing Councillor Rabbani talking about this when he said it was amazing to see decisions actually being taken at group meetings - and by the same token Labour members might be equally astonished at the Glasgow Regional Association being in charge of the SNP's manifesto, not the council group leader.

    But I suppose it has its down sides as well because if you're not one of those Kate Higgins describes who has spent weary years struggling against adversity before reaching our current position maybe you are not going to "get" why so many members can leave their ideological distinctions at the door.

  10. I remember reading the Robin MacAlpine piece when he published it, and coming to a realisation that it's actually pretty arrogant of those of us who consider ourselves to be on the left to expect a party of government to remain resolutely on the left. We often talk about the centre as if it is a bad thing, a cop-out akin to fence-sitting; but the reality is the centre is, by its very definition, where the majority of public opinion resides, and so rather than being a negative, it should actually be a positive for a government to reside there. After all, we're quick to criticise parties for failing to represent society in terms of their gender, ethnicity and social backgrounds; yet no one seems to criticise a part on the left or right for failing to truly represent all the views prevalent within society. So surely a government that can truly describe itself as being in the centre has managed the ultimate balancing act?

    Anyway, Robin's concern is that he sees the SNP being taken over by "the right", and considers NATO to be a stepping stone towards that. Well, someone on the right in the SNP could quite legitimately accuse "the left" of wresting almost complete control of the party, pointing towards abolishing tuition fees (note I avoided saying "free tuition fees", which is a paradox repeated ad infinitum), absolute resistance to privatisation in the NHS and commitment to keeping prescriptions and bus passes for the elderly free, as proof of this. I would be far more concerned about the SNP deciding to waver on free education and healthcare than I am about potential wavering on NATO membership. No one accuses Norway or Denmark of being neo-liberal right-wing states, yet both are members of NATO. Similarly, Ireland's position outside of NATO does not stop people on the left in the UK of accusing them of being neo-liberal due to their level of corporation tax.

    My point? It is your social and economic policy which defines where you are in terms of left- and right-wing politics. As long as you're not launching autonomous military action upon other nations, people rarely pay any attention to a country's defence policy when deciding where they lie on the political spectrum. I'm not in favour of Scotland being in NATO, but as long as we're not launching nukes on other countries, I'm far more concerned about us using the fiscal levers independence presents in order to ensure a just and inclusive society that protects the weak, rather than punishing them.

  11. I think the divisions within the party (and there are some) are held in check for a number of reasons. Primary one is Alex himself. Too many of the new bloods are in awe of their leader, and that in itself can be dangerous in the long term.

    It seems that dissent amongst the ranks is akin to heresy.

    Having Alex Neil in the same cabinet as Salmond proves anything is possible!

    Personally I think the SNP is going to split within five years, regardless of the result of the Referendum, and then they will align themselves on the left-right wings according to who they are. Probably sooner if they lose.

  12. I have never seen Robin McAlpine at a National Conference, a National Council, a National Assembly. I've never heard him speak. I've never seen him at a by-election. He's an unknown quantity to me. I'm not slagging the guy off - he's totally entitled to his opinion and to express it but he's not part of the party really. I don't know how he could say who is on the "left" and who is on the "right". In some senses that might be obvious I guess - Fergus Ewing is to the right of Nicola Sturgeon; John Swinney is to the right of Alex Neil.

    But the NATO issue isn't really that simple. And the fact is it will have to be discussed though personally I doubt if there will be any discussion at June National Council. I think the majority of what has been in the press is mere speculation.

    Nonetheless we know - those of us who have been along to the Referendum roadshows - that there will be themed policy discussion papers coming out. The party will have its say in terms of SNP policy but so will everyone else. We can't really see the defence needs of an independent Scotland as only concerning the SNP. SNP policy concerns only the SNP - but those who want to influence it need to get involved in the internal policy forums of the party, they are not going to influence SNP policy from outside the SNP. But the wider debate is for everyone and I think that's the point about the supposed monolithic and monological view of nationalism. Of course it shouldn't be that way. I don't think anyone wants it to be.

  13. Conan,

    "Just who has an interest in creating a schism in the SNP?"

    I'm not insensible to the point - and to the argument that more coherent, disciplined and united campaigns are more likely to win than those riven with internal tension. The problem and interest, it seems to me, is that such schisms (at least at the level of political ideology) already exist in the party. It isn't so much (to my eye) a matter of creating a schism, but how we deal with those which already exist. On the recent Nato speculation (even recognising it as just that), I'm mystified by the folk who believe this is just kite flying by divisive unionists. I wonder if they'll still be saying that if and when - all too plausibly - Salmond tries to convince folk to abandon the long-standing policy.

  14. Indy,

    "...if you're not one of those Kate Higgins describes who has spent weary years struggling against adversity before reaching our current position maybe you are not going to "get" why so many members can leave their ideological distinctions at the door."

    If you have a moment, could you enlarge on this thought? Being too juvenile myself to have a long roll of political history behind me, I'd be interested to understand the thinking.

  15. Andy, none of the positions you advance as your own provides a very good reason to vote for the continuation of the present Union, which is the only alternative on offer. I venture to suggest you are more likely to get you way on at least some of these positions under independence!

    On NATO, it is quite possible that some in the SNP have decided there is nowhere for people like me, who detest NATO and all it stands for but whose first priority is independence, to go. I would still have to vote SNP and "yes" in the referendum. However, if the SNP were ever to back-track on NATO membership they would certainly have to bump along without my financial contribution, and when we regain our independence I would vote for a party which would take us out.

  16. Andy Wightman...
    Otherwise how to persuade me to vote for independence when on currency I reject the notion of debt-based money, on monarchy I am a republican and on oil, I would leave most f it in the ground to avoid 2 degrees of warming.

    I think the same but don't see how maintaining an iniquitous and warmongering Union will narrow the rich-poor divide, abolish the monarchy and develop renewable energy. A vote for yes might just set us on the path though.

  17. Mac an t-Srònaich,

    I agree. But I understand the distinction. Many voters will not which is why a more nuanced and open platform describing possibilities rather that propositions might work better. Might... I haven't a clue - I am not a pollster - I guess the SNP have triangulated everything

  18. I actually think that self-government is an ideology in itself which goes above and beyond other issues. You might want an independent Scotland to do X, Y or Z but mainly you want an independent Scotland to be able to make the choice. Years ago I remember Jim Sillars making a speech – it may even have been at his adoption meeting as SNP candidate in Govan – when he said imagine if all the energy that went into defending Scotland against Thatcherism went into creating a better Scotland – imagine if we didn’t have to defend Scotland against anything because we governed ourselves and nobody could impose anything on us. I dare say he said it more eloquently but that was the ghist.

    And it’s the core argument for independence isn’t it? In some ways it is so obvious it doesn’t need stating. It brings what may seem like quite unlikely people together. Jimmy Red for example was actually great pals with Jim Mather – although ideologically they were surely not soulmates.

    But if the ideological differences that exist between Scottish politicians are to have any actual meaning – as opposed to being debating points – the power to translate them into reality must be there and that’s why independence takes priority.

  19. "I actually think that self-government is an ideology in itself which goes above and beyond other issues. You might want an independent Scotland to do X, Y or Z but mainly you want an independent Scotland to be able to make the choice."

    Precisely this. I've been banging on for months now about how the independence referendum will NOT settle the monarchy, currency, EU/NATO membership or anything else. It determines one thing and one thing only - who elects the future governments of Scotland.

    One you've decided whether Scotland's government should be elected by the Scots, or by the Scots and English and Welsh and Irish, everything else is up for grabs in the normal way - elections.

    If you believe in a nuclear-free, neutral, social-democratic Scottish republic, you're not going to achieve it within the UK, so voting No (or not voting) in the referendum is cutting your nose off to spite your face. You vote Yes, then you fight separate battles for the stuff you believe in.

    I think that's a really strong message, and one which could have a significant positive effect on the Yes vote. Because ultimately, all we're asking is "Do you want to choose your own government, or do you for some unaccountable reason want to let the people of South-East England do it for you?"

    And when you put it like that, it's a bit of a no-brainer.

  20. Groundskeeper Willie27 April 2012 at 09:58


    I can see why Eck's been desperate to put the referendum off until the last possible moment.

    He knows what's coming next.