Once long shots, now big shots, but they may have had their shot

End of the road — why the SNP must reinvent itself. Again.

When Andrew Wilson and his new bride Anna jetted off on honeymoon earlier this month, the SNP’s future looked bright. Perhaps not as bright as the Jamaican sun for which the happy couple were headed, but the party was widely expected to do well in the general election that would take place later that same week. Most observers predicted the Nats would retain all but a handful of the 56 Westminster seats they had won in 2015. A second independence referendum was still on the cards.

Wilson, a former economist and MSP, has a relatively low public profile these days but is an important backroom figure in the SNP. Though he runs Charlotte Street Partners, a strategic communications company (full disclosure: I once worked there and count him as a friend), for the past nine months he has also been chairing the Nationalists’ growth commission. This group, comprising politicians and sympathetic academics and businesspeople, has been charged by Nicola Sturgeon with developing an economic road map to and beyond independence — one that would provide credible answers to tricky questions such as which currency a new state would use and how it would close its yawning, multi-billion budget deficit. Its conclusions would be central to winning the planned indyref2.

Wilson thought he was close to having cracked it. The trick was to find a balance between realism and optimism that would allow the SNP to step away from the risible candy floss and unicorns prospectus offered by Alex Salmond in 2014. Admit to hard choices and the likelihood of early bumps, but commit to bold steps that could in time lead to a healthy, vibrant nation. All that was left was a bit of light fiddling here, some stress-testing there, and a final sign-off by the party’s big cheeses.

But the bronzed Wilsons will fly back to a very different, considerably stormier climate. Staggeringly, the election saw the SNP lose 21 of its 56 seats — nearly 40 per cent — and hold on to others by little more than its fingertips. Salmond is gone, Angus Robertson is gone. Almost two-thirds of Scots backed pro-union parties, while the Nats’ support fell from 50 per cent to 37 per cent. Sturgeon managed to misplace nearly half a million votes in just two years. Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories went from one seat to 13, right at the top end of predictions. Even dead-on-the-slab Labour sprung back to life by taking seven seats, including a number in its former central belt heartlands.

A poll by Survation published this week found that 60 per cent of Scots now think Ms Sturgeon should scrap her plan for another referendum, including a third of 2014’s Yes voters.

In short, Scottish independence suddenly feels a quite distant prospect. A second referendum seems a non-starter. The SNP has a very real fight on its hands just to retain power in Edinburgh. That growth commission report is, I’m afraid, heading for a dusty shelf.

It is hard to know what is going on in Nicola Sturgeon’s head at the moment. The First Minister was quick to denounce Theresa May for a terrible campaign that squandered the Conservatives’ majority — though the Tories saw their seat total drop by a comparatively small four per cent — and for insisting she would carry on with business as usual.

But Ms Sturgeon herself, in the face of mounting evidence that her determination to hold a second referendum fatally undermined her party’s pitch, seems to share the Prime Minister’s tin ear. The day after the election she admitted that ‘undoubtedly the issue of an independence referendum was a factor in this election result’ and said she would ‘reflect carefully on the result’.

Since then, however, it has emerged the SNP leadership is looking at how it might use the final Brexit deal, due in spring 2019, as the basis for another independence vote. The Scottish electorate might reasonably feel it has made its position clear — no thanks, or at least not for a good while — but the message doesn’t seem to be penetrating the thick sandstone walls of Bute House.

Two in a row on the Bute House stairs: but who’s next?

The question is: why not? Ms Sturgeon is a sharp and astute politician, who has shown in the past few years that she has learned from many of her predecessor’s faults — she is less divisive, less bumptious and less arrogant; she has displayed a welcome willingness to reach out to unionist voters; she has taken a keen interest in the gritty detail of public policy — not the kind of triviality Mr Salmond ever bothered himself with.

Nevertheless, something appears to be going badly wrong. Let’s consider the options.

The SNP has been fond of accusing the media and unionist parties of inhabiting a bubble, in which like-minded souls share like-minded opinions that bear little resemblance to the views of the ordinary punters outside this echo chamber. There is some truth in that, but the same charge can be thrown at Ms Sturgeon and her supporters. She is a professional politician and head of government who lives in a multi-million-pound state-owned mansion in an elite square in Scotland’s capital. Her husband Peter Murrell is chief executive of the SNP and a serious and occasionally vicious operator: between them the pair live and breathe politics and maintain a iron grip on the party and its direction.

When she leaves the environs of Bute House and Holyrood, the First Minister visits offices and factories that give off the monarchical whiff of a fresh coat of paint, or is surrounded by adoring fans requesting selfies and presenting their children for hugs and kisses. It is no more the real Scotland than the tartan fantasies of Brigadoon. This is what it is to be an establishment politician who has enjoyed a decade in high office — spend long enough being carted around in a limo and having your dinner made by liveried staff and you eventually, inevitably, lose touch.

It is instructive to think back to the Scottish leaders’ debate during the election campaign, when it was the First Minister, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It was Ms Sturgeon who was attacked by teachers over the fact that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills and who was warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

It was Ms Sturgeon who found herself confronted by a nurse who had been forced to use a food bank and who bemoaned the state of the health service: ‘You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’

The nurse then delivered a line of extraordinary prescience: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

This is Sturgeon’s curse: without the relentless drive towards independence, what is the point of the SNP? In the final analysis, it exists for one purpose only — to extricate Scotland from the United Kingdom. That is why people join it and why it inspires such quasi-religious passion among its followers; it is not a normal political party.

But good government requires different qualities. It requires hard choices, risk-taking, the deployment of limited political capital to improve the common weal, the choosing of sides. You are governing not only for those who elected you, but for the nation as a whole. If you continually put independence ahead of everything else, including the education of the voters’ children and the healthcare of their grandparents, and avoid those necessary hard choices because you cannot afford to lose the support of various interest groups for your ultimate cause, you can only come a cropper. Regardless of how talented a politician you are, you can only run ahead of the facts for so long.

There are four years until the next Holyrood election. How does the First Minister propose to spend them? More of the same? Exposed to the regular, poisonous drip of official statistics showing public services declining further and further? Bearing the brunt of accelerating voter disenchantment, seeing the Westminster blame game become increasingly ineffective, wincing as the opposition parties hammer away ever more successfully at an unhappy domestic record?

And if not miserable, strung-out atrophy, then what? The way to make a difference is, well, to make a difference. But this would require the Sturgeon administration to stop offering pretty baubles while blaming London for the bad stuff, and to start truly flexing its legislative muscles: raise taxes to fund the public spending it claims it is currently denied, or lower taxes in pursuit of greater economic growth; look at best practice in education around the world and ram through some tough reforms that will infuriate teachers and their unions but might have a chance of arresting decline; take some radical steps with the new welfare powers; ensure Brexit brings control of agriculture and fisheries to Holyrood, and have a plan as to how to run these sectors.

There’s more, too. A fiercely ambitious strategy for the digital economy is needed whether Scotland is to be independent or not. The business community feels neglected by Ms Sturgeon in a way it did not by her predecessor. Further devolution of power to our big cities and rural communities is the future.

The problem with all these actions is that they are not pH-neutral — they would create as many enemies as friends. They are about choosing sides, placing bets, going for it. It is a more principled way to go about the art of government than cowering in Bute House hoping Brexit goes wrong and that Scots will suddenly demand their freedom. But it is a hard path.

It seems likely that if the current trajectory is maintained then Holyrood will lose its pro-independence majority in 2021. And it is not even unthinkable that Ruth Davidson could find herself at the helm of the largest party.

You were the future once…

For all their distinctiveness, the Nationalists must succumb to political gravity just as all other parties do. They are showing no sign of reinventing themselves in government (which is anyway almost impossible to pull off — ask New Labour), which means voters will soon enough decide that they deserve to be kicked out and opt for some fresh faces and new ideas. There are grumblings on the backbenches, both at Holyrood and at Westminster, about the old guard’s grip on power and its engrained ways of doing things — to be fair, an inevitability of success and scale. Some interesting young talent is emerging and these people will soon enough want their shot, on their terms. They do not belong to the Salmond/Sturgeon era and have their own views.

My guess is that this version of the SNP is coming to the end of its road. The party has evolved many times since it was founded in 1934. It has been Right and Left and neither; it has been fundamentalist and gradualist; principled and cynical; hard-headed and overtly emotional; it has joined in and it has stood back. Its current incarnation began in the early 1990s under Alex Salmond and very nearly made it to the top of the mountain before running out of oxygen. But what, in the end, will be its legacy? The risk is that both Salmond and Sturgeon will be remembered for their monomania and what it left in its wake: a divided nation, declining public services, an electorate exhausted by relentless constitutional debate, and a hell of a clean-up job for the folks that came after.

If the SNP falls short — and electoral collapse is not unthinkable — it will be due to the inherent contradiction between the party’s singular constitutional obsession and the complex daily needs and wants of the people of Scotland. The intimidating task for those Next Gen Nats — and it will be more easily tackled out of office, where there is freedom to think radically — will be to somehow square that circle.

This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on Saturday, June 17, 2017