The Challenge of Success for Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP
Sunday Mail, November 16th 2014
The SNP are in good spirits with new leader Nicola Sturgeon describing the party as having ‘the wind in its sails’.
The party might have been on the losing side of the recent independence referendum, but is riding high in the polls for Westminster next year and the Scottish Parliament elections the following year, with party membership sitting now at 85,000 and rising.
This is the party that Nicola Sturgeon inherits from Alex Salmond this weekend. ‘The country has changed, and changed utterly’ claimed Salmond in his Friday farewell (for now) speech. Things will never be the same. Now the party has the opportunity, as nearly every speaker at the SNP conference, said to ‘hold the Westminster feet to the fire’.
This will be not be easy, as the party faces the challenge of success – including managing high, and in some cases, ridiculous expectations, and letting down gently those who believe instant change is somehow possible. With the SNP in permanent campaigning mode since the referendum, no one in the party leadership has yet paused, reflected and shown the ability to move on.
This entails speaking with a sense of grace and humility, and acknowledging that No actually won and did so for good reasons. Many people have an attachment to Britain and British identities, an aversion to risk inherent in independence, and doubts about the SNP’s version of independence.
Sturgeon is better placed than Salmond to address these concerns. She has the chance to articulate a more human version of independence, which talks about doubt and risk, and gives people more ways of connecting and understanding the merits of the idea.
Addressing conference, Sturgeon said ‘when the SNP is strong, Scotland is strong’. She meant this in terms of the SNP’s bargaining position in the event of a hung UK Parliament, but it also contains the confusion of the party’s self-interest with the national interest. The two are not the same, and there is a worrying tendency for SNP politicians to see them as inter-changeable.
There is the story of progressive Scotland told by the SNP. It states a litany of achievements – free care for the elderly, no tuition fees, free prescriptions and council tax freeze – saying look what we have done with our limited powers. Sadly, all of these policies don’t help those most in need in our country, but overall the middle classes.
This doesn’t address the realities of so much of modern Scotland, of public spending cuts, local government services slashed, a generation of working class children excluded from colleges and universities, and the prospect of a fairer Scotland receding into the distance.
Social justice and social mobility are going into reverse. Would a contemporary Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon, born into the same humble backgrounds as they were, be able to make it into the corridors of power today? More than likely they would have a far harder time now than in the past, which says much about ‘progressive Scotland’.
The cause of independence has to be directly linked to the life chances of all young people in the present. One way to convey that this is about economic and social justice is to learn from New Labour’s book and have a pledge card of five short, popular policies. These should be nearly all about changing everyday life –with its main focus not on shibboleths like abolishing Trident.
Independence cannot come about in 2015 or 2016. There has to be a sense of realism and timescale, and of recognising that No won. The ongoing promotion of the idea of Yes and the use of such social media handles as #the45 and #the45plus do not get the party very far, and only involve it speaking to the most convinced part of its base.
A second referendum will take a couple of political cycles. Most of Scotland does not want to be on permanent referendum watch and engage in constitutional cliff-edge posturing. The SNP have to understand that its concerns for independence as an end in itself, isn’t where most of Scotland sits or what it wants. An independence of a future majority would see it as a means to an end.
Then there is the shadow of Alex Salmond, the most successful leader in the party’s history. He will attempt to return to Westminster next year, but his profile and stature could prove to be a problem unless he lets Nicola stamp her own personality and strategy on the party.
The SNP leaves its annual conference in buoyant mood, filled with optimism and believing it can achieve independence. But it needs to not completely swallow its own hype, rhetoric and caricature of its opponents, because that is the first sign of atrophy and of losing your political touch, which eventually leads to decline.
If Nicola seriously wants Scotland to become the modern, enlightened society of Denmark as portrayed in her favourite TV drama ‘Borgen’, the SNP has to avoid caricaturing its opponents, No voters – and even Westminster. It has to make independence more than the broad canvas projected by Salmond, and articulate a very different kind of politics and vision of Scotland from now on.