07 February 2019
The Scottish National Party
What’s gone wrong for it?
It should all have been so easy for the SNP. In the EU referendum, Scotland voted 62% to remain, the highest pro-EU vote of any UK region. As it became clear that both the Conservative government and Labour opposition would honour the UK-wide vote to leave, the SNP mantra became that Scotland was ‘being dragged out of the EU against its will’. Here was a stark difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK, a potential deep well of discontent to be tapped. The party hitched its wagon firmly to the ideal of an independent Scotland within the EU, failing which it argued that Scotland and/or the UK should remain in both the single market and the customs union. The subsequent shambles of the Brexit process should have created the perfect storm for it to emerge stronger than ever. But it hasn’t happened. Why?
First, that pro-EU 62% hid an important fact. Post-referendum polling suggested that Scottish leave voters were spread evenly across those who supported and those who opposed Scottish independence. So, roughly speaking, 38% of those who voted Yes to independence don’t want to remain in the EU. The SNP’s commitment to EU membership stretches the loyalty of at least some of that group who might vote for the party in future. The party hierarchy and elected representatives, as nearly always, have stayed on message. But below them within the party and from other pro-independence commentators there has been a persistent grumble that independence within the EU is no independence at all. On the other side of the independence divide, voters who want Scotland to remain in both the UK and the EU would have to overcome their distaste for separation to vote SNP in future.
Second, the economic outlook for an independent Scotland is no better than it was in our 2014 referendum, when a flawed economic case was one of the main factors ensuring the majority of voters decided to remain in the UK. Our main trading partner is still the rest of the UK, which takes 60% of our exported goods while the rest of the EU takes only 18%. Brexit will remove us from the EU, but so would independence. Any attempt to re-join would be as a new member with all the obligations that brings, not least reducing our public spending deficit to the required levels for new members. In the meantime, the SNP set up a Sustainable Growth Commission to make a new and honest economic case for independence. Its report was published last year. It was a serious contribution to a debate on improving the Scottish economy but it has also been criticised severely. Its analysis has a number of serious flaws. Yet despite optimistic assumptions about the future it still concludes that Scotland could suffer up to fifteen years’ austerity after a declaration of independence. It may not have sunk without trace yet, but at best it’s bobbing around in some backwater where the SNP hope it won’t be noticed.
Despite the vagaries of Brexit, almost every opinion poll in Scotland since the EU referendum has suggested a majority of Scots want to remain in the UK, and more or less by the 55:45 margin by which we voted to stay British in 2014. In some ways, little seems to have changed, a sort of McGroundhog Day if you will.
In the last few weeks, a new factor has emerged, well flagged-up in the national media, but important to reprise here. It emerged that allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards civil servants during his time as first minister had been made against Alex Salmond, the pre-eminent politician of post-devolution Scotland. He objected to the process used to investigate the complaints and on 8th January in the civil courts, the Scottish government conceded that their investigation was indeed flawed.
A flawed civil service process turned out be the least of his problems. On 24th January he was arrested and charged with fourteen criminal offences – a breach of the peace, two indecent assaults, nine sexual assaults, and two attempted rapes. It is important to stress that he denies ‘all these allegations of criminality’ (his words) and it will be some time before any case comes to court.
There has already been significant fall-out from what has happened so far. Perhaps most damagingly for her, it emerged that Nicola Sturgeon had three meetings and two phone conversations with Mr Salmond after she became aware of the civil servants’ claims (we don’t know which, if any, of the fourteen charges relate to those allegations). Four investigations have been announced, although which will proceed while the court case is pending is unclear. They include an investigation by the civil service into the original flawed inquiry; a second by the Information Commissioner into whether sensitive information was leaked to the media; a third by a committee of MSPs into whether Ms Sturgeon misled parliament about the case (to be chaired, perhaps unwisely, by an SNP MSP); and a fourth into whether she broke the ministerial code of conduct, this latter perhaps most piquant since she oversaw a review of the code that led to the flawed inquiry into the civil servants’ allegations .
All this poses a big problem for the SNP. Both Salmond and Sturgeon are hugely admired within the party, the former for taking it to within a few percentage points of winning the independence referendum, the latter for giving it a more progressive face and almost wiping out non-SNP Commons representation in the general election of 2016. She was Salmond’s protégé and served as both his deputy party leader and deputy first minister. But she has also been assiduous in pursuing women’s rights and one can only guess at the inner turmoil the current situation is causing her.
Amidst all the speculation about who knew what, when, and what they did about it (if anything), most of the party’s senior figures have stayed discreetly silent, although one or two MPs, maybe feeling they’re at a safe distance from Holyrood, have tweeted what might be interpreted as coded messages of support for Salmond. Other rumblings include mutterings that ‘the Murrells’ (Nicola is married to the SNP’s chief executive Peter Murrell) have all too tight a grip on the party.
It would be no wiser to speculate how all this might pan out in the longer term than it would be to predict where we’ll be with Brexit in a year or so. But with a criminal trial and four inquiries to come, the subject looks set to dominate Scottish politics for some time. Given everything, it’s difficult to see how the SNP can make any progress in their overall objective of independence for the foreseeable future. Unless Brexit really is an unmitigated disaster.