The SNP at a crossroads
Analysing the backdrop to the current constitutional impasse and the meaning of the "de facto" referendum
The first Independence Captured long read of 2023…
The constitutional impasse following the verdict of the Supreme Court raises numerous questions. In doing so, it also exposes an underlying weakness in the intellectual and political development of the SNP. Such a claim appears to jar with the party’s continuing electoral prowess. But now the SNP is at something of a crossroads. To get a sense of where this fits as part of the history of the national movement, we can look to previous moments in which key decisions had to be made about the future direction of the party.
It is also worth outlining the trajectory the SNP has taken since 2014. On the one hand, the campaign for independence during the referendum brought about a display of genuine, if fleeting, popular agency. On the other, this once irreverent and largely self-organised movement, which quite organically spliced local forms of activism with a national political project, would come to make a deferential turn in the wake of the defeat of September 18th.
Morphing from a campaign once celebrated for its heterogeneous character, the surge in membership towards the SNP came alongside what was then a clamouring of support for the rise of Nicola Sturgeon. In her, and in the SNP, lay the potential for the record to be corrected. Only here might those dismayed by the dashing of hopes represented by the referendum loss find solace. It could all be part of the journey towards the “inevitable” realisation of an independent Scotland. This is a sentiment to which SNP MP Tommy Sheppard recently referred when he spoke of future elections becoming “stepping stones” towards sovereignty.
That, however, belies the need for a wider critique which can help explain how the independence cause has ended up in its current predicament. This edition of the newsletter attempts to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the present conjuncture, through which we can interpret the meaning of ideas like the “de facto” referendum, and the malaise around Scottish nationalism today.
Reflecting on the referendum aftermath
After 2014, the SNP incubated much of the popular energy built up through the independence movement. SNP Chief Executive, Peter Murrell, e-mailed new members urging them to recruit their friends and family to this “people’s force for change.” New Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, told of how his own party had failed to capitalise on the No vote and in doing so had gifted the initiative to the SNP despite the defeat of the Yes campaign.
This always underestimated the fury felt by hundreds of thousands of Scots who felt betrayed by Scottish Labour, just as it failed to recognise the seriousness with which the SNP prosecuted a slick campaign to recruit the independence movement to its ranks and to fend off potential rivals. No matter how under-resourced they were in comparison.
Here I will, briefly, bring in some reflections based on my experience as a central organiser of the Radical Independence Conference which took place in Glasgow, in November 2014. Discussion around what to do in the event of a No vote had generally erred on the side of caution. Perhaps some hundreds would attend a downbeat event. We booked the Radisson Blu, with a capacity of 800. A day after launching the event, we sold out. With weeks to still to go, a decision was made to upgrade the venue.
I remember going to the Clyde Auditorium, known for hosting concerts rather than left-wing meetings, with a slight air of disbelief. We booked it, and with it 3000 seats. Alongside that, we hired the adjacent Crown Plaza, the Science Centre, and the nearby Garden Hilton. These would service break-out spaces and creche facilities. In less than two weeks, the venues were sold out.
Looking back, I admit a degree of naivety and certainly inexperience. Merely pulling off such an event was seen as a success. The SNP, however, understood it as a potential threat. After we had announced our new venue, the SNP booked the Hydro, on the doorstep of our conference on the same day. This event, replete with foam fingers and the trappings of a presidential-style rally, would serve to anoint the new leader of the SNP, the independence movement, and Scotland.
It was denied at the time, but the message was clear. Nothing should rival the SNP in its claims to represent the totality of the independence cause. There was some suggestion floating around that perhaps a joint photo opportunity for all independence supporters could be called on the banks of the Clyde, where the venues are situated. This was opposed in favour of protecting the political integrity of our conference, from what risked turning into a depoliticised carnival.
The point is the SNP were rather meticulous about it all. New stars of the independence campaign were quickly signed up and showcased. The new SNP leadership enjoyed near unanimous support from what was then able to credibly call itself a “movement,” and a unified one at that. They had it all in hand. To claim anything else would only provide ammunition to Unionist opponents.
The referendum may have been lost. But the transformation from an eccentric fringe on the margins of Scottish society to a mass party, with unrivalled electoral support and throngs of enthusiastic supporters across all parts of Scotland, was complete.
A changing SNP
When a party becomes this successful, it alters its character. Changes are cultural, ideological and organisational. While a party is more distant from power, it attracts people who are resolutely committed to a cause, rather than to potential career openings. They endure political losses and personal sacrifice. They engage in acrimonious debates about the way forward. The current leader of the SNP, of course, has played her own part in this kind of process, herself losing multiple Westminster elections before arriving in the Scottish Parliament as an MSP. Her formidable talents are in part forged by these kinds of experiences.
Indeed, the layer of nationalist cadre which helped to shift the parameters of Scottish politics became steeled through highly contested battles over strategy, tactics and political philosophy. Importantly, many involved in these discussions were working class and brought with them a brand of politics which understood the importance of competing interests within the political and economic system. As a result, they were concerned with strategy, long-term thinking and a sense of enduring principle.
In the mid-1970s, the SNP had 11 MPs. At the time this was viewed as great progress, given such a clutch of elected members represented a record-breaking tally for the party. Yet there were ideological complexities to navigate. While unity existed on the basis of self-determination, weaknesses in their wider political orientation would always limit making progress in Scotland’s Labour heartlands.
Jim Sillars, then a Labour MP, commented on the SNP at the time:
“They were amongst the most right-wing people in the House of Commons. They didn’t understand the class factor at all. They just thought, ‘We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns – from the Duke of Buccleuch right down to your average plumber.”
However, other developments were taking place that would lay the foundations for a change in direction. Margo McDonald, in one of the most remarked upon results in Scottish electoral history, won the Govan by-election of 1973, displacing the Labour candidate. This stunning victory brought with it an influx of new members. And they, brought with them, new ideas about the meaning of Scottish nationalism.
Setbacks in the form of the 1979 devolution referendum, also helped to crystalise the essential differences in approach and strategy developing inside the SNP. As Chris Cunningham, who would go on to be a member of the left-wing 79 Group, recalls:
“For me, the 1979 referendum was the point of clarity. I remember being at the counting hall in Edinburgh and watching the ballots from working-class areas of Edinburgh with a very strong yes vote for the assembly, and then watching the ballots from middle-class areas like Morningside and it was a very strong no vote.
“The extent to which people like me and others felt that the SNP had to change in order to be with the people was a stark reality. If you want to be a nationalist movement, you have to be with the people that you want to lead, you can’t stand back from them and tell them that they are wrong.
“The 79 Group was an attempt to pull the party to the left.”
1979 was also the year in which Margaret Thatcher came to power. In that election, just two SNP MPs survived. One of them was Gordon Wilson, who would be elected as SNP leader at that year’s party conference, fending off left-wing theoretician Stephen Maxwell, when it met in Dundee. He oversaw a fragmenting organisation, in the throws of a political crisis.
When attempts to develop a semblance of unity between the emerging left-wing grouping on the one hand, and the “Campaign for Nationalism” faction led by Winnie Ewing on the other, collapsed, he proscribed internal organisations altogether during his conference speech.
The dissidents on the left walked out, and key members were expelled from the party. However, this would only precede the reinstatement of the 79 Group and the eventual rise to prominence and leadership of those who prosecuted the argument that the SNP had to change its orientation to involve questions of class, with a view to replacing the Labour Party.
Scottish writer, Sean Bell, provides some interesting insights:
“The ‘79 Group emerged from a Scottish political culture that had become an unlikely hothouse for left-wing nationalist thinking, with writers and political theorists such as Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson bringing fresh, analytical perspectives to the British state that informed a post-1968 idea of Scottish independence. And yet, in contrast to more dogmatic or doctrinaire socialist organisations of the period, it did not possess a detailed programme as such. While Maxwell’s pamphlet ‘The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism’ was treated by some as the faction’s foundational document, the 79 Group’s status as an ideological current was loose and fluid.
It is when a party is in this phase of development, seeking to make a political breakthrough, that mistakes are made, experience is garnered and strategies are tested. It may have been loose and fluid, but this was a scene with intellectuals, critical minds and a determination to advance a cause. These factors would coalesce with the evolution of the political landscape to shape the course of Scottish politics in the decades ahead.
Entering the void
The heat of Thatcherism, the on-set of industrial decline, the result of the 1979 referendum and the new culture developing inside the party impacted the nature and direction of the SNP. Now, the internal life of the SNP has become moribund, and beyond that, the wider nationalist movement has struggled to reproduce the kind of thinkers and debates which enlivened and enriched the independence cause in decades gone by.
There are lots of reasons for this. Partly, it is down to the nature of the leadership regime, a tightly organised and very small grouping composed of the First Minister, the Chief Executive and Special Advisors. The party leader rises above the membership but also, in a sense, the parliament itself. Politics, insofar as it is popular, is largely conducted through projection onto relatable personalities, rather than through the democratic pressure leveraged by mass formations. This is partly why individual “authenticity” is so sought after, as it allows for politics to exist vicariously, rather than as a collective effort. In this regard, Nicola Sturgeon provides an ideal example.
This kind of process is not taking place in a vacuum. Nor is it an invention of the SNP leadership imposed upon society at large. The erosion of internal party democracy is not a phenomenon limited to the SNP either. These developments are contextualised by the fragmentation of the working class, the hollowing out of civil society and the decline in independent social and political institutions beyond the market. In the same breath, politics became reduced to a narrow consensus governed by an increasingly technocratic infrastructure separated from public intervention.
Economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, provides some historical context:
“Well into the twentieth century, owners of capital had been afraid of democratic majorities abolishing private property, while workers and their organizations expected capitalists to finance a return to authoritarian rule in defence of their privileges. Only in the Cold War world did capitalism and democracy seem to become aligned with one another, as economic progress made it possible for working-class majorities to accept a free-market, private-property regime, in turn making it appear that democratic freedom was inseparable from, and indeed depended on, the freedom of markets and profit-making.
“Today, however, doubts about the compatibility of a capitalist economy with a democratic polity have powerfully returned. Among ordinary people, there is now a pervasive sense that politics can no longer make a difference in their lives, as reflected in common perceptions of deadlock, incompetence and corruption among what seems an increasingly self-contained and self-serving political class, united in their claim that ‘there is no alternative’ to them and their policies.”
The degree of economic inequality produced, especially in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, would lay the basis for severe volatility. The unnamed, often transnational, entities tasked with administering austerity and the rolling back of social protections, would precipitate a backlash. The “social democratic” parties across Europe who had enthusiastically implemented the punitive measures which were so injurious to their already degrading base, would pay the political price.
They have been rocked by parties adopting a nationalist populism, cast as a popular countermeasure to an impenetrable, and distant, political elite. In such movements, anti-migrant rhetoric would fuse with forms of economic nationalism and claims to represent a democratic incursion into the executives of the state, and the organs of the supranational, which had been hermetically sealed from the masses.
Challenges to the “extreme centre” not only came from the radical right, but also from the left. The term “Pasokification,” used to describe the process by which European social democratic parties saw their electoral base disintegrate after their support for austerity and the rule of the market, was drawn from the Greek example. In this case, the initiative was taken by the radical left, in the form of Syriza, as Pasok fell apart. In Britain, challenges lay not outside the Labour Party, in large part due to the electoral system, but internally, through the Corbyn movement.
The Scottish dimension
In Scotland, these dynamics are not absent. But in European terms, they are almost uniquely contained. Here we find an example of a political framework that has allowed for a governing party to carry out the essential tasks of neoliberalism - privatisation, the primacy of the corporate sector, uncritical support for the institutions of European capitalism and so forth - but without the political reprisals.
The crucial factor is the national question. While the SNP leadership have consciously decoupled from parts of the movement they regard as distasteful, preferring to curry favour with international and domestic elites, they have lubricated the independence cog in a way which provides an effective tributary for discontent with the system writ large. All the while cultivating an environment best suited to establishing Freeports, selling off national assets and cutting public spending.
In this way, Nicola Sturgeon and her party represent among the most successful projects of the political centre in Europe. Governance is an overwhelmingly managerial affair, while popular engagement with it, including through the conferences of the ruling party, is sanitised and performative. These circumstances offer the perfect environment for the corporate sector, international capital and a range of legitimising non-governmental organisations in the orbit of the devolved apparatus, to form a Scottish governing class which is largely unaccountable, and indeed, unknown.
Bob Jessop, an academic who has published extensively on state theory and political economy, writes that post-war Europe was built around, “the primacy of national economies, national welfare states, and national societies managed by national states concerned to unify national territories and reduce uneven development.” On such an order, Ros Taylor, editor of the London School of Economics-based Democratic Audit UK, notes:
“This consolidation of the national scale and its associated institutions afforded unprecedented access to policymaking for organised labour. Moderate trade unions were directly inserted into decision-making forums alongside government bureaucrats and business representatives. Ordinary people could also hold governments to account through democratic practices. In this peak era of state sovereignty, lines of responsibility and accountability were clear.”
It is this conception of national politics which motivated the independence cause in its most meaningful phases. Conversely, undermining this effort is the role and purpose of the Growth Commission, the National Strategy for Economic Transformation, the Economic Recovery Group and so on. In these bodies you find the same interests being represented, often by the same people, with free-flowing interactions between civil servants in Edinburgh and London, and the denizens of corporate globalisation.
Independence, as crafted by the SNP, is at one and the same time a means to animate populist appeal when required, while in practice it reinforces the orthodoxies of neoliberalism, even in an era where that model is highly contested, and which many argue is in its twilight. It is therefore essential to the SNP as an electoral tool and as a shield from criticism, but also to sustaining important parts of the Scottish establishment as a whole.
This is why I take issue with Stewart McDonald’s recent column. Alongside a number of salient issues raised around the “de facto” referendum, he states: “For many years we have separated a vote for the SNP and a vote for independence.” This was true to an extent during the referendum. But has not been the case since, for the reasons signposted above. This is further evidenced by the fact there has been no attempt to set up a campaign broader than the party, with only an in-house “Yes” labelled social media outfit on offer.
The “de facto” referendum and new dilemmas
At this critical juncture, the project for national self-determination is reduced to party management. The question now posed to the SNP hierarchy is simple. How can the party extend the holding pattern they have relied upon, but with a vastly reduced ability to manifest illusions in an imminent referendum? It is from this vantage the “de facto” referendum must be examined.
The “Special Conference” in March will discuss the matter, within the boundaries of what is acceptable to the leadership. But this event will also herald the end of the party conducting two conferences a year, in a further downgrading of internal democracy. An SNP source speaking to The Times puts it baldly:
“HQ are hellbent on reminding us of the lack of democracy in Westminster and yet constantly and consistently fail to practise what they preach. The membership’s views are being decimated with no spring conference and instead a one-day cult meeting to vote on a referendum process we have been given no option about.”
Last year, Independence Captured, argued the so-called “de facto” referendum was best understood as a party strategy, rather than a route to independence. With a referendum off the table, and with the Tories on the verge of losing power, a strong pro-independence position would be required at the General Election. This would provide the SNP with a platform capable of polarising the issues in Scotland around the national question. Resentment at the Supreme Court verdict could also motivate voters if properly harnessed.
There is of course no such thing as a “de facto” referendum. There is, simply, an election. No party can dictate the way in which voters choose to elect their representatives. For that reason, even a “victory,” would lack domestic and international legitimacy and would certainly not be recognised by the UK Government. Despite rhetorical claims, the SNP leadership would not, therefore, utilise a successful outcome to begin independence negotiations. They could only present it as yet another mandate for a referendum, which will not be forthcoming.
When the “de facto” referendum idea was first announced by the First Minister, it was clear it had not been tested even among the higher echelons of the SNP. Since then the issue has only sown confusion, even among those who want to follow the present leadership line. For months, there has been no clarity about whether or not only SNP votes count, or if in fact all pro-independence candidates are added into the one basket. Another obvious problem arises around Labour voters, or for that matter supporters of any party, who also back independence. Shall they forfeit their constitutional preference and be counted as part of the Unionist tally? What of the 16 and 17 years old, a key constituency when it comes to independence support, who cannot vote?
While the SNP will not be able to translate a “victory” into the setting up of a new Scottish state, opponents of independence will be able to claim that failure to win a majority of the popular vote is a thoroughgoing defeat when it comes to independence. And why shouldn’t they? They would be right in arguing that the SNP had failed by its own self-imposed litmus test.
In 2014 the independence campaign was able to build serious momentum as a movement of movements campaigning for Yes. I was involved in devising the “mass canvass” events which played a key role in reaching out to areas of historically low voter turnout. We mobilised hundreds of people into communities and made a story out of it too: working class Scotland was breaking from Labour, and voting for independence. It is difficult in the extreme to replicate this kind of outreach solely around voting SNP, or in some disaggregated campaign for “independence-supporting parties.”
With so many complicating factors, it is little wonder that the question has been deferred to a future conference. But in doing so, the independence movement, such as it exists, was left stranded and unarmed on the day of the Supreme Court ruling. By removing the certainty with which the “de facto” referendum was declared in the Scottish Parliament months prior, and at the SNP conference just weeks before the verdict, independence supporters were marooned and without a line of march. This inevitably tends towards further demoralisation.
The introduction of Holyrood 2026
The SNP National Executive Committee has now produced the resolution which will go forward to the Special Conference. Branches will have four weeks to table amendments. There is a proposal for a Westminster “de facto” referendum, including the stipulation that “the combined votes for the SNP and any other party with which it has reached a pro-independence agreement in advance of the election constitute a majority of votes cast.”
But the most important part of the resolution comes in the form of an alternative to this plan. That instead of going for the Westminster election, the 2026 Holyrood election may be preferable. This should not have come as much of a surprise, given SNP President Michael Russell had already hinted at flexibility around the “de facto” referendum. In a column published last year, he stressed the need to choose “the right plebiscite election,” hinting that it can be a mobile frame.
It may be deemed there is a lack of momentum for a “de facto” referendum at the next Westminster election, tempered by considerable internal disagreement. While an immediate poll released after the Supreme Court verdict put support for independence at 56%, this hasn’t been sustained at such a level. Nor has there been an extra-parliamentary response of any significance.
Assessing the moving parts, the real dilemma is the 2026 Holyrood campaign. Let’s imagine the next Westminster election is pitched as a “de facto” referendum. If the SNP can claim a “victory” it will quickly be shown to be a pyrrhic one. If on the other hand, as is likely, they cannot build a popular majority, it will deal a body blow to independence and, critically, the final nail in the coffin of this SNP leadership when it comes to the pretension of delivering Scottish statehood. In either case, it deteriorates the independence component of the SNP formulation in future elections.
We must also add to the mix the prospects for Nicola Sturgeon. She will already have accepted that she will not lead Scotland to independence. The glistening silver lining to that particular cloud is that this also means she doesn’t end up trapped with the great difficulties involved in establishing a new state, even with the range of insurance policies designed to mitigate any serious rupture. It also means sidestepping potential claims that her leadership represents a destabilising presence in the Western axis, allowing for a range of global roles in the future.
That said, it is also important to leave the independence cause in good shape as part of the legacy. Indeed, this is one way of interpreting the “de facto” referendum plan, since it would offer a stage for the First Minister to say she did all she could to deliver independence. Come what may, there is at least some doubt that Nicola Sturgeon will lead the SNP into the 2026 election. That, combined with having already expended the “de facto” referendum, could leave the SNP in a difficult spot.
Taken together, the language of the plebiscite election being deployed in 2026, is likely now seen as the best option when it comes to extending the holding pattern previously outlined. But there is a feeling of ineptitude about it all. After a period of hesitance and confusion, it looks somewhat scatterbrained, regardless of the Special Conference decision.
The debate that needs to be had
In truth, the real debate that should be had now is not about “de facto” referendums. Rather than shunting from one failed exercise to the next, there needs to be a pause for some honest and rigorous accounting. A long view of the history of the national movement until this point, and of where it might go in the future is not an optional extra.
While the SNP leadership have adopted a successful strategy when it comes to winning elections, they have offered thin gruel with it comes to bringing Scottish independence any closer. A root and branch analysis of the key failings should be conducted. That includes the flawed prospectus, the absence of an independence campaign and the major missteps made when it comes to set-piece interventions such as the Supreme Court. This review should also include a breakdown of the domestic failures and the corporate capture of policymaking, given this is the antithesis of the democratic impulse which drove the independence campaign of 2014.
This will involve sharp criticisms of the SNP leadership. But it must also grapple with the structural obstacles inextricably bound up with the actuality of forming an independent Scotland. It is too crude to suggest that simply replacing one leadership figure with another necessarily results in a different outcome. The decades-long strategy which delivered an independence referendum was indeed successful. But independence supporters have still to fully come to terms with the outcome, and as a result, a viable strategy for the future.
Meanwhile, the tectonic plates in Scottish electoral politics remain in place. The SNP floats along, managing each crisis through a well-oiled public relations machine, anchored by paid staff, advisors, and elected representatives. The Westminster-based alternatives and the UK Government refine the terrain in favour of the SNP. But the result is stasis.
In those conditions, critical analysis which can open up new pathways is vital. Independence Captured aims to make a contribution in that regard in 2023.
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