Where would the SNP be without the Tories?
Analysing the SNP election broadcast, and the consequences of elevating public relations over policy and action
I am a big fan of the X-Files. As a young boy I had the famous “X” logo adorning my bedroom wall, with Mulder and Scully staring back intently. For me, it’s a masterpiece. The way it is shot, the plot, the people, the music. It’s difficult to settle on a favourite character, but if I had to chose one it would probably be the cigarette smoking man. His riddled sentences imparting vital pieces of information, spoken in between puffs of Marlboro Red smoke, captured the essence of the series.
Perhaps though, the lasting image is of the poster in Mulder’s office. A UFO hovers above a forrest with the caption, “I want to believe,” in block capitals. It is such a well chosen prop, because Mulder is driven by single minded belief. At the expense of his personal life, his career, his own safety and on occasions that of his partner, he stops at nothing to find “the truth.” He must believe that extraterrestrial life exists. He must believe that he will once again meet his sister, abducted by the aliens in coalition with a syndicate composed of the shadow government determined to stop his advance.
Belief is all he has, yet this is what makes him difficult to contain. Belief is also a vital ingredient in politics. It has a quality that is difficult to pin down, but it is also self-reinforcing. If you long for something to happen, and someone tells you they will make it happen, you want to believe.
I think there is a sense of this in Scottish politics. But there are many who are thinking critically about the situation, and more of that is needed. This newsletter aims to make a small contribution in that direction.
So this week we are going to look at the SNP election broadcast, and some alarming polling. As ever, disagreement and criticism is welcome, and thank you again for subscribing.
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With local elections upon us the SNP election broadcast was, to be generous, uninspiring. That, by the way, does not mean that it won’t be effective as a line of march for hopeful SNP councillors.
The broadcast didn’t include any SNP policy proposals for local government, didn’t refer to a successful track-record of achievements, didn't include an appearance from the party leader and First Minister and didn’t mention the word independence.
The content focussed exclusively on the Tories. Let’s think about why that is. Firstly, the SNP are floundering at a national level. There’s just no other way to put it if we are being subjective. The ferries disaster which I wrote about last week is just one of a string of initiatives that never met the light of day, such as the National Energy Company.
At the level of local government we see devastating cuts and poor leadership. Dundee council, led by the SNP, were among the first out the traps to support free-ports, which would then become government policy under the guise of “green” ports. The SNP council administration in Edinburgh are predictably in hock to private capital, much to the frustration of anyone who knows what’s actually going on.
It’s genuinely difficult to know where to start in Glasgow. The city is in a state of visible decline, the council leader re-introduced the word “ned” into public discourse, and Tory anti-union laws were deployed against striking cleansing workers. Meanwhile, the future vision of the city appears to be a privatised one. This should be of no surprise especially as the mirror image of David Cameron’s “big society” has been invoked to rationalise cuts to services.
The unfair council tax remains securely intact. Don’t worry though, according to Kenneth Gibson MSP, it’s lower than in England. As if this is some kind of victory. At the same time, communities have had to campaign tirelessly to keep their public libraries open.
Some problems are long-term ones, that require a real strategy for genuine transformation. I am no defender of the previous Labour administration in Glasgow, for example. Far from it. But the SNP election broadcast tells us that even the producers agree: whatever we do, let’s not mention the actual record in local government. It’s not a vote winner.
They also judge that independence should remain as a principle. Allude to it and infer that the glorious day is coming - but stop short of doing anything too provocative. Some weeks ago I speculated that the SNP may introduce referendum legislation to the Scottish parliament before the May elections, then revised the chances of this downwards as a result of the war in Ukraine. Now we know for certain that it won’t be brought before parliament before the locals, despite the usual claim that such an announcement was merely weeks away back in January.
So what’s left? Well, a deeply unpopular, widely reviled Tory government. Here Scots are presented with a chance to vote against them. And even if some are getting weary with the SNP, that is much easier to stomach than the pantomime villains in the Tory cabinet. It is a smart strategy. It capitalises on the toxicity of the Tories to a broad audience, brushes policy failures under the carpet and relieves them of saying anything concrete about the future. Polls show such an approach may well work.
The problem is, the independence cause will remain paralysed, but utilised in a balanced way to navigate electoral waters. In the meantime, the corporate bonanza continues while the cost of living crisis plunges working class living standards in a manner not seen since the 1950s, when records began.
In this sense, anti-Toryism in Scotland has to mean more than conforming to the SNP. We need independent working class politics that will both oppose the Tories, and make demands of the Scottish Government.
The situation is just too serious, and the consequences too grave not to.
Anti-Tory propaganda is not a plan
The lack of substance in the election broadcast is reflective of a much deeper problem. Not only are local election strategies based on simply “not being Tories,” the independence case has also come to rest on such rhetoric too. I wrote the following back in February:
“As of now there exists no coherent plan for independence - and certainly not a detailed one. Of course, if a party was serious about winning independence, such a prospectus would already have been developed and indeed popularised in the years following Brexit.
“This means that the independence movement - such as it is - campaigns with a rod up its back. Key opportunities over recent years may have been seized to promote a serious and popular vision for independence. But those have been passed up.
“As we often hear, Boris Johnson is a recruiting sergeant for independence. But perhaps more accurately, he is a boon for the SNP electorally. Because simply opposing the latest Tory Prime Minister, while not enough to win independence, is a motivating factor in voting for the SNP.”
Clearly the SNP hierarchy agreed with the last sentence, but the lack of a plan is going to be even more exposed now. Instead of being able to present a popular and coherent vision for independence to agitate around, the SNP leadership are forced to turn to Westminster for scraps during the cost of living crisis.
It is no surprise, though it should be a source of vigorous criticism of the SNP, that the following statistics show just how little is understood about the prospectus for independence. This poll was commissioned by the pro-union organisation These Islands, but behaving like an ostrich never did anyone any good.
The numbers, I’m afraid, stand to reason:
My first thought when examining these figures was not about the public. Genuinely, I don’t think most SNP politicians have serious answers to these questions. Why should they? They have not been provided with any. The case has not been made on its own terms.
The key issues - as many of us have been arguing for years now - should have been bedding into the public mind for some time. One of the key lessons from 2014 was that you can't just rely on opposition to Westminster. A lesson that has not been learned, it seems. But then again that all depends on whether or not you are really serious about independence as a short to medium term goal.
The world is now more, not less, volatile. Answers to the challenges of setting up a new Scottish state are even more pressing than they were in the heat of the last campaign.
Taken together, this is why the SNP election broadcast focusses solely on the Tories. It is also partly why they have chosen not to present a full blooded independence case to the public since 2014.
Some may want to believe. The truth is, Mulder had more evidence for his belief that extraterrestrials abducted his sister, than independence supporters currently have of an SNP plan for independence.
100% spot on. That, is where they have let down the movement. They have played it safe ie aligned with the status quo and have done nothing "provocative". All talk and no substance. The lack of info to the public re the isssues in the poll is staggeringly shameful and inept. The shocking thing is that there followers will have been pacified so much to the extent that they are now questioning nothing. Every and all prevarication is met with...silence and excuses.