Mad, bad and dangerous to know: is the SNP scandal-proof?

Mad, bad and dangerous to know: is the SNP scandal-proof?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 9, March, 2020

SCOUNDRELS, misfits, chancers and fantasists will always be drawn to politics. Some have caused havoc and destruction on a frightening scale from Savonarola in 15th century Florence to Hitler in the last century. They surge to prominence when society’s defences are weak. Devastating wars, inadequate leadership, plague, financial chaos can be the prelude. But when there are widely obeyed rules in society and cohesive elites which regularly produce effective politicians fit to govern, the scope for wild men to run amok is usually slim.

A long forgotten and much criticised figure who showed how statesmanship could avert strife and extremism, was the inter-war politician Stanley Baldwin (1869-1947). Disparaged for supposedly being one of Hitler’s chief British appeasers, he also deserves to be remembered for building a firewall that insulated Britain from the extremes engulfing much of pre-1939 Europe. In 1923, he put paid to the career of the volatile and at times unscrupulous David Lloyd George who helped to defeat imperial Germany but was a divisive post-war figure. Baldwin promoted reconciliation between the classes after the 1926 General Strike. His masterly handling of the 1936 Abdication crisis when he was instrumental in removing from the throne Edward VII who had married an American divorcee and was drawn to Hitler, arguably saved Britain from peril.

The effectiveness of shrewd and level-headed mangers like Baldwin is often bound up with the context in which they operate. If there are widely-practised customs and innate understandings in society that promote restraint, then democracies can be tested severely without coming apart. When society is prey to neurotic worries and common ground is elusive, then even clever pragmatists who would shine in normal times stand little chance of preventing the worst. A good example is Brian Faulkner, perhaps the most able Unionist seen in Northern Irish politics in the last century. But he was quickly blown away by the scale of the divisions that burst to the surface after 1969 and which quickly assumed a murderous form. 

Instead, it was a destructive and uninhibited demagogue Ian Paisley who made the political weather in Unionist politics. I recall his agitation during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence when Alex Salmond stirred up elemental passions by using a similar repertoire of tricks; Westminster was depicted as an engine of falsehood and corruption intent on selling Scotland short and foiling the realisation of its true destiny as an independent nation.

In the end, Salmond did not prevail. His challenge had been formidable due to the decline of community, religious and economic bodies which had expressed the preference of the Scots for evolutionary change rather than political ruptures. But pragmatic and sensible Scotland was still vigorous enough to ensure that the attempt to drag the country out of the United Kingdom was defeated by a comfortable margin on 18 September 2014. Salmond quickly faded from the scene and his career has resembled that of several inter-war demagogues who, rejected at home, have relied on a foreign tyrant to enjoy a tawdry political afterlife.

His trial, beginning this week arising from accusations of serious personal misconduct towards women, was widely regarded in advance as the most serious challenge likely to face the government of his successor as SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. But before it even began, her party was assailed by a series of embarrassing events involving some of its leading figures.

Hours before he was due to deliver his fourth budget as Scottish finance minister, Derek Mackay was forced to resign on 9 February after it emerged he had bombarded a 16-year-old boy with around 270 texts on Facebook and instagram, indicating a desire to get to know him.

The atmosphere failed to settle down due to a rancorous dispute that has broken out in the SNP over First Minister Sturgeon’s readiness to allow people to self-declare as the opposite sex without medical checks. Several leading women in her party have voiced objections only to suffer online intimidation as a result.  (The British government has hastily buried plans to introduce plans designed to accommodate the demands of radical transsexuals.) This is the kind of factional strife Ms Sturgeon does not need as her mishandling of plans for an early re-run of another Scottish referendum produce internal dissent.

The decision of her ally, Mhairi Black MP, outspoken on the trans issue, to sponsor the visit of a drag queen called Flow Job to a primary school in her constituency provoked uproar. The performer’s social media profile contained sexually explicit content and the local council apologised. 

Fresh unwelcome publicity quickly followed when Jordon Henderson, a well-known SNP activist hoping to be selected as a candidate for the party in the Edinburgh South constituency was revealed to have released tweets that used abusive language towards Joan McAlpine MSP, a critic of the radical pro-trans views which he espoused. The 29-year-old activist is the partner of a newly-elected SNP MP Alyn Smith who, obtaining the biggest swing enjoyed by the SNP in December’s general election when elected MP for Stirling, has been talked about as a future SNP leader

Smith’s partner quit the party, however, on 6 March – and Mhairi Black has been severely criticised by SNP colleagues for what was seen as indulging in a thoughtless action which may have highlighted her pro-trans views but only to plunge the party into disrepute.

Good stewardship of the SNP appears to be a trait that has deserted Nicola Sturgeon of late. A Baldwinesque leader would not have allowed feuds arising from identity politics to reap such havoc. If it wasn’t for Sturgeon’s own explicit backing for pro-trans legislation that will enable young people perhaps still unsure about their sexual identity to alter their gender, it is unlikely that the issue would have acquired much traction in Scotland. 

Her own underperformance on key policy fronts is now hard to conceal. The ferries commissioned costing the taxpayer £200 million and whose hulks now lie as rusting ghost ships in a Clyde shipyard are only the most glaring example of official incompetence.  It will be no surprise if Mackay (now expelled from the SNP), is blamed. But unease in the party is now widespread

With just over a year to go before a Holyrood election, the seat of Edinburgh Central, is already the scene of a fierce contest between the pro-Sturgeon Angus Robertson and pro-Salmond Joanne Cherry MP, perhaps the First Minister’s strongest internal critic. In other epochs and in different democracies, an underperforming party chief unable to provide coherent leadership would have been ousted. But instead Sturgeon directs the party through her husband, a duopoly which may have worked for a while when tried out in communist countries like Romania, but which is unnatural in a mass party like the SNP.

There are sure to be other policy failures. Almost whatever the Sturgeon government touches on the economic front seems to result in big liabilities for the tax-payer. Whether it be investment in energy renewables, private finance initiatives for major infrastructure projects, or setting up a state investment fund, there are too many signs of haste, improvisation and even cronyism. 

But despite the current febrile party mood, it may ultimately not matter to most of the party’s supporters. If the 125,000 strong membership decide they have had enough of Sturgeon, it will not be due to her incompetence but instead her inability to fulfil their emotional needs on the independence march. This sprawling movement is no finishing school for enterprising Scots who have practical visions meant to put Scotland back on its feet. Instead, it is better viewed as a vast recreational zone, enabling lots of people to socialise, release passions, and organize around the goal of acquiring full territorial control over Scotland. As community life has shrivelled in Scotland, the SNP has filled a small part of the vacuum by releasing a wave of political fervour about a cause. It is one that often seems to be a replay of Cavaliers v Roundheads or Cowboys and Indians, involving a manic intensity of emotion but little real content. 

There is always room for colourful, quixotic, angry and unconventional people as long as they are effective tub-thumpers for the great but vague cause. Alyn Smith and Mhairi Black are undoubtedly two of the best.

Scotland may be one of the first countries where a party’s inner life and prospects of success are not bound up with achieving material progress. Green parties elsewhere in Europe (as well as the pre-1989 communists) might well be envious at the success of the SNP in winning successive victories without promising to put more money in people’s pockets or run services more effectively.

Any Stanley Baldwin figures able to thrive by promising to do exactly these things are currently invisible in Scotland. Much of the electorate has veered off into a different democratic orbit from that to be found elsewhere. It is small consolation perhaps that firebrands in the Savonarola mould are not exactly doing well either. Whatever the outcome of Alex Salmond’s trial, he appears to be a talented agitator whose ability to mesmerise the masses is over... unlessmI have badly under-estimated the degree to which a lot of Scots are now hopelessly addicted to novelty and spectacle over sound government.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016. His twitter account is @cultfree54


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