Friday, March 31, 2023

Four plausible ways of getting out of the hole the SNP have just dug us into

On Monday, SNP members narrowly voted to turn their party into a de facto devolutionist party.  In many cases, probably most, they were blissfully unaware of what they were doing, but the salient point is that they did it.  Events since then have confirmed that this was not a drill.  As he indicated that he would, Yousaf has ditched Nicola Sturgeon's de facto referendum and replaced it with...nothing.  For the first time since at least 1942, the SNP are no longer a party actively trying to win independence.  Yes, of course, we'll constantly hear lots of happy-clappy messaging along the lines of "get out there and campaign some more and the barriers to independence will all melt away in some conveniently unspecified manner", but that's just the equivalent of TV evangelism or soap operas or pornography for the masses - it's a way of keeping us distracted and occupied while the SNP leadership get on with the real meat of their careers.

John le Carré's novel A Perfect Spy contains a segment - which apparently is a faithful replication of a real-life episode - in which the main character's conman father somehow finds himself as the Liberal Party's candidate in a 1950s parliamentary by-election in East Anglia.  At a public meeting, he tries to explain the relevance of the Liberal Party as the "party of ideals" given that ideals don't create jobs or put dinner on the table.  "Ideals are like the stars," he says to rapturous applause, "we cannot reach them, but oh HOW WE PROFIT FROM THEIR PRESENCE!".  That's what independence now is under Humza rule - it's not something that we actually try to bring about in real life, it's just a lodestar that gently guides our political lives.

All of which creates a formidable barrier for those of us, whether inside or outside the SNP, who see independence as a concrete objective to be achieved in the here and now.  However, barriers are there to be overcome, and we must at least endeavour to do so.  I was initially quite encouraged to see Craig Murray tweeting yesterday about how we should all cheer up because we have a bedrock support for independence of at least 44%, which isn't going to go away.  However, he then ruined it somewhat with the last couple of sentences - 

Any message of hope based on the premise that "all we have to do is destroy the SNP and then everything will be fine" is actually a counsel of despair, because clearly the SNP cannot be destroyed in anything like the foreseeable future, and even if it somehow could be, it's likely that unionist parties (and particularly Labour) would fill the gap left behind. However, on the assumption that the first part of Craig's tweet is correct, let me suggest a few more plausible ways in which it may be possible for us to get back on track within a maximum of three years.

1. The Alba route.

This is what I was suggesting in my post about Alba the other day.  Although Alba cannot replace the SNP as the leading pro-independence party in the short or medium term, the Holyrood electoral system makes it possible for a small party to win a decent number of list seats with as little as 6% of the vote.  Make no mistake, that is still a tall order - most serious commentators all the way up to John Curtice expect us never to win any Holyrood seats, because at best we've been flatlining on the 2% we won in the 2021 Holyrood election and the 2022 local elections.  However, if we get out of our comfort zone of being an inward-looking sect, and make the changes necessary to become a mainstream party that appeals to both the wider independence movement and the general public, 6% is just about achievable, and it could produce a result in the 2026 election that is something like this -

SNP 51
Labour 34
Conservatives 19
Greens 9
Liberal Democrats 9
Alba 7

In that scenario there is a clear pro-independence majority (67 pro-indy seats compared to 62 for unionist parties), but the SNP cannot form a stable government on the basis of that majority without either direct or indirect participation from Alba.  They would therefore have a choice of either cutting a deal with Alba or entering into a 'grand coalition' with Labour.  Although they would probably be tempted to do the latter, it would be fraught with danger for them because their remaining supporters would suddenly see clearly that they have abandoned independence.  So, on balance, I would expect them to go down the indy majority route, and we know that Alba would insist upon a credible strategy for independence as their price for supporting an SNP-led government.  It would be a tricky balancing act, because the Greens would also be needed for the majority, and the Greens would refuse to be part of any formal arrangement with Alba, who they pretend to believe to be "far right bigots".  However, my impression is that the Greens are not actually opposed in principle to a radical independence strategy - they were on board, after all, for the de facto referendum until Yousaf ditched it.  So there probably is a viable three-party arrangement there to be reached as long as it's kept informal, arm's length and above all else deniable.

2) The opinion poll route.

Yousaf's wafer-thin victory was forged almost entirely on careerism - favours called in and promises made.  But supposing it becomes painfully obvious from opinion poll evidence over the next few months that a large number of SNP MPs at Westminster are likely to lose their seats and thus their careers in a general election that is at most eighteen months away.  Supposing also that his own personal approval ratings remain as poor as they currently are or get even worse.  Could those MPs start joining the dots and realising that some of them are only about to lose their jobs because of Yousaf himself?  Could they then start pondering the obvious but drastic remedy?  There are plenty of precedents for parties changing leader pre-emptively to avert an impending defeat rather than waiting until after the defeat has occurred.  A famous example is the Australian Labor Party hurriedly installing Bob Hawke as their leader just weeks before the 1983 general election, which transformed a likely defeat into a historic victory.  

The odds are probably against it in this case, because on a day to day basis Yousaf is surrounded by MSPs rather than the MPs who are most immediately in the firing line.  Nevertheless, it's certainly not impossible, because even those MSPs are unlikely to be totally relaxed about throwing away Nicola Sturgeon's hard-earned SNP majority at Westminster.

3) The life after defeat route.

In this scenario the SNP act like rabbits caught in the headlights - they see Westminster defeat coming but they take no action to avert it.  But they then become angry about what they've so needlessly lost.  If losing 21 seats in 2017 was enough of a shock for the SNP to put independence on the back-burner, it's not too much of a stretch to think losing the majority outright would be enough of a shock to make them realise they need to rectify the mistake of installing Yousaf as leader.  And because those who argued that "continuity won't cut it" had been proved to be on the right side of history, it would be harder - by no means impossible, but harder - for another continuity candidate to secure the succession at that stage.

4) The Humza route.

I said on Monday that independence is impossible until Humza is no longer calling the shots, but could that be wrong?  Suppose Humza himself panics because of dire opinion polls, and tries to shore up his leadership by demonstrating to the party and the country that he's listened and learned.  We could see Kate Forbes and Ash Regan (Forbes at the very least) being hurriedly drafted into the Cabinet in senior roles and with a promise of major input into policy.  If real panic sets in, it might even occur to him that pretty much the only way of overcoming his own personal unpopularity is to bring back the de facto referendum from the dead - that's the only means of guaranteeing that the Yes movement will be galvanised into supporting the SNP at an election.


  1. Vote Alba at every opportunity. Treat the unionist SNP in the same way they treat pro indy voters - with disdain.

  2. I think the only likely option of the four is number one. I'm also more optimistic than you and think that Alba could replace the SNP in the medium term, if they play their cards right. There are an awful lot of very pissed off independence supporters looking for a home right now, and I think Alba and Labour will be the places they will gravitate towards, depending on their personal motivations.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that Alba might naturally become less - how shall I put it - zealous, as their membership and support base is swelled by hopefully large numbers of SNP defectors.

    1. Yes! I agree. See my own comment below submitted before yours was visible.

  3. Another thoughtful piece James. To comment on your four points:

    1. Alba needs a competent plan to get to this number of list seats. Seven seats is an achievable goal but it requires that the party leadership needs to start coming up with a detailed plan and be ruthless about rooting out the heidbangers and finding robust candidates. By robust I mean people who's social media profiles aren't going to cause difficulty and who can present the arguments effectively to win support from SNP supporters. It needs to be much much more than an Alex Salmond fan club. No offense Alex.

    2. Again, agree. The answer here is for independence supporters to have a clear critique of the Humza Yousaf SNP's stance on independence. For me that is the absence of a well thought out plan. This critique has to be shared repeatedly with the SNP Westminster contingent and challenge them to counter it. The SNP MP are going to have to figure out how to save their jobs and a clear critique helps them at least start to think about how effective HY is for the independence cause.

    3. I actually think that rabbits in the headlights is a much more likely scenario than 2, but I am not convinced that it will move the dial much. My guess is that some will have already resigned themselves to losing their WM seat and will be staying loyal in the hope of getting a Holyrood seat or a nice place on the list. The problem with this scenario is that it removes the Westminster contingent but not the Holyrood ones. I think that we are all agreed that there's more talent and experience in the Westminster MPs than the Holyrood MSPs.

    4. This is possible, but I think not likely. As I said yesterday, the first test of this might be if Margaret Ferrier gets recalled and Labour trounce the SNP candidate. If Humza Yousaf's government does take fright at his polling, then they might change their position. However, I'd be sceptical that it was any more sincere than Nicola Sturgeon's plans, and I really don't believe that Humza Yousaf has the skill or the experience to organise and implement an effective plan to get us to independence.

    Option one seems the most credible, but still requires Alba to shake itself up substantially. Only if there is an effective challenger party on independence will the SNP change direction.

    The independence movement outside of the SNP needs to have a thorough critique of the UK's political & economic system and it needs to have one of the SNP's approach. These two robust critiques are the starting point, but the independence movement also needs a non-SNP organisation that has access or the resources to get access to the wider public via the media.

    The critique looks something like:
    The British state isn't working for the people of Scotland and our economy, here is the evidence.....[insert evidence here].
    We need to change this and both the Labour party the SNP have shown that they are not able to do this [insert evidence here], so we need independence to provide us with prosperity in the future.
    We get independence by having your support for these actions. [insert steps to independence here].

  4. Aye , aye but you're all missing something . Even the indy-light SNP could be "encouraged" tae be mair pro indy by mass action . Instead o aye blathering an twittering aboot , DAE SOMETHING!

    HOO ABOOT: Mass petition , boycott BBC licence and other brIt nat media, direct action , civil disobedience , anything and everything to anoy the Brits and encourage oor ain folk.

    Alba gu Barth.

    Get aff yer knees!

    1. Mass petitions and boycotts of the BBC would have literally zero effect. Civil disobedience? Well, it depends on how you define it.

    2. it's all about raising the profile , getting the idea oot tae the masses . Personally , I doubt electing all indy MPs and MSPs would gar the brit Nat establishment into granting us anything -unless there was international pressure- petitions , marches , boycotts , would all be noticeable world wide across the world an wi oor ain folk.

      Get aff her knees!

    3. Actually at this time it might be more productive to protest at Holyrood. A bit like the climate change protesters. It would be quite something if the SNP are seen complaining about (and not supporting) independence activists demanding that the SNP government plot a proper route to independence……. A de facto referendum election would be a start in terms of demands.

  5. Hi James, I appreciate that the new FM is not the most popular among the public and note that one of your options is to make Alba more appealing to a wider portion of the electorate. Does having Salmond as it’s figurehead not make this hard given that he is arguably less popular than Yousaf and what would be your proposal to address this?

    1. There's no proposal because there's nothing to address. The reason Yousaf's personal unpopularity is such a severe problem for the SNP is that they can't afford to fall below 40% of the vote (arguably 45%). That's not the position Alba are in - the first objective for Alba is to win list seats, which can be done with as little as 5-6% of the vote, meaning that we'd only need a minority of the people who do have a favourable opinion of Alex Salmond in the polls. We'd be absolutely nuts to remove him as leader, not least because he's the only reason the media give us, as a small party, any coverage at all. Withoit that coverage, we could wither away as a party very quickly. It wouldn't be worth the risk unless there was some other political heavyweight to turn to, such as Joanna Cherry, and to the best of my knowledge there's no indication that she will leave the SNP.

  6. The National are reporting a new poll, James. Any information... apparently shows an increase in SNP voting intentions?....

    1. I'm in the middle of my dinner, but I'll have a look as soon as I can.

    2. Right, I've checked, and with all due respect to The National, they'll end up getting a visit from the polling health inspectors if they make a habit of what they've done in that piece. They seem to be presenting a tiny subsample as if it was a poll.

  7. Why is the practical end of the SNP unimaginable when the practical end of the Union is imaginable?

    The latter has been around a lot longer and has a whole middle-power government in London which supports its continued existence. The former is just, like, some guys. Why not be consistent in the application of radicalism?

    1. The answer to your first question is actually pretty simple: because there is roughly 48% support for ending the Union, but only roughly 2% (or 5% at the very most) support for replacing the SNP as the leading indy party.

  8. Alba should do a targetted approach st Westminster elections.

    Challenge only nawbag snp or team humza backers SNP... many id like to see stay. Cherrz MacNeol, Chapman, Whitford.....

    The go list is much bigger
    Comfy slippers, Smyth, Stewart Mcdonald......

    1. By target them, you mean split the vote and try to get them replaced by Labour and Tory MPs? How does that help?