Category Archives: SNP

Is the SNP suffering from acute Labouritis?

sick patient photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images
All political parties over a certain size are essentially coalitions. Their members generally agree on some questions but disagree wildly on others. So long as the questions they disagree on aren’t too important, the party can hold together.

If the national agenda changes, however, the conflicts might be brought to the forefront, and as a result the party will suffer, as Labour discovered a few years ago. Labour members tended to agree on for instance education and poverty, but they simply didn’t see eye to eye on Scottish independence. So when the independence referendum was called and was felt to be higher up the agenda than education policy, the party essentially fell apart. Labour’s best chance is to make the Scottish independence question go away and make people concentrate on education and poverty again, rather than seeing these issues through an independence lens. (To some extent Corbyn has succeeded with this, convincing some left-wing Yessers to vote for Labour.)

If we call this condition Labouritis, I do wonder whether it’s fair to argue that the SNP has caught a milder dose of the disease after the Brexit referendum. Of course the SNP isn’t split down the middle, but it’s clear that there is a vocal minority of members (perhaps up to 30% of them) that are opposed to the EU and definitely don’t want to leave a post-Brexit UK in order to rejoin the EU.

As a result, I’m sensing that the SNP over the past year has gone from being a shining pro-EU beacon that made EU citizens in Scotland (like me) feel enormously better than our compatriots in the rUK, to being an uninspiring entity that tries not to offend too many people, making EU citizens in Scotland reconsider their future here. (It’s entirely clear that the SNP leadership is on our side, but they often feel rather tongue-tied, probably because some of their own members fight them every time they say something nice and coherent about the EU.)

It’s actually quite simple: If the SNP tries to keep all its members happy, they will send out conflicting signals, for instance by talking simultaneously about the importance of the EU and about wanting to join EFTA instead. The risk is that they end up appealing to nobody, so that the voters that prioritise the EU join the Greens or the Lib Dems, and the ones that are against EU membership jump ship for Corbyn’s Labour, or even for the Tories.

On the other hand, if the SNP prioritises the majority view, campaigning strongly for an independent Scotland within the EU, it might lose 30% of its members, but at least the rest will feel motivated, and the it might also attract pro-EU voters from other parties.

The alternative is to hope that the Brexit question goes away, by convincing the UK as a whole to remain within the EU. If that could be achieved, the fundamental disagreement within the SNP would again be hidden from view.

I don’t know what the best way forward is for the SNP, but I don’t think Labour’s cure for Labouritis was very effective. I hope a better remedy can be found for the SNP’s ailment. It’s possible that two pro-independence parties (one in favour of the EU and the other one against it) would do better than a broad church – but of course such a split will be disastrous in Westminster elections conducted using the FPTP electoral system.

Election reflexions

reflections photo
Photo by Theophilos
The SNP has lost a lot of excellent MPs, and Westminster will be poorer without them. Amongst them, my local MP – Kirsten Oswald – was a wonderful, hard-working MP who actually lived in the constituency, and her replacement is a young Tory who is unlikely to make a difference. It’s sad.

However, I’m not really surprised that the SNP had a bad election. You cannot tell the voters the election isn’t really about independence and then be surprised if they either stay at home or vote for a UK-wide party. I think many people in the SNP had convinced themselves that people were voting for them mainly because they liked their policies, when in reality they did so because they wanted independence soon. The rapper Loki’s tweet about his vote perhaps sums this up well:

Last weekend’s independence march in Glasgow showed the appetite for independence is still there, but the SNP seemed afraid of embracing it. As a result, left-wingers swung back to Labour, right-wingers went to the Tories, and many Remain voters opted for the Lib Dems. And of course, many people stayed at home (turnout in Scotland was down from 71.1% to 66.4%).

During the first independence referendum, we mobilised the young and the non-voters. Corbyn learnt from that, and to great success. However, it appears that the SNP is forgetting the lesson. Being a bland, centralised, slightly-left-of-centre party simply doesn’t inspire people. As Wee Ginger Dug put it:

The truth is that the SNP campaign was weak, lacking in focus, and didn’t resonate with the electorate. There was no vision being given, no dream, too often it seemed that they were simply going through the motions. “Stronger for Scotland” isn’t a vision, isn’t a story. People need a story, and all the SNP offered was a soundbite. It’s not enough. We need to paint a picture of a better country, we need to tell its story and sing its songs and make it live in the imagination.

The SNP probably also needs to realise that it simply cannot appeal to its old North-East stronghold at the same time as the Central Belt. Aberdeenshire seems to be full of former SNP voters who voted Leave, and appealing to them means that the party needs to shift right and against the EU; however, if they do that, other voters will disappear.

Personally I believe the SNP should continue being a left-wing, pro-EU party and simply realise that it won’t ever get many votes in the North East again. However, others might prefer it to return to its roots, but then most of the Central Belt is likely to return to Labour and other parties. As I wrote back in September, discussing the next independence referendum, rather than the SNP:

[T]he potential problem for [ScotRef] is that you can’t create a successful coalition of [Yes–Leave, Yes–Remain and No–Remain]: As soon as you start appealing to the [No–Remainers], the [Yes–Leavers] will walk out in disgust, and vice versa. It’s already very clear that the [Yes–Leavers] are deeply unhappy about [ScotRef] being run on the basis of continued EU membership. On the other hand, if we focus too much on keeping the [Yes–Leavers] on board, we’ll be unable to appeal to the [No–Remainers].

Apparently some SNP people are already suggesting that ScotRef should be delayed. I think that would be disastrous. If the SNP stops pursuing independence, even more people will swing back to Unionist parties, and the activists will feel utterly demoralised.

We need to return to the happy, hopeful days of 2014, when we were inspiring so many people who had never been interested in politics before, and having a plan for independence in Europe has to be part of that.

The irrelevance of the main political axis of the 20th century

This is the world we all grew up in. The red circle is the large left-wing party (Labour in the UK, Socialdemokratiet in Denmark, SPD in Germany, The Socialists in France, the Democrats in the US, etc.); the blue circle is the dominant right-wing party (The Tories in the UK, Venstre + De Konservative in Denmark, CDU/CSU in Germany, various parties in France over time, the Republicans in the US, etc.). The yellow circle is the small liberal party that many countries had (the Liberal Democrats in the UK, Det radikale Venstre in Denmark, FDP in Germany, various parties in France), and the purple circle represents the populist/nationalist (also called far-right) parties that sprung up in many countries towards the end of the 20th century (UKIP in the UK, Dansk Folkeparti in Denmark, Front National in France). Of course there were also other parties in many places, but these were recognisable groupings in most countries.
In most democracies, politics in the past century was dominated by two large parties – a socialist or social-democratic party on the left and a conservative one on the right – as well as a few smaller parties (see the first figure on the right). The parties themselves had many different names, and they could be further left or right depending on the country, but that was the normal pattern.

However, it seems to me that we’re moving towards a new configuration, dominated by different questions. The main reason for the change is probably that the left-wing parties to a large extent gave up on socialism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by a general acceptance of globalisation by all mainstream parties, which again bred resentment when it failed to create prosperity for all.

This is the world we seem to be moving towards: A large party that is liberal, pro-globalisation, pro-EU, in favour of protecting the environment, but hard to pin down on the left/right axis (the yellow circle). Macron’s En Marche and the SNP in Scotland are perhaps the best examples of this new movement. Opposing this is another large party that is authoritarian, anti-globalisation, anti-EU, anti-immigration and weak on environmental protection. France’s Front National is a great example of this, but it would also appear that Theresa May’s Tories are becoming this kind of party. There might still be small old-fashioned left-wing parties, such as Mélenchon’s La France insoumise in France and perhaps Corbyn’s version of the Labour party in the UK, as well as corresponding right-wing parties, such as Les Républicains in France.
The main political axis now seems to be authoritarian/anti-globalisation/anti-immigration/anti-green vs. liberal/pro-globalisation/pro-immigration/green (see the illustration on the left).

The country that demonstrates the new set-up best is probably France, where Macron’s En Marche and Le Pen’s Front National now are the leading political forces, supplemented by smaller left-wing and right-wing parties. It’s interesting Macron is called a centrist and Le Pen is characterised as far right, because they really aren’t that far apart on the old left/right axis, whereas they’re miles apart on the new axis. I think we might need new names that are as easy to relate to as left and right, but I’ve haven’t seen any good suggestions yet.

The SNP is also a decent example of a modern global-liberal party (it really isn’t a nationalist party in spite of its name, but simply a liberal pro-EU party that happens to be in favour of Scottish sovereignty), although Scotland as a whole hasn’t rearranged the political spectrum yet.

In England, it appears that the Tories under Theresa May are swallowing up UKIP and are becoming a proper authoritarian anti-globalisation party – it is interesting how the Tory manifesto is moving them strongly towards authoritarianism (e.g., ID cards and Internet censorship) and anti-globalisation (cutting immigration and preparing the country for a hard Brexit), while softening up on right-wing policies (increasing the minimum wage and capping energy prices). However, many right-wing liberals are probably still voting Tory, and the opposition hasn’t regrouped at all, which is why the Conservatives are likely to get an enormous majority. That wouldn’t be the case if they were facing a unified opposition along the lines of En Marche or the SNP.

I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that major changes like this one can come about. In the 19th century, British political battles were between Whigs and Tories, and later between Liberals and Conservatives, and many of the biggest questions (like voting rights and free trade) were not easy to place on a left/right axis. The world is changing dramatically, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the fundamental political questions change, too.

It creates enormous problems for parties that don’t adjust to the new questions, but it’s also is a colossal opportunity for those that do.

There’s more than one way to do it!

Perl Camel
Perl Camel.
Some of my fellow Nats seem to be going rather mental about the crowd-funded anti-BBC billboards.

I have a few observations to make in that connexion:

Firstly, I think we all have to learn to campaign and let campaign – we shouldn’t waste our time criticising other people’s campaigning efforts but instead spend our time doing what we think is right. After all, as Perl programmers are fond of saying, there’s more than one way to do it. Also, nobody can know for sure what will work till afterwards.

I tend to think that one of the main reasons why the Yes parties didn’t do better at the last Holyrood election is that people spent far too much time arguing about the merits of “both votes SNP” versus “second vote Green”, rather than taking the fight to the Unionists.

Secondly, the main reason why some activists spent some of their hard-earned money on these billboards is that they’re frustrated so little campaigning is happening. If Yes Scotland II had already been up and running (hopefully using a better name than that!), spewing out campaign materials and putting up billboards, the vast majority of people would simply back them up and send their money to them. It’s because nothing is happening that people get frustrated and start doing things on their own.

Activists aren’t employees that can be commanded to do something different by their manager. They need to see that something is happening, especially when the situation in the UK post-Brexit is so dire and so ripe for a change for the better.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that this shows that Tommy Sheppard’s idea about paid organisers in the SNP was right. I’m not so sure. I agree community organisers would be really useful, but they’d have to work with the wider Yes movement, not just with the SNP. I can’t imagine that those Yes activists who aren’t members of the SNP would take very kindly to getting told not to undertake certain campaigning activities by a paid SNP organiser.

The two last points show why we need Yes Scotland II to get up and running as matter of priority. We need somebody to produce campaign materials (and of course the SNP cannot really do that before they call the referendum), and the Yes movement community organisers need to be employed by some organisation other than a political party.

In the meantime, we should all focus on campaigning for a Yes vote in the next referendum, not on criticising each other. There’s more than one way to do it.

The Blue Tribe of Scotland

I thought I’d have a closer look at the four tribes of Scotland as described in my two earlier blog posts.

I defined the Blue Tribe as “the 33% of voters who want Scotland to be an independent country inside the EU [mnemonic: blue as the Saltire and the EU flag]”.

The Blue Tribe of Scotland encompasses a spectrum of people, ranging from people who’re closer to the Yellow Tribe and are relatively happy to put up with an independent Scotland being outside the EU so long as we get independence, to people who’re closer to the Green Tribe and only want to see Scottish independence within Europe, not without.

The Blue Tribe is the only one of the four tribes that has lost two referendums in short order, first the Indyref and then the Brexit vote. As a result, many of its members are getting a bit paranoid and are wanting to play it safe, calling Indyref2 only when victory is practically ensured. Although I’m a Blue myself, I do wonder whether this ultra-cautious approach is going to cause us to miss the boat by delaying the next independence referendum for too long.

Both the SNP and the Green Party are dominated by the Blue Tribe. However, the SNP also contains most of the Yellow Tribe, and the Green Party also contains a good number of Green Tribe members, so it would perhaps be more accurate to think of the SNP as a Yellow-Blue Party and the Green Party as belonging to the Green-Blues. As a result, the SNP is now perhaps finding it harder to rally all its members behind a new referendum than the Green Party.

It would probably be fair to describe the Blue Tribe as internationalist civic nationalists, and most of its members are probably as far removed from ethnic nationalism as you can get, which of course made them rather angry during the last Indyref when they were accused of being blood-and-soil nationalists.

So although this tribe is the one which has dominated Scottish politics for the past decade, its members are feeling rather paranoid and under attack. This will probably not change till we win Indyref2.

Fisking Alex Neil’s article

Minión asegurado
Minión asegurado.
I mentioned Alex Neil’s article (“How my party leader Nicola Sturgeon could get ‘neo-independence’ from Brexit – without another referendum”) in my post about the Yellow Tribe of Scotland. However, his article seems to be attracting some support and I thought it’d be useful to look at it in more detail, so here’s a fisk of the main parts:

Three months on from the EU referendum it is blatantly obvious the UK Government hasn’t got a clue about how or when to proceed with Brexit. […] The Scottish Government has therefore got a golden opportunity, which it should not let slip, to fill the void by putting Scotland’s Brexit demands at the top of the UK/EU negotiations agenda and doing so now. Rather than wait until Theresa May eventually gets her act together, the Scottish Government should immediately publish its “List of Scottish Demands” for the Brexit negotiations. […]

Yes, fair enough, but it can easily seem like an acceptance of Brexit if the demands don’t go far enough, and it can easily undermine any effort to call a new independence referendum. It also means accepting Westminster’s view that it’s irrelevant that a large majority of Scots voted against Brexit, instead of insisting that the Scottish people is sovereign and voted to Remain.

Top of the list of Scottish demands should be the transfer of the powers being repatriated from Brussels, as they relate to Scotland, to the Scottish Parliament; not Westminster. All the powers relating to existing devolved matters, such as farming and fishing, should automatically transfer to Edinburgh. Brexit also provides the ideal opportunity to devolve all the other powers currently controlled by Brussels to the Scottish Parliament.

The problem with this is that it’s completely contrary to making Scotland an independent country within the EU. Basically, if Westminster is currently in charge of A, B and C, and the EU is in charge of D, E and F, an independent Scotland within the EU would take over A, B and C rather than D, E and F, so if we follow Alex Neil’s proposal, once we leave the UK and join the EU, we’ll have to swap A, B and C for D, E and F instead of simply taking over A, B and C. That doesn’t seem very sensible, especially not if Scottish independence is expected to happen within a decade or so. I can only interpret this as a way to sabotage any subsequent move to rejoin the European Union.

This would include powers currently exercised by the EU covering employment laws and workers’ rights, environmental protection, social policy, consumer protection, certain aspects of transport policy, some aspects of energy policy, public health matters, and certain aspects of justice and home affairs policies as well as external affairs.

So basically Scotland would take over legislation that was already harmonised with the EU and then start changing it to make it different? Or would we try to keep it in sync with EU legislation? I rather suspect Mr. Neil has the former in mind.

Finally a range of other powers which haven’t been devolved to Scotland because of EU rules should also be transferred to Edinburgh. The most important of these would be giving the Scottish Parliament full control over Value Added Tax (VAT).

This actually would be OK, because the EU does allow the various member states to set their own rates. The reason Scotland hasn’t been able to do that is because the EU requires one set of rates per member state. So rejoining the EU while having different VAT rates from the rUK wouldn’t be a problem.

The UK Leave Campaign’s promise during the referendum that if the UK voted for Brexit then Scotland would get control over immigration policy must also be honoured and included in Scotland’s List of Demands.

I believe this has already been shot down by Westminster, but it was probably always going to be a non-starter so long as the UK doesn’t issue residence permits that are only valid for specific places – otherwise everybody wanting to move to England would simple go via Scotland if that was easier. From an EU perspective, this shouldn’t be a problem so long as Scotland maintains a less restrictive policy than the rUK.

The second item on Scotland’s List of Demands should be the transfer of all the funding associated with these new powers mentioned above, including Scotland’s share of the UK annual contributions to the EU budget, itself estimated by the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre to be worth around £800 million a year net of all the funding Scotland currently gets from the EU. With this money, post-Brexit the Scottish Government could continue to finance all the projects currently supported by the EU in Scotland to the same level of funding as at present and still have another £800 million per annum or so left over to invest as we choose.

To be honest, this reminds me of the Leave campaign’s infamous promise of £350m to fund the NHS (which was later disowned). Given that the UK is likely to lose an enormous amount of money due to Brexit, the reality is more likely to be a cut to the block grant going to Scotland.

In other words, the Scottish farmers would be expecting replacement subsidies from the Scottish Government, which unfortunately wouldn’t have any money to pay them. That doesn’t sound very attractive to me.

Don’t get me wrong – if the Scottish Government could convince Westminster to add all of the above to the block grant, it’d be great, but I don’t think there’s a snowflake’s chance in Hell of that happening.

The accumulation of all these new powers and finances would bring about “neo-Independence” for Scotland, creating the ideal platform for advancing to full sovereignty for the Scottish people in the early 2020’s.

As far as I can tell, these proposals would make it significantly harder for Scotland to join the EU, compared to remaining inside it when the rUK leaves, and this would worry all those voters who think that Scotland needs to be in the EU in order to be successful as an independent country. Furthermore, if the block grant to Scotland goes up, Scotland will get even more dependent on the UK and that would make it even harder to convince people that we can pay our own way after independence.

So far from creating a platform for advancing to independence, I fear Mr. Neil’s proposals would push Scotland even further into UK dependency.

The third key item on Scotland’s List of Demands must be continuing access to the benefits of the European Single Market. Eleven per cent of all goods and services sold furth of Scotland every year go to the EU. These exports support many thousands of jobs in Scotland that we can’t afford to lose; so retaining both free access to this market along with the other benefits of the single market, such as “passporting” for our financial sector, is essential.

Good – the only kind of Brexit I could live with is a soft Brexit, which basically means being an EU member without any influence (like Norway).

However, I’m not entirely sure how this tallies with repatriating “employment laws and workers’ rights, environmental protection, social policy, consumer protection, certain aspects of transport policy, some aspects of energy policy, [and] public health matters”. Some of them, perhaps, but many of these areas are covered by normal EU rules and would have to be adhered to. For instance, this is what Wikipedia writes about the EEA: “The non EU members of the EEA (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) have agreed to enact legislation similar to that passed in the EU in the areas of social policy, consumer protection, environment, company law and statistics. ”

Scotland should continue to benefit from the free movement of people between Europe and Scotland. The crucial role played by people from Europe and elsewhere in the world in staffing some of our key industries such as tourism, agriculture and horticulture has to be protected. There is no reason why Scotland shouldn’t be able to implement its own immigration policy which would allow free movement to continue.

So basically we’d continue to have free movement of EU citizens, as well as freer immigration from the rest of the World. That’s fine, but as I wrote above, I simply cannot see how Westminster will put up with it, given that the main demand of the Leave campaign was for the UK to control its borders. It would entail having completely different immigration policies north and south of the border, which would be fine if Scotland and the rUK were independent countries, but it’s a complete non-starter at the moment.

I’m afraid that much of Alex Neil’s article to me sounds quite delusional and would seriously undermine any effort to achieve Scottish independence in Europe within my lifetime (I’m 44).

Don’t get me wrong – if Scotland could stay within the Internal Market in some sort of Norwegian set-up while the rUK pursued its wild hard Brexit dreams, that’d wouldn’t be too dire, but it would be almost impossible to implement and would depend on Westminster being willing to jump through hoops to make it happen, so I believe it’s a complete non-starter. But very importantly, it’s also completely incompatible with his vision of ‘neo-independence’ within the UK, which makes me suspect that the paragraphs about remaining in the Internal Market have been added to make pro-EU SNP members go along with his proposal.

It’s very clear that the only way we can build a coalition for independence is by focusing on the majority of Scots who want to continue to be part of the EU. Alex Neil’s proposal will only really appeal to the Yellow Tribe, and they only represent 11% of the electorate, so if we go down this road, independence will not happen for another 50 years.

The Yellow Tribe of Scotland

Minions Singing In The Rain
Minions Singing In The Rain.
I thought I’d have a closer look at the four tribes of Scotland as described in my two earlier blog posts.

I defined the Yellow Tribe as “the 11% who want Scotland to be a completely independent country outside both the UK and the EU [mnemonic: yellow as the background on the lion rampant flag, which this group in my experience is very fond of]”, and I speculated that they typically voted Yes to independence and Leave in the Brexit referendum. It’s also the group that Wings over Scotland recently called “the unhappy 11%“.

They’re obviously not a homogenous group. Some members are ultra-idealistic lefties who denounce both the UK and the EU as being neo-liberal conspiracies, others are ethnic nationalists who are romanticising about Scotland’s glorious past, and others again are completely average voters who just don’t see why either union is needed.

Their preferred way forward was described rather well by Alex Neil in The Telegraph (I’m not saying that he is a member of the Yellow Tribe himself — he might or might not be):

Top of the list of Scottish demands should be the transfer of the powers being repatriated from Brussels, as they relate to Scotland, to the Scottish Parliament; not Westminster. […] The accumulation of all these new powers and finances would bring about “neo-Independence” for Scotland, creating the ideal platform for advancing to full sovereignty for the Scottish people in the early 2020’s.

It might sound tempting at a first glance. What is not being said is that it would make it time-consuming and cumbersome to rejoin the EU, because Scotland would in that case have to build a huge apparatus to deal with these power only for them to get delegated back to the EU a few years later.

Because of this, this is a very off-putting prospectus for those voters who prioritise EU membership, including those who voted No to independence two years ago because they thought continued EU membership was secured in that way. This is exactly the group of voters that will be needed to build a winning coalition for independence, so following this piece of advice kicks independence into the very long grass.

Interestingly, I think Theresa May might be eying up the Yellow Tribe, trying to convince them that independence won’t even be needed after Brexit. Here’s what she wrote in Holyrood Magazine:

As we strike that deal, we have an exciting chance to forge a new role in the world. Scotland’s status will not be diminished by that; it will be enhanced.

Although the Yellow voters only make up 11% of population, they’re rather more important within the Scottish National Party for historical reasons. Archive footage of the early SNP events looks like Yellow Tribe meetings. It was probably only when the Independence in Europe policy was adopted in the 1980s that the Blue Tribe began to dominate. However, my gut feeling is that there are many more Yellows amongst the old-timers of the party than amongst those of us who joined more recently.

This is significant because as Wings pointed out, it’s a group that desperately wants to avoid an early Indyref2. They want Brexit to be fully implemented before calling a new referendum, and they most definitely don’t want to see a ballot paper that asks the obvious question: “Should Scotland be an independent country within the European Union?”

Because they dominate amongst the long-term members of the SNP, it’s of course very difficult for the leadership to call an early referendum, because if they do so, their inboxes and voicemail will get inundated by complaints from people who have supported and mentored them since the day they joined the party.

Every political party has a strong instinct to stay united, so if the only way to keep the Yellow Tribe on side is by delaying the referendum till 2025 or so, there’s a strong incentive to do so, even if it means the Green Tribe won’t be converted to independence and Scotland faces economic ruin in the meantime.

At the end of the day, I find it inconceivable that many members of the Yellow Tribe will vote No to independence next time. They might huff and puff, and they might not pull their weight during the campaign, but at the end of the day they should know that campaigning for an independent Scotland to leave the EU will be easier than convincing people to back independence once Independence in Europe is no longer on the table. However, it will take guts for the SNP leadership to call an early referendum when the Yellows are so strongly against it.