She can run from the I-word, but she can’t hide

Pun­ished at the polls and hu­mil­i­ated by the Tories, the SNP is suf­fer­ing from PTSD, says Nicola Stur­geon’s for­mer speech­writer...

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Comment - By AN­DREW COLLIER

SCOT­LAND’S First Min­is­ter is not known as a gam­bler. Every de­ci­sion she makes has been cal­cu­lated and re­fined un­til it is pol­ished like the but­tons on a military dress uni­form. Nicola Stur­geon trusts her own judg­ment: the bur­den of state is of­ten car­ried by her alone. Po­ten­tial prob­lems are men­tally gamed and re-gamed to min­imise or elim­i­nate risk. This deep, ex­is­ten­tial cau­tion gives her the con­fi­dence – brash­ness, even – to sur­vive and pros­per at the very top of Scot­tish pol­i­tics.

To­day, though, Scot­land’s most im­por­tant politi­cian faces the great­est chal­lenge of her ca­reer. As the SNP gath­ers this morn­ing for its an­nual con­fer­ence in Glas­gow, she will have to rally a party firmly on the back foot af­ter its worst year since the near-wipe­out of its MPs in the poll of 1979. It is not a sit­u­a­tion she or her ador­ing faith­ful are used to.

The na­tion­al­ists are still suf­fer­ing post-trau­matic stress disor­der from their ham­mer­ing at the Gen­eral Elec­tion in June, los­ing 21 of their 56 West­min­ster seats, in­clud­ing those held by for­mer First Min­is­ter Alex Sal­mond and Com­mons leader An­gus Robertson.

At the same time, the na­tion­al­ists had to suf­fer the in­dig­nity of Ruth David­son’s Tories, pre­vi­ously writ­ten off as toxic in Scot­land for a gen­er­a­tion, rais­ing their tally from one to 13. Even Labour, ex­pected to dis­in­te­grate, won an un­ex­pected Cor­byn bounce, go­ing up from a sin­gle seat to seven.

IT would be un­fair to say all this threw the SNP into melt­down. They still hold the ma­jor­ity of Scot­tish seats at West­min­ster and re­main in gov­ern­ment at Holy­rood. But it was a col­lapse in sup­port that Miss Stur­geon had – in­cred­i­bly, given her usual fer­vour for care­ful anal­y­sis – not seen com­ing.

The rea­son? This most ju­di­cious and guile­ful of politi­cians com­pletely over­played her hand af­ter last year’s Brexit vote, in which Scot­land voted strongly to Re­main.

In­stead of ex­haus­tively ex­am­in­ing the polling statis­tics, which re­vealed the real un­der­cur­rents and that per­haps a third of her party’s sup­port­ers backed leav­ing the EU, she in­stantly pushed for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence.

It was a dread­ful and op­por­tunis­tic mis­take and Scot­tish vot­ers, tired of be­ing re­peat­edly dragged to the polls and want­ing to spend a bit of time rest­ing in the elec­toral re­cov­ery ward, pun­ished her for it.

They also wanted to see far more of a fo­cus on the do­mes­tic agenda where, with ed­u­ca­tion and health in par­tic­u­lar un­der huge pres­sure and crit­i­cism, there is a real and an­gry de­mand for ac­tion and for mea­sur­able im­prove­ments from the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment.

This febrile public mood has forced a dra­matic and un­char­ac­ter­is­tic turn­around. She has had to re­think plans for an­other ref­er­en­dum, which might have come as early as next au­tumn, and kick the whole idea into the long grass.

This leaves the SNP in a sur­real po­si­tion at this con­fer­ence. The party which has a de­sire for an in­de­pen­dent Scot­land hard-wired into its DNA – in­deed, some might say that is the only rea­son for its ex­is­tence – will not for­mally dis­cuss ei­ther in­de­pen­dence or an­other ref­er­en­dum.

Cer­tainly there is no short­age of con­fer­ence mo­tions. Del­e­gates will doubt­less be an­i­mated by the de­bates on press­ing is­sues such as com­mu­nal main­te­nance of ten­e­ments, co­hab­it­ing cou­ples with de­pen­dent chil­dren, au­to­matic voter reg­is­tra­tion and VAT on san­i­tary prod­ucts.

But of the one sub­ject which binds the SNP’s 118,000 mem­bers to­gether, and on which many would stum­ble into the last ditch ral­ly­ing around the time­less cry of ‘Free­dom!’, there is barely a men­tion.

Both the I word and the R word have been air­brushed from his­tory. In­cred­i­bly, they do not even ap­pear in Miss Stur­geon’s own writ­ten con­fer­ence wel­come which talks merely of be­ing at ‘the start of a new chap­ter’ and ‘mak­ing progress’. This is not, it must be said, the stuff of which Get­tys­burg Ad­dresses are made.

It used to be so dif­fer­ent. Un­til last year, I worked for the SNP in var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tions roles, in­clud­ing as speech­writer for the heady days of her ap­pear­ance in front of 12,000 peo­ple at Glas­gow’s SSE Hy­dro arena in Novem­ber 2014. She had just taken over as First Min­is­ter and any­thing seemed pos­si­ble. The words I drafted and she re­fined re­flected that. They spoke of it be­ing a great time to be alive in Scot­land, and of a democ­racy more vi­brant than prob­a­bly any­where else in Europe. That en­ergy now seems long ago and far away.

OF course, talk of in­de­pen­dence can­not be elim­i­nated from this con­fer­ence. In­deed, it will be ev­ery­where – at fringe events, in the bars, in an­i­mated dis­cus­sions in cor­ners. But among many of the faith­ful, there will be real frus­tra­tion that dis­cus­sion of it does not have of­fi­cial sanc­tion on the con­fer­ence plat­form.

There is also a growing ir­ri­ta­tion in some parts of the party at the First Min­is­ter’s man­age­ment style. She is seen as too cen­tral­is­ing, too se­cre­tive and too pres­i­den­tial. She main­tains an in­ner cir­cle so tight, they com­plain, that few know who is even in it, and she op­er­ates with young, in­ex­pe­ri­enced ad­vis­ers cho­sen for loy­alty.

Her re­la­tion­ship with her hus­band Peter Mur­rell, SNP chief ex­ec­u­tive, has also caused un­ease. Their roles – she in charge of gov­ern­ment, he in charge of the party or­gan­i­sa­tion – should not cross over, but there are pri­vate wor­ries that as a pair, they form a con­trol­ling dy­nasty from which oth­ers can eas­ily be ex­cluded. Fur­ther­more, Mr Mur­rell is at least partly blamed for the June elec­tion de­ba­cle. Most ex­ter­nal ob­servers at this con­fer­ence, though, will not see or hear any of this. The SNP still main­tains a re­mark­able in­ter­nal dis­ci­pline and its dirty linen is most as­suredly not washed in public. When Miss Stur­geon de­liv­ers her key­note ad­dress on Tues­day, she will be cheered un­til the roof rat­tles. This is a party which looks af­ter its own.

How­ever, it is not the au­di­ence in­side, but the mil­lions of ordinary Scots out­side, who need to be con­vinced.

She can run from the Great In­de­pen­dence Ques­tion, but she can’t hide.

She has to say some­thing about an­other ref­er­en­dum, whether that be re­veal­ing her plans and timescale or ad­mit­ting she is park­ing it in­def­i­nitely. If she fails to do so she will be judged both a fool and a knave, her foot soldiers fur­ther disil­lu­sioned and her cred­i­bil­ity again un­der­mined.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the SNP con­fer­ence ends with a mass ren­di­tion of Burns’ homily to Scot­land’s me­dieval Wars of In­de­pen­dence, Scots Wha Hae. Its un­com­pro­mis­ing po­etry talks of Scots be­ing wel­come ‘to your gory bed – or to vic­tory’.

This year, for Miss Stur­geon, these words have a sober­ing and por­ten­tous res­o­nance. She stands at a cross­roads and has a cru­cial, el­e­men­tal choice to make: the glory of in­de­pen­dence, or the gore of fur­ther de­clin­ing for­tunes and her own even­tual de­feat?

Whether a sec­ond in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum will turn out to be her Ban­nock­burn or her Cul­lo­den, only time and for­tune will tell.

But for her own sake and that of her be­lea­guered party, she had bet­ter make sure that the jour­ney back to the SNP’s sun­lit up­lands starts to­day.

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