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...
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.