Robin McAlpine: 7 suggestions for the SNP – because we need you


CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the SNP must avoid falling into traps over the next five years and make sure the road to independence stays on course

ONE thing in all the spats between different parts of the indy movement during the election with which I definitely agreed is that our only hope for independence is via an SNP government. No-one else likely to be in power will give us that chance. Full stop.

But there is a very important flip-side to that fact – which is that if the SNP screws up, we’re all screwed. By definition, if the SNP is the only hope for independence, it also has the potential to be the biggest single threat to independence. It must succeed on both a strong domestic agenda and also a powerful independence message while avoiding scandal. If it doesn’t, we’re in trouble.

Some of this column will sound critical. Some you may not agree with it. I try not to criticise for the sake of it and hope my comments can be taken constructively. They are all based on many, many conversations with SNP members and politicians at all kinds of levels in the party.

I very much want the Scottish Government to succeed both in making Scotland a more equal country and in getting us towards independence. So here are seven suggestions about how the SNP can make sure it doesn’t get lost or get into trouble over the next five years.

1. Liven things up a bit

First, please don’t be boring. I can’t emphasise this enough. The UK-supporting media has, since the election, tried always to report Scotland as if it is back to being a region. Every time it tells us to stick to what it calls bread-and-butter issues like minor managerial matters in health and education, it is really telling us to stick to ‘making the tea’ and not to get above ourselves.

They love all this dry, administrative stuff because it makes us look like a glorified local authority and not like a nation-in-waiting. The more boring Scotland is, the worse for people who want change.

So keep going on about how being competent is the most important thing (as if any of us are encouraging the SNP to be incompetent…). But don’t be surprised if people think you look a little bit too comfortable with the status quo.

Scotland needs big ideas delivered in an era-defining way. The confidence to take the final big step into independence relies on people becoming confident in taking all the slightly smaller steps between here and there. Boring is what people do when they’re happy with the status quo. No accountant successfully led anyone into battle.

2. Know the difference between tactics and strategy

The SNP has become world-class adept at tactics, the actions of looking directly in front of you, seeing what is there and working out how to use it to your best advantage.

Tactics can get you through elections. Tactics can get you through the day. But they seldom get you to a destination. Because often, to reach a destination, you require more than what falls into your lap. You need to do more than exploit the conditions, you often need to create the conditions.

That’s where strategy comes in – not just being ready to respond to what happens next but being alert and clear-sighted enough to act now to try and define what happens next. The SNP is a past master at tactics. I am a lot less convinced that it is good strategically. I don’t want the SNP to promise to campaign for a referendum if there is some external ‘trigger’, I want to know how the SNP is going to create the trigger, put the future firmly in our hands, not fate’s.

3. Get some consistency

Third, I’d really like it if the SNP could guide its next five years in government by sticking to a consistent analysis. At the moment SNP policy often looks like it has a different analysis of what problem it is solving depending on what mood it’s in.

For example, I think the SNP is literally the only party in the western world which opposes austerity, but which believes a means of achieving that might be a massive publicly-funded subsidy to the aviation industry .

I keep wanting to hear a consistent analysis of why we have poverty, inequality and an educational attainment gap which could then inform policy responses. Without some kind of understanding of exactly what is wrong, it often looks to me like the SNP leadership get caught in ‘do something, anything’ mode.

The big problem is that this just won’t work. Unless you understand the problem, you can’t fix it. The educational attainment gap is not caused by lack of testing of primary school children and will not be fixed by testing them more .

We desperately need SNP policy to work, to achieve things. We need progress. Doing things for the sake of doing things is not the answer.

4. Nurture the talent, don’t be frightened of it

Fourth, always nurture your gene pool. There’s no shortage of commentary on the demise of Scottish Labour, but (for my money) not enough emphasis is placed on ‘the Habsburgs effect’. The Habsburg dynasty interminably intermarried until eventually they faced genetic mutations as a result of a lack of diversity of genes (the so-called Habsburg chin).

With fewer and fewer people running the party with less and less democracy, Labour diminished its gene pool and their version of the Habsburg chin could be seen in their unpredictable policy lurches and all over their back benches.

This is a big potential risk to the SNP, which is becoming an awfully centralised institution. I know that there are ministers who don’t know how policy is developed or where it comes from. I know there is widespread unease at the way party members are treated as cannon fodder, trusted to put a leaflet of a baby through a door but not to have any say or influence over any real party decisions.

I know that a group of Scotland’s most esteemed educational academics were in one room and universally expressed incomprehension at how the primary school test policy was arrived at, a policy opposed by everyone apart from the Tories and the Scotsman.

The SNP lacks big, intellectual figures, seems a bit suspicious of external voices and doesn’t have a structured way for party members to discuss and influence policy. I fear that primary school testing may be an early sign of SNP Habsburg chin.

5. Get better at problem solving

Which leads to suggestion five – own problems and fix them, don’t always deny them and try to make them go away. When Nicola Sturgeon was health minister one of the reasons she was so good was that she was quick to accept failures and mistakes in the system and moved to resolve them.

Unfortunately, there has been increasing signs that when the SNP comes across a problem (internal discontent with policy or agendas, complaints of bullying or bad behaviour, external criticism of its policy decisions), its first reaction is to get its back against a wall and get ready to fight.

Now I am not unsympathetic – no government I can remember has had such a hysterical and oppositional media to deal with. It can make the best of us defensive to be permanently criticised unfairly.

But pride and a desire to control everything will get the SNP leadership into trouble if it isn’t careful. Nicola has enough clout and trust to resolve any issue in her party if she engages with it (or instructs others to engage). And she is strong enough to backtrack where it is leading her into trouble (look at what is happening with the campaign against primary school testing in England and tell me that is something the Scottish Government wants to get dragged into up here).

6. Resist corporate influence

Six, in the immortal works of Cindy Lauper, money ruins everything. Probably the biggest threat of all is that the SNP gets mired in a sense of sleaze and insider access. The party has too many former staffers raking it in in the private sector, using their insider knowledge and contacts to their and their clients commercial benefit.

Yes, some of these people have been party stalwarts, served the party and the movement well and have many strong (and deservedly so) friendships across the party. But they chose to work for the other side and that’s how the must be treated. If they are seen to get clients like Ineos preferential access to politicians, the SNP will be tarred with the Tony Blair brush very quickly.

It’s tough, but it’s necessary – they (and the networked business interests surrounding government) are a conflict of interest and must be kept at arms length. They’ll have their enormous salaries to keep them company.

7. Be different – be Scottish

Finally, be different, be Scottish. The more Scotland creates its own solutions, its own approaches and its own political culture, the more independent we become. The more we import half-baked ideas from London, fear drifting from ‘the UK norm’, look to England every time we want a big-name policy tsar, the more dependent we look.

Of course, the unionists are railing against public funding for a distinct Scottish culture and a proud, confident Scottish arts scene – because it’s a threat to them. When they say ‘don’t be parochial’ what they really mean is ‘please stop existing’.

It is a little ironic that in the election campaign, particularly on tax policy, the SNP clung onto the UK’s position for safety. Of all the world of possibilities, they chose to define the UK’s awful tax system as the one by which we measure ourselves. From somewhere beyond the political grave, Better Together must be enjoying a chuckle.

It seems to me that Scotland is ready to be different. It would be a problem if it isn’t allowed to be different.

These are some of my observations. I hope you find them useful – in some way or another. Third term governments must find ways to renew themselves while in office or face decline. We need the SNP. We simply can’t afford decline.

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Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine