SOMETHING IS ROTTEN in the devolved sub-state of Scotland. Or at least, allegations to that effect refuse to subside and dominate today’s headlines. This last weekend has seen two high profile resignations from the SNP NEC, centring on complaints about financial transparency. Perhaps more damagingly (as I will explain), Marco Biagi resigned from his post heading up the party’s “independence taskforce”, describing it as the “worst job I’ve ever had”.
Such jostling matters more than it should thanks to the peculiar structure of Scottish party politics. With the SNP dominating the Scottish Parliament, the real battle for power has centred on what happens within the ruling party. Centralised decision making often has a pressure cooker effect, and so it has proved in the SNP, where leadership by acclaim has given way to vicious factionalism.
The crisis peaked at internal elections last November, when a slate of Common Weal Group candidates displaced leadership favourites including Alyn Smith. Criticisms of Nicola Sturgeon’s reign were pervasive but ideologically confused, with concerns ranging from gender politics to neoliberal economics; however, the bloc was united by worries about the pace of independence, internal democracy and a perception of excessive power vested in the Sturgeon-Murrell household.
Sturgeon’s saviour, ironically, was her mentor turned nemesis Alex Salmond. The re-emergence of this split caused much of liberal Scotland to rally (almost uncritically) to the First Minister’s side. Later, Salmond’s Alba Party would act as a fly trap to the SNP’s most disputatious voices, without making a commensurate breakthrough at the elections.
The two resignations from the NEC may merely reflect the last residues of the failed assault. That exodus left the likes of Joanna Cherry isolated and this represents a last, petulant gasp: if you take a shot at Scotland’s liberal Kween, you’d better not miss; so, at least, will be the narrative sold by Sturgeon’s supporters. Fair or not, it will appease all but a minority of the movement.
Biagi, who was selected by party chiefs rather than emerging from a dissident slate, represents a more peculiar case. Party insiders presented him (always unconvincingly) as something of an independence supremo, charged with revamping the Yes case and devising a new campaigning model.
Yet more than Cherry’s and Chapman’s, Biagi’s resignation is marked by bitterness. He expressed his disappointment that Edinburgh Central SNP would “rather have a pompous impressionable idiot than me” (a presumable reference to leadership favourite Angus Robertson). Meanwhile an SNP source slammed Biagi, sold mere months ago as the man to “fire up” the movement, as “ineffective”.
There is a thread linking criticisms about financial transparency with Biagi’s resignation. Both centre on claims that the SNP is not making preparations for a referendum this term. This is no small matter, because beliefs about Sturgeon’s intentions form the founding narratives both of the nationalist government and of the unionist opposition. To critics, it suggests that the appearance of debate inside the Scottish Parliament is nothing but a mutually convenient grift.
SNP insiders would dispute this narrative. They claim their accounts are audited and that plans are underway for a referendum. Time will tell, but where have we heard that one before?