Monty Python’s Life of Brian is over thirty years old now and therefore probably unknown to younger generations. Pilloried in its day as sacrilegious, its humour has aged far better than its Carry On… predecessors, especially its shrewd observations on political movements and the tides driving them.
Because, like humour, politics is seldom about being sensible. Indeed irrational emotion and gut feelings continue—despite Iain Macwhirter’s best efforts to introduce logic and the ever-present lure of personal gain—to drive the bulk of political activity in Scotland. Seems to apply elsewhere too.
I was reminded of the sheer irrational gusto of the epinonimous Brian’s unwitting elevation to cult messiah when I caught Derek Bateman’s latest piece encouraging robust debate in the wake of the SNP government’s teflon poll performance, despite some recent wobbles. Derek recently sold his soul to become a columnist at the odious Daily Mail, yet his pithy blogs are required reading for us independistas who don’t swallow every ray of sunshine issued by the SNP Jackson’s Close press eyrie.
Derek’s piece makes the case that open debate is healthy, ergo, it’s time we had some around the SNP government. He also—in my opinion wisely—cautions against the prospects of any premature “Indyref2” and predicts that the influx of new members to the SNP will inject an even more radical, more progressive, tone into internal party debates that may not chime so well with the wider public.
He argues, rightly, that the Scottish public has made unprecedented strides in altering its basic political posture within a handful of years and is in no mood to move much further before this new status quo is better digested. As he puts it: “Gie’s a brekk should be the (SNP) conference slogan for Aberdeen.” Be that as it may, that is not what the SNP nomenklatura need to be considering, even if not yet in public.
As a political force, the SNP has had a wild ride. After a false dawn in the 1970’s, the political purgatory they suffered for two dark decades tested every loyalty and shred of thrawn determination among those members who stayed. Joining the SNP pre-1999 was the choice of the idealist. No-one with either nous or political ambition thought the party offered any route towards success, let alone to the top.
There then followed a rise that was both unpredicted and historic. A prostate out-of-touch Tory party and a smug, ossified Labour Party were both bypassed as if they were standing still. Latterly May’s utter rout of the remnants of both continued this unpredicted, stratospheric pattern of SNP progress.
But, while it may be argued that the unionist parties gifted them the opportunity, the SNP did also earn it. Not only did they have the backbone of indefatigable veterans from the dark years but their constant note of hope and progress inspired younger, imaginative, more ambitious phalanxes, culminating in the party growing from 15,000 to over 100,000 members within a year.
To say this was all planned would say too much. But a tight Praetorian group around Salmond held their nerve and, as far as resources would allow, used technology and marketing to exploit an emotional appeal to Scots that we weren’t too wee, too poor, too incompetent to look after ourselves. Even those to whom the SNP and independence were anathema mostly agreed with such tenets, even if they preferred devolution as the answer.
Once the supposed-impossible happened and the SNP ran the country from 2007, many such skeptics were impressed how the new government displayed a vigour that made previous Labour administrations seem listless and cautious. The apolitical majority found the barbarians ran Rome better than the ossified Senate had. In opposing only by criticism with no coherent set of alternative policies, both Labour and Tories set themselves up for succesive trouncings, culminating in this year’s wipeout.
The key to all of this was SNP internal discipline. Unlike other parties where personal ambition jousted with party loyalty, SNP members and ministers alike had come through hard times together. Like Mao’s colleagues at the end of the Long March, their unity had overcome hardship; they saw cohesion was vital to sustain success.
This was reinforced by budding politicos seeing the SNP for the first time as a plausible vehicle for a successful career. Dozens of new MSPs hired young staff which included many such; this phenomenon grew with the recent equally-large batch of MPs. Few staff, researchers, SPADs, etc have yet made the transition to election (c.f. Ed Balls and his like in Labour) but that’s only a matter of time. Unlike some stroppy old guard, such people are fully aware dissent is not career-enhancing. They shrewdly eschew following either the Dennis Skinners or Dennis Canavans of this world and keep their heads down.
Since the electorate is notoriously brutal about punishing apparently disunited parties, the now legendary discipline of the SNP remains an understandable prority. Former rebels like MacAskill, Blackford and even Salmond himself (albeit long ago) are firmly back in the fold. But the SNP’s problem has evolved. The self-discipline that got them into power is now wavering as they transition from being the rebels to being the Establishment. Personal ambition and natural strains from collective responsibility put pressure on old loyalties. But most still think it better to conform and thus survive, not to innovate.
What has saved the SNP so far has been an effective small cabal who run the show, plus the self-interest of many now in paid positions under their tutelage. This balance has been at the expense of having other power centres; in contrast, Lanarkshire Labour was a law unto itself in its neanderthal attitudes and buggins-turn hierarchies,. The SNP has left their 400+ councillors largely ignored and still without a serious power base.
Such a balance of focussed core vs relatively docile hinterland works well so far. A number of centrist initiatives (MacAskill in the Justice brief, for example) have gone badly off the rails in execution, in part because of clogged or even non-existent feedback channels from the real world. But, because of obvious electoral success and ever-higher rating in the polls, such peace-through-hegemony looks likely to work at least past next May’s elections to the Scottish Parliament. Most observers expect a result then as decisive for the SNP and humiliating for Labour as that in May.
But rigid passivity for the sake of peace and power is not the SNP’s natural home. The original party was full of iconoclasts and the 80% of the membership that is new in the past year are heavily laced with idealists who saw Tories are right-wing colonials and Labour as Blairite betrayers of the party’s founding principles. They will respect the 20% old guard who preceded them as long as the future appears to lead upwards.
Despite being a broad church from its inception, the bigger variety of opinions about to bubble out of rejuvenated branches is unlikely to reach the agenda at SNP conference. Unionist parties have always stage-managed theirs into harmlessness. as the establishment, the SNP will join them. This may even work for a year or two.
Then, either the SNP leadership must relax discipline and find a way to allow, yet contain, genuine debate or they will confront internal rammies between the People’s Front of Scotland and the Scottish People’s Front as newbies, still full of piss, principle and vinegar, start to make their mark as a fractious idealist majority, if only to dislodge the old guard who will try hanging on to all the decent jobs.