Changing the Old Guard

It’s a tough old world in politics. When you’re in political limbo, nobody cares much what you do. However, the scope for character, opinions and even eccentricity is large. On the other hand, when you run a one-party state you can afford a few loose cannons because they make you look more human: think how Sir Nicky Fairbairn was once as much a scourge of the Tories as Dennis ‘Beast of Bolsover’ Skinner has been to New Labour. The trouble comes when you are neither off the radar, nor complacently secure. This is the state in which the SNP currently finds itself. And it shows.

Since the SNP got their act together for the 2007 elections, the party has gone from strength to strength and has managed to put a long overdue wind up the unionists and the little-Englanders who dominate Westminster (not all of them Tories). Consolidation of their grip on the Scottish Parliament in 2011 and a right trouncing of all other parties this year has put real power in the SNP’s hands, especially as they managed to turn a supposed defeat in September’s referendum into a recruiting bonanza, giving them stature in the eyes of the Scottish public that a complacent Labour had long abdicated.

This success has been attributed (rightly) to excellent party discipline through loyalty to a common purpose and willingness to suppress personal ambition ‘for the cause.’ Compared to recent Labour shenanigans in Scotland or Tory 1922 Committee posturings in Westminster, the SNP has been a model of united purpose. There have been no defections and the few resignations have been on demonstrable principle—as when MSPs John Finnie and Jean Urquhart resigned over policy realignment on  NATO.

That honeymoon appears to be ending. Apart from the swollen ranks of over 100 parliamentarians when there weren’t even three dozen a decade ago, the strain of eight years of unrelenting centralisation of local government tries the loyalty of 400+ SNP councillors. However much the fiscal squeeze can be blamed on London, councils are in the front line of cuts they have little latitude to ameliorate.

Eight years of the ‘parity of esteem’ in John Swinney’s Concordat have been a sham; councillors have been treated as inferiors and ignored. Yet they have demonstrated the same unswerving loyalty as virtually every parliamentarian and their growing army of assistants, researchers and SPADs. Why is this?

Partly it’s because disloyalty can cost your job; no-one is indispensible—unless they can achieve the kind of profile Margo did. There are now over 1,000 people who derive an income from politics due to their membership of (and loyalty to) the SNP. Few risk rocking their lucrative boat. But that is only part of the story. Examine the front ranks of SNP MSPs and MPs and there is a wealth of experience and a dedication forged in the dark days prior to 1999 when very few were elected and the party was run by a colourful array of long-time volunteer members who knew each other well.

Examine the pre-2011 ranks and almost all had served time motivating local branches, canvassing the streets and swallowing defeat until they were inured to it: party position was won by hard graft and gritty determination. Then came the 2007 and 2011 breakthroughs when a large number found themselves elected into positions of power. Organising and co-ordinating that explosion of numbers was made possible because most were loyal veterans of that long march to power.

Then came the referendum ‘defeat’. Suddenly, party ranks swelled eight-fold. The watershed also catalysed like-minded organisations outside the party, such as the popular “Women for Independence”. Unlike the many passive members of previous generations, many of these new members wanted to be involved and showed up at meetings and conferences, seeking to participate.

As the May General Election demonstrated, the days of defeat were past; getting nominated as an SNP candidate was no longer a hiding to nothing. And, because a good number of the Old Guard were already MSPs or councillors or disinterested in becoming either, a phalanx of new blood swept in to swell the group to 56 SNP MPs.

With nearly a year’s participation under their belt, the new, already politicised generation of members realised the world had changed, that glory, fame and fortune was available for those nominated. So, whereas the jostling for nominations had formerly been largely for List position, this summer was open season on the constituencies. It is only now becoming apparent that the process is in turmoil.

Those with national profile are unaffected; nobody is going to challenge Cabinet secretaries because that would be too blatantly disloyal. Otherwise, it is open season. With tangible prizes now at stake, several contests have turned bitter:

  • North East List MSP Christian Allard (he succeeded Mark MacDonald who won the Aberdeen Donside by-election in 2013) is challenging junior Health Minister (and long-time activist) Maureen Watt for Aberdeen South.
  • Veteran and South of Scotland list MSP Chic Brodie has been unexpectedly pipped for the nomination in Ayr (which he has worked diligently) by Glasgow councillor Jennifer Dunn. Jennifer cast the net wide, including East Lothian and Carrick before being se;ected for Ayr. She may prove a strong candidate but it may be significant that all her endorsements are from the new generation elected since 2011.
  • Colin Keir, elected in 2011 for Edinburgh Western, lost the 2016 nomination to Toni Giugliano who had been a Yes campaign official and is  a protegé of Alex Salmond.
  • Veteran and Angus & Mearns MSP Nigel Don who has been a diligent and articulate voice for the area (unless you swallow the calculated sour grapes of his Lib-Dem opponents) has similarly been ousted by a councillor-since-2011, Mairi Evans. He had put up a stiff opposition to court closures until part whips frog-marched him into voting for the legislation.
  • Fur has been flying in North Lanarkshire where Richard Lyle (a stalwart since the seventies) has come under serious fire for supporting the Mossend freight terminal extension and his candidacy for Uddingston and Bellshill appears to be in the balance.
  • In Paisley, Andy Doig, a regular activist and councillor who had been selected to fight the Renfrewshire South seat, is under fire from claims that he jumpd the gun and had used party information to campaign for his selection.
  • Rumours abound that European minister Humza Yousaf may be challenged in his Glasgow Pollok seat and there are currently no fewer than nine jostling for the Glasgow Provan nomination so the story is not yet at an end.

It would be foolish of any party not to bring on fresh talent (a lesson Kezia has supposedly now learned). But, though there is no evidence for anything underhand in the democratic process, is it not curious that all rammies so far have involved unseating a long-term activist? This appears to signify a sea change where, besides fealty to the whips’ command, those elected will also need to start diligently courting their local members.

It remains to be seen whether this ‘new blood’ infuses character or, like the SPADs some of them are, they remain Pavlovian in their loyalty. Certainly the refreshing surge of political interest over the last year bodes well and, to avoid universal frustration of the Covenant in the 1950s, getting elected is the only way to change things. Once there, it is always possible to ‘go native’ in what you believe, as Margo did.

Women for Independence is one of the more impressive products of this year and several SNP candidates are from that vibrant organisation. Candidates replacing Kenny MacAskill and Margaret Burgess (both stepping down) are WFI, as is the Skye, Lochaber & Badenoch candidate. Nothing against WFI but, if elected, they may well run into the same wall that Salmond did 30 years ago when his membership of the 79 Group caused ructions.

Any transition is difficult but the larger any organisation and the more in the public eye, the more painful the process. It remains to be seen whether these spats clouding the SNP selection process (and there may be more to come) cause party prospects any damage or are just transient symptoms of the party having grown so fast.

But one thing is clear: the come-rule-with-me cabal of Sturgeon, Murrell, Robison and Hosie—effectively the politburo of the party since Salmond stepped aside—are Old Guard and need to either broaden their church to recognise these developments…or get themselves an industrial-grade crystal ball to keep their swollen party on track for success. Because the instinctive loyalty of those who brought the SNP through its dark days is being undermined, if not usurped, by a Young Guard whose ambition is personal and who no longer share their folk memory.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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