In an admittedly not very crowded field, the Scottish National Party stands out as far and away the most effective campaigning machine in British politics.
They have been blessed (or so it seemed until recently) to have had two extremely capable and charismatic leaders in succession. Alex Salmond took them first to a supposedly-impossible overall majority in Holyrood, and then to the cusp of breaking up the United Kingdom in 2014. Nicola Sturgeon, his anointed successor, helped to transform the referendum’s Yes Movement into a standing Nationalist army that swept all before it at the 2015 general election.
They have benefited, of course, from outside assistance. David Cameron’s extraordinary complacency ahead of the independence referendum handed them a long campaign and a favourable question. His needless invocation of English Votes for English Laws the morning after the vote poisoned the well of Better Together’s victory. Boris Johnson is deeply unpopular north of the border. And let’s not forget the generations of devolutionaries who have systematically handed the separatists vast constitutional arsenals, treasuries, and pulpits, while rendering the Union practically non-functional across vast areas of policy, including key bread-and-butter areas such as education and health.
But beneath all of this, the SNP’s real secret sauce has been its extraordinary discipline. After years as an enthusiastic but rabblesome force, Salmond forged the Nationalists into a veritable phalanx. Largely freed from the need to bargain with the base, the SNP leadership won extraordinary freedom of political manoeuvre and has used it to build a hegemonic position as ‘the party of Scotland’.
After 13 years in office – long enough to have seen off New Labour and reduced the Conservatives, in their Thatcherian pomp, to a morbid state – the Nationalists look set to remain comfortably the largest party at next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. With the support of their separatist foederati, the Greens, they also seem (almost) certain to retain control of the Scottish Government. But not even the luckiest and most capable politicians can outrun time forever, and beneath the SNP’s perfumed poll ratings it isn’t difficult to detect the stench of decay. Sturgeon’s embattled administration is besieged within and without.
On the outside, MSPs investigating the Scottish Government’s botched investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Salmond are on the warpath. The former First Minister’s successful legal challenge against the handling of his case ended up costing more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money, and the central question now is what Sturgeon knew and when. Her predecessor alleges the original investigation was stacked against him; her own sequence of events has been called into question; crucial meetings with senior civil servants weren’t minuted; and Scottish ministers have twice defied votes by the Scottish Parliament for them to release the legal advice they received during the Salmond case. Opposition MSPs scent blood.
But it isn’t only opposition MSPs. Linda Fabiani, a Nationalist and convenor of the Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond affair, has been as vocal a critic as anyone of the Scottish Government’s response – and this is just one of the fast-growing spiderweb of cracks in the SNPs seemingly perfect façade.
At the centre of this web is Salmond himself. The one-time darling of the separatist movement may be a diminished figure, dogged by the sexual misconduct allegations and hosting a talk show on Kremlin propaganda network RT, but he remains a capable operator and commands a loyal following among the Nationalist grassroots. Feeling that his hand-picked successor at best tried to hang him out to dry — and at worst actively designed the Scottish Government’s anti-harassment policies with him in mind — Salmond is on the warpath.
Unhelpful interventions in the battle between Sturgeon and the inquiry MSPs are the least of it. The split between the SNP’s two titans, personal as it is, reflects growing divisions in the wider party, and Salmond has not been shy about exploiting this. His pose as the Nationalists’ radical conscience well-positions him to exploit activists’ unease about the potential softening of the party’s totemic commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, independence strategy, and much else.
Meanwhile, Joanna Cherry, a high-profile MP and close ally of Salmond’s, has risen to prominence as a vocal critic of Sturgeon’s approach to gender issues, adding social policy to the growing list of axes the SNP phalanx is turning on itself. She has made headlines with a plea to Sturgeon to condemn the vicious social media attacks she endures from parts of the nationalist movement for her positions on transgender issues.
She has also spoken out against the party’s “cult of the leader”, a rallying cry to those growing increasingly frustrated with the command-and-control culture which has helped the SNP ride so high for so long. And it is slipping: at their recent conference, one in four delegates backed Craig Murray, a former ambassador sacked by Tony Blair who has previously been barred from standing for election as an SNP candidate, to be party president.
For their part, the Nationalist leadership clearly think Cherry sufficiently threatening that they shamelessly changed the party’s selection rules to prevent her contesting a Scottish Parliament seat at next year’s elections.
A charismatic leader out for revenge; a devoted base of energetic partisans; a strong clutch of emotive ‘wedge issues’ in divisions over separatist strategy and gender; and a tired, over-centralised opposition fighting fires on multiple fronts – the Salmondites have all the raw materials for a sustained political insurgency.
Even those who don’t agree with them might wish them well. It is past time that Scotland was rid of the SNP’s hyper-disciplined politics, the upshot of which is that parties elected by a diverse range of voters end up reflecting only a narrow band of officially-sanctioned views. It was good that the Scottish Conservatives’ attempt to operate as a Westminster ‘bloc’ failed, and the fracturing of the Nationalists into a more chaotic, democratic, indeed normal party would be welcome. The fact it would almost certainly hasten the end of their extraordinary winning streak is, for unionists, simply a bonus.
Yet there is one thing that still binds the Nationalists’ increasingly unhappy alliance together: the imminence of next year’s Holyrood elections, and beyond them the chance of a swift re-run of the 2014 vote.
The Tories should understand this. It wasn’t all that long ago that Brexit was working a similar magic on their own fortunes, holding Theresa May’s Government’s poll ratings above 40% even as it shed Cabinet ministers almost monthly – and while the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, by removing the threat of an election, reduced Conservative internal discipline to rubble. As she learned, these peculiar conditions do not endure forever.
Sturgeon is key to the SNP’s current moment: new research from These Islands reveals the extraordinary hold she has on swing voters. But the First Minister is no political immortal and the magic is starting to slip. Even her much-vaunted handling of the pandemic has been called into question by new data, and an attempt to whip up anger at Westminster over a bung for NHS employees has been slated both by the Fraser of Allender Institute (‘Scotland’s leading economic think-tank’) and now by doctors themselves.
This is why Boris Johnson needs to defy the defeatists in his Government and stand by his refusal to grant the SNP another independence referendum in this Parliament.
There are plenty of good arguments for doing so, but on a purely tactical level it would almost certainly place a future vote beyond the end of Sturgeon’s leadership, and there isn’t another politician of her calibre waiting in the wings. It would also give the Nationalists the space to have the civil war they’re spoiling for.
The Prime Minister should let them fight it out, and then give battle to the survivors.