I MISSED Nicola Sturgeon’s final speech to the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference in Aberdeen today (I was mingling with the junior doctors at their protest in London; of which more soon). But reviewing its contents—and the conference that preceded it—I am left with the overwhelming impression of triumphant hesitancy.
Triumphant because every major intervention during the SNP’s conference began with an encomium to the party’s considerable organisational successes. In the speech with which she opened it on Thursday, the first minister announced that the SNP’s membership had hit a new high: up from around 25,000 before last year’s independence referendum to over 114,000. Today she reiterated the figure and guided delegates through their political dominance of Scottish politics: “The SNP’s heartland is Scotland!”, she proclaimed, adding: “People didn’t just vote SNP. They did so enthusiastically. They felt good about it.”
Accompanying this was a generous dose of gloating at the state of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader had generated an expectation that the opposition would eat into the left-posturing nationalists’ base. But polls by YouGov published ahead of the SNP’s conference suggest otherwise. In a bid to consolidate that, Ms Sturgeon announced that her MPs in Westminster would oppose any British military involvement in Syria in the upcoming vote on the matter (Labour remains in a muddle on the subject).
But there was hesitancy, too. It was implicit, tucked behind all the swagger. On Thursday the first minister had kept the door open to a second independence referendum, but confirmed that this would only take place if public opinion moved dramatically in that direction; even if the SNP wins a third term at the helm of the Scottish government in elections next May. This disappoints some in her party: word at the conference was that at least one member had resigned immediately after the announcement. More vexingly for Ms Sturgeon, it shifts the focus onto the SNP’s domestic record, which—as I argue in my column this week (pasted below)—is poor.
She claimed otherwise, of course. The first minister hailed the middle-class giveaways (the children of Aberdeen oil executives get their university education on the state; those of London bankers must pay for theirs) that have helped consolidate her party’s support in suburban Scotland. She selectively quoted public-sector performance statistics. But even overlooking this, for a party that has been in government for almost two full terms the list of “achievements” was strikingly modest. Has ever a political force as dominant as the SNP sought a third term with such a paltry record?
Moreover, Ms Sturgeon protested too much. On the SNP’s record, she was unmistakably defensive. “I won’t ask you to vote SNP—or re-elect me as your first minister—just because the opposition is not up to the job,” she insisted, after a long segment of the speech slating the other parties. “The other parties say they want to fight the election on our record,” she added: “Well, I say, ‘good’—because so do I.” This all feels like a turn that Ms Sturgeon knows her party must make—away from the struggle for independence and towards everyday competence—but by which she and it feel uninspired. Both appear to be more excited about the attainment and possession of power than about its employment. Perhaps proving that point, it rapidly transpired that at least one of the few minor policy announcements in the first minister’s speech (increasing carers’ allowances) had been lifted from very Scottish Conservatives at whom the first minister had directed some of her harshest criticism.
As such, the SNP’s conference lifts the curtain on a new period for the SNP, one in which parts of its huge membership could become restless, in which the spotlight falls once more on its mixed record of improving Scots’ daily lives and in which more questions are asked about the gap between the party’s left-wing rhetoric and its small-c conservatism in power. Most of all, this record is defined by the need to wait: to maintain the momentum of last year’s “once in a generation” event (as the likes of Ms Sturgeon put it at the time) for—if not a full generation—at least a few more years. A party built on the thrilling quest for freedom must buckle down, bide its time and govern. “If I’m standing here seeking re-election five years from now, I want to be judged on the progress we make,” concluded the first minister. Such is the SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics that the hypothetical is worth taking seriously. By her and her party, most of all.
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The soft autocracy of nationalist Scotland
CROFTERS in the Scottish Highlands live many miles apart, but they are a tribe nonetheless. At Dingwall Mart—a centre for the cattle trade since the days when man and beast travelled by foot down the old drove roads—backs are slapped, weather-beaten hands grasped and relatives asked after. The auctioneer, singing out bids as each lot of cows or bulls is herded into the pen, knows everyone by sight. Most folk here inherited their land and tenures, explains Roddy, who rears shorthorns and limousins (“limmers”) on his croft near Brora. “We do things our way.”
So it was with consternation that crofters learnt in 2012 that the government in Edinburgh would appoint the first head of the new Crofting Commission rather than letting their representatives choose. Tavish Scott, an opposition member of the Scottish Parliament, spoke of a “Saltire underpants test”, accusing the Scottish National Party (SNP) government of politicising the body that oversees the allocation of crofting land. Sure enough, the crofters found Susan Walker, the SNP pick, too obedient to Holyrood. Facing a vote of no confidence, she resigned in May.
The saga reflects a broader story. Even as the SNP preaches freedom, devolution and pluralism in Britain, within Scotland it hoards power, stamping on regional differences, tightening the state’s control and marginalising critics. One would never know this from its left-liberal message at its annual conference starting on October 15th. This rhetoric has helped give the party its political dominance (it has 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster and a majority in the Scottish Parliament that may grow next year).
To observe Scotland’s public sector is to witness the SNP’s control-freakery. Where councils once held sway, SNP ministers oversee hospitals, police departments, regional development agencies, fire services and even local tax levels. COSLA, the local authorities’ representative body, calls Scotland “the most centralised country in Europe”. In Inverness the fire-control room has been closed. The constabulary, with responsibility for an area the size of Belgium, is going too. The SNP has concentrated cuts on local, frontline services (Scottish councils are twice as indebted per head as English and Welsh ones, despite the country’s disproportionately generous funding). From the centre, meanwhile, it has doled out lavish universal goodies such as free university education, medical prescriptions and care for the elderly.
The SNP government has extended its reach into non-fiscal realms. One proposal enables ministers to force landowners they do not like to sell up. Police officers can patrol sleepy Highland settlements with guns and use stop-and-search powers more than before. From next year, every Scottish child is due to have a state guardian. An Orwellian national identification register is in the works. Ministers pillory sceptical academics, civil servants, journalists and judges, give orders to councillors and, it is said, bully firms and voluntary bodies that demur. Rigid discipline prevails within the SNP: prominent dissenters are ousted, while bosses rarely rebuke the party’s online activists for abusing heretics and peddling conspiracy theories.
Unsurprisingly, the result is poor government. Tax receipts frittered away on “free” middle-class giveaways, combined with a snooty rejection of England’s decentralising public-sector reforms, have seen hospital waiting lists grow. Literacy rates are falling while class sizes rise. Fewer Scots from poor families go to university than their English equivalents, and the gap is growing. In August the European Commission suspended regional-development payments over doubts about Edinburgh’s ability to spend the money wisely.
Yet the opposition is weak. That is partly its own fault; both Labour and the Tories have long overlooked Scotland, notwithstanding recent attempts to make up for it. The SNP’s pre-eminence, boosted by a surge in support after its failed secessionist referendum last year, sidelines alternatives. The party dominates a legislature that has no upper house and provides its speaker, its members having defied a convention that would have seen a Labour representative take the post. Scrutiny committees are mostly in SNP hands—and it shows. Last year the Public Petitions Committee crushed a proposal for a separate independence plebiscite for Scotland’s (broadly unionist) outer islands. Four of the country’s daily newspapers backed the party in May’s general election; only one backed any other party.
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
Ironically, the Scottish government’s underperformance rests precisely on the formula that makes it dominant. Special-interest groups are indulged, populist spending protected, services left unreformed for fear of making enemies, tabloid-friendly changes embraced and an “other” (the English, represented by Westminster) fingered for every failure or disappointment. The SNP’s soft autocracy in Scotland is the thread holding together the party’s distinctive tartan of universal handouts, leftist posturing, melodramatic flag-waving and structural conservatism. It amounts to a style of government that is more akin to Argentina’s Peronists than to the reformist Scandinavian social democrats to whom SNP politicians flatteringly compare themselves.
Push SNP types and they fall back on independence. A free Scotland, they say, can improve public services, experiment and let a thousand flowers bloom. For now the country must stand together. Bagehot does not doubt the good faith of the thousands who campaigned for the party, still less of the millions who voted for it. Yet he cannot but notice that a centralised government, stringent uniformity and unity above all else works nicely for the SNP. Tight control in the name of separation has made it one of the most successful political forces in the West. Touring the Highlands, where Edinburgh looks as imposing, and as distant, as London, a thought comes to mind: it is less that the SNP is pro-independence than that the struggle for independence is pro-SNP.