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The SNP’s fatal flaw

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and occasional first minister of Scotland, has come to a jarring realisation. After 31 years as a member of the SNP and three as the party’s leader, she has announced that she is not comfortable with the name ‘Scottish National Party’. At the Edinburgh Festival, Sturgeon told Turkish novelist Elif Shafak: 

‘If I could turn the clock back, what 90 years, to the establishment of my party, and chose its name all over again, I wouldn’t choose the name it has got just now. I would call it something other than the Scottish National Party.’ 

The problem for Sturgeon, it seems, was the worldwide upsurge in populist nationalism. This was causing confusion about the SNP’s mission and motivations. How anyone might come to associate the SNP with angry grievance politics is truly baffling. Thankfully, Sturgeon was able to reassure people that ‘what those of us who do support Scottish independence are all about could not be further removed from some of what you would recognise as nationalism in other parts of the world’. 

Scottish nationalism is good. It’s all those other nationalisms that are bad. You know, the ones that aren’t from around here. The independence movement, Sturgeon explained, is ‘civic, open, inclusive’. And it’s true: those referendum street mobs welcomed participants from all walks of life. 

The SNP leader is not the only member of her party to voice concerns about the label ‘nationalist’. Some took issue with the BBC’s reporting on Charlottesville, accusing the Corporation of deploying the term ‘white nationalist’ to undermine the SNP. The SNP and its supporters have been dancing this disingenuous two-step for some time: its politicians swear they are not nationalists, while at the same time they bewail Unionist slanders against the good name of nationalism. 


But is that word, ‘nationalism’, the source of the SNP’s present malaise? They have worn the label for nine decades. Arthur Donaldson, who carried somewhat more baggage on these matters, still led them to victory in the historic Hamilton by-election. And William Wolfe still oversaw the party’s first boom in the seventies. Through the slow slog of the eighties, when the memory of the SNP helping Mrs Thatcher bring down James Callaghan’s government was still raw, Gordon Wilson had more to fear from the monicker ‘Tartan Tories’ than from the ‘nationalist’ word. More recently still, the SNP’s name was no impediment to Alex Salmond winning an historic majority at Holyrood – and coming within a few percentage points of breaking up the United Kingdom. 

A one-time admirer of Sturgeon, I sometimes like to romanticise her as a Terry Malloy figure, Marlon Brando’s fallen prizefighter from On the Waterfront: ‘She coulda been a contender, she coulda been somebody, instead of a politician, which is what she is’.

But what is so dismal about Sturgeon’s wan premiership is that she was a contender – a somebody – and she threw it all away. If she had not arrived with such potential it wouldn’t matter that she has settled into dull mimicry of her predecessor. It is Sturgeon who has made a habit of impugning her opponents’ patriotism; Sturgeon whose election manifestos rebranded the health service the ‘NHSNP’; Sturgeon who has spent most of her premiership thus far pushing a second independence referendum. If the public is turning away from nationalism, it is from a nationalism of which she has been the hyper-branded, over-exposed, heavily-merchandised face. 

This only gets us so far. Nationalism’s star is rising the world over and Nicola Sturgeon, for all her self-inflicted wounds, is still a snappy talker and a sharp debater. There is a more fundamental flaw in the name ‘Scottish National Party’ and it’s not the word National. As James Mitchell points out, the founding fathers of modern Scottish nationalism were not as divided by considerations of left vs right as they were by the question of whether independence required a party or a movement. In the early years, SNP members could be affiliated to other parties and key figures urged it to function more as a ginger group within politics and civil society. Mitchell says:

‘Those who saw the SNP as a party, as opposed to a movement organisation, argued that it needed to develop a range of policies beyond simply advocating self-government… As a party with no prospect of forming a government at Westminster but with blackmail potential, it operated simultaneously as a party and pressure group. At times when it had difficulty in contesting elections, it operated as part of the wider national movement in Scotland and sought to set the agenda of other parties’.

Advocates of a party won the day but the SNP still bore important hallmarks of a movement. It was with devolution that these hallmarks were quietly patched over and a fully-formed, well-staffed, PR-savvy political party of the New Labour variety emerged. The SNP became the most professionalised, most disciplined party in Scottish politics and this no doubt contributed to their electoral success in 2007 and thereafter. Now, this strength has become a weakness. For while a movement sits above the vagaries of electoral politics, a governing party must be grounded in the mundane business of inputs and outcomes, competence and public opinion. 

For a time, the SNP balanced the only thing it cares about (independence) with all the things it had to pretend to care about to win power (schools, the NHS, social justice). When the party launched its referendum campaign in 2012, that equilibrium was destroyed and good governance sacrificed to pursue the best chance of independence in 300 years. The consequences have been miserable for public policy – and now for the SNP’s electoral standing and that of their separatist dream.

Nicola Sturgeon can no more return her party to its past than she can drive nationalism from the hearts of her members. All she can do is try to regain a balance between the SNP’s constitutional cause and the duties of government. That is a task she was once equal to — is she still?


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