The SNP, you’ll be distressed to learn, are having a time of it. The party is embroiled in a deputy leadership contest that could have been designed by their worst enemies. Angus Robertson, who lost his Moray seat last June, has resigned, depriving the party of one of its most formidable and respectable advocates. His departure couldn’t have come at a worse moment. The SNP has tried Scots’ forbearance for constitutional agitation and now has a reputation for banging on about independence that more justly belongs to Ruth Davidson’s Tories. After more than a decade in power, the SNP government shows signs of wear and tear and perhaps some structural damage too. At Westminster, the Nationalists have been rendered irrelevant by the shoddy alliance that props up Theresa May – not with the DUP, but the unofficial Tory-Labour Coalition for Brexit.
Against this backdrop the SNP are choosing a new deputy leader. Naturally, the party prefers the Scottish spelling ‘depute’; mindful of this, we shall continue to use ‘deputy’. Westminster leader Ian Blackford has ruled himself out, as if his performances at Prime Minister’s Questions hadn’t done that already. So far the only definite candidate is James Dornan but Pete Wishart is said to be considering standing. Henry Kissinger quipped about the Iran-Iraq war: ‘It’s a pity they can’t both lose’; as I contemplate the prospect of Dornan vs. Wishart, I find myself thinking: If only they could both win.
Dornan, MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, is a scowl in search of a grievance. It’s as if the Almighty decided to sculpt an entire person around the word ‘haw’. He is the embodiment of Wee Man Syndrome and the strain of angry middle-aged man that Scottish nationalism is so adept at recruiting. Dornan speaks in a furious garble of indictments. ‘Westminster! … [rolling grunt]…Tories! … [indistinct argle-bargle] … Unionists! … [unfortunate run-in with a vowel]’ Every now and then a plucky verb makes a break for it, like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape.
Choosing Dornan would be good for diversity. The SNP would have a deputy leader who speaks English as a third language. It would also be top comedy value. Dornan once mounted a campaign for Scottish Athletics to pay staff the living wage, leaving the national sports body to explain gently that it already did. In January, he declared that repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act – which sees football fans lifted for singing songs deemed offensive – would ‘take us back to the 1970s’. The Act was passed in 2012.
Pete Wishart — or, to use his full name, Pete Wishart Has Been Forced To Apologise After — is currently ‘taking soundings’. A former keyboard player in folk group Runrig, Wishart has spent 17 years in Parliament and has a cracking Twitter account to show for it. During the 2017 Scottish local elections, he tweeted a mock ballot terming the Lib Dem ‘wank’, Labour ‘wankier’, and the Tory (‘the rape clause candidate’) ‘absolute total wank’. He compared Labour moderates to ‘an embarrassing incontinent old relative who you might go and visit occasionally’ and branded Scottish Questions ‘nothing other than an exercise for English MPs to turn up and shout ‘SNP bad’ at the Scottish Government’. He is, to the best of my knowledge, the only MP who managed to insult voters in a Christmas message.
Wishart is being lauded as some kind of Perthshire prophet for saying his party needs to address Yes voters who back Brexit. Zechariah tells us not to despise small things but this belated insight is puny indeed. We have known for well over a year that more than a third of SNP supporters voted Leave and Wishart’s remedy (an independent Scottish Parliament would gradually vote its way back into the EU) is hardly likely to impress.
These are grim offerings for SNP members. They should have a guest deputy leader every week like ‘Have I Got News for You’. Week One: Joanna Cherry champions nursing and creative storytelling. Week Two: Alex Salmond proposes the rouble as the currency of an independent Scotland. Week Three: John Mason calls for schools to teach geography with flat globes and tries to wrestle his phone back from the press office.
Scottish Nationalists desperately need a serious contender to step forward, not least because Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership style is now in question. A personality cult was fine and well when the party was steamrollering opponents in 2015 but today Sturgeon and husband Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, are no longer invincible. Under their cloistered diarchy, the SNP has lost a Holyrood majority, 21 seats in the Commons, a deputy leader, and has seen the party’s strategy on Brexit – which is to say Sturgeon and Murrell’s strategy on Brexit – collapse in defeat. Sturgeon once sold out concert venues and bantzed with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, she made the SNP the third party at Westminster, but her greatest achievement has been to convince a country that voted 62 per cent Remain to spurn a second chance at independence and let a Tory Prime Minister look out for their interests instead.
Sturgeon is now a polarising figure and no deputy is going to change that overnight. But the election is an opportunity to open up the party’s leadership beyond the small circle that currently calls the shots. The deputy leader could become a counter-balance to groupthink and insular decision-making but it would require a respected name with ideas and guts, someone up to the daunting task of asking Nicola Sturgeon to consider for a fleeting moment that she might be wrong. She may not like it but it would make her a better leader and might prise her out of her year-long funk.
Neither James Dornan nor Pete Wishart is equal to that task, or much else besides. I know why I would like either of them to become key players in the SNP. I just don’t get why anyone in the SNP would.