I’m not one to say ‘I told you so’ but the thing is, I did. At the SNP’s mass-recruiting, concert-touring, swingometer-skelping zenith, I warned that the party’s failure to rein in its most fervent ideologues, not least the digital stormtroopers known as cybernats, would do it a mischief one day. Instead, the Nationalists not only tolerated cybernats, but some got in on the act themselves. None more so than Pete Wishart, the sneer on the snarl of Scottish nationalism, whose late-night maledictions against ‘nawbags’ and ‘wanks’ had the faithful testifying and retweeting with equal fervour.
Now the boot is on the other foot and he is coming in for a kicking from his own squad. Wishart’s near-defeat to the Tories last June concentrated his mind and he has declared himself in opposition to a second independence referendum any time soon on the reasonable grounds that they’d lose again. For his heresy, he has been excommunicated from the cybernat faithful, execrated as an ‘Etonian boot-licker’ and charged with becoming ‘well settled into London life’, the gravest of crimes for a Scottish nationalist. Wishart has pleaded for ‘respect’, insisting that ‘shouting people down, name calling and misrepresenting people’s views will not help anybody’. Saul has overshot Damascus and landed directly at the right hand of the throne.
Wishart and I have history and an uncharitable part of me channels my granny: ‘Hell slap it intae ye’. He is the playground hardman who moved to the big school and got his head flushed down the toilet on the first day. But this latest row brings me no glee because it is deeply unpleasant being the target of cybernat intimidation. I sincerely hope it stops and would advise him to switch off Twitter for a while, spend time with friends and family, and not let anyone live in his head rent-free. He answers to his constituents, not WeeShuggie1314, and as long as he serves them well he has fulfilled the only public duty that matters.
I’m also a believer in positive reinforcement and Wishart, having stumbled upon a point, ought to be encouraged. The SNP lost in 2014 and the polls point to a defeat at least as heavy if the plebiscite were to be rerun now. Since the referendum vote, the party has lost its majority at Holyrood, misplaced 21 seats at Westminster, and fuelled a Tory revival north of the border. Scotland is home to the most glaring ‘despite Brexit’ of all: despite being roughly hoicked out of an EU we voted to stay in, Scots are not turning to independence as an escape plan. The petroleum price crash put paid to the SNP’s Oily Carlisle economics — ‘What would you say to living in one of the world’s wealthiest nations?’ teased an Indyref1 billboard — and giddy chatter about ’unchaining the unicorn’ has been muted by the drudgery of Brexit negotiations. Adding to the headache is the dull throb of Nationalists, sizeable in number, who demand freedom from Brussels as well as Westminster.
These are the circles Nicola Sturgeon — or, more realistically, her successor — will have to square. Her growth commission, headed by Andrew Wilson, will soon report on the likely finances of a separate Scotland. Alas, it is not expected to recommend exploring the secret oil fields or pretending Scotland’s £13bn deficit doesn’t exist. Wilson is a romantic afflicted by an economics degree and his conclusions will probably initiate further hostilities between the hierarchy and the hopey-changey grassroots. It’s reported that he will counsel a shift away from the Scandinavia-on-the-Clyde model dreamed up for Indyref1 towards a small-nation liberal market economy, with New Zealand the latest destination in constitutional tourism. Independence has gone from a shortcut to socialism to the Road to Serfdom in four short years. Betrayal is on the lips and friction in the air.
Here stands the paradox of Scottish nationalism. The SNP was created to achieve sovereignty for a country which does not want it and must pretend to believe in other things for which sovereignty would be a mere instrument. It is a deceit not merely on the electorate but on themselves. The Scots have not been convinced of the case for independence but it is not entirely clear the SNP has either. Why does it want independence? What would it look like? How much would it cost? Nationalists usually have to shoot their way out. The Irgun was not asked for a viable currency plan. It is the burden of the SNP to confront the questions big and small until it arrives at answers it can accept and Scots will vote for. That will take time, and precludes another referendum for now, but they will emerge from it a stronger party.
True believers question the point of a nationalist party that does not spend its every waking minute advancing independence. They want to hear noise and suspect surrender in contemplation. The SNP has never been a more emotional party than it is today, with the selfies, branded hoodies, and ‘See me? I’m SNP’ posters all hinting at a draw that is more than political or even philosophical. When a majority of Nationalists reported experiencing criticism of the SNP as ‘a personal insult’, it should have been a red flag and now the insults are coming from within, it is all the more difficult to handle. People cynically ginned up and assured that independence lay just around the corner now feel vulnerable and are lashing out. They have chosen Pete Wishart and while he is neither blameless nor terribly sympathetic he is an ironic target. As a rabble-rouser he had the grassroots hanging on his every idiot word. Now, as an improbable voice of reason, he is offering sound advice but they will no longer listen.